Catholic educators and combatting the abusive parent

At the National Catholic Educators Association Convention in Florida, the question of parents who bully schools was addressed. Who wins? Who loses?

Students from the Avalon School for Boys and Brookwood School for Girls - Image: J Kubin
Students from the Avalon School for Boys and Brookwood School for Girls - Image: J Kubin

ORLANDO, Fla., April 10, 2015 – Wednesday, April 8 saw the height of the NCEA Conference in Orlando, Florida. In the second largest convention center in the country, the National Catholic Educators Association  Convention included everyone from cheery kindergarten instructors to jaded and grizzled high school English teachers from around the country. Attendees sat in on lectures on a wide range of topics, including how to teach in a digital age, teaching persuasive writing, and how to implement innovative teaching techniques in your school.

However one of the most crowded lectures given that day was a session entitled “When Parents Bully the School,” presented by anti-bullying author Jodee Blanco. The description for the lecture reads “This session will help you work together-effectively and efficiently-with the overbearing or difficult parent.” The lecture space was standing room only, as onlookers strained their necks to listen in and see over the throng of people.

The scene is a symptom of a growing problem in Catholic Academia; how to balance retention and integrity in a nation in recession, and with waning spiritual interest.

For a Catholic high school education, the cost comes in at roughly $10,000 a year, rounding to a nice $40,000 at the time of graduation. The median household income as of 2014 is roughly $52,000, meaning that the average family cannot afford a modern Catholic education. Of course there are payment plans, there are parish grants, but for the most part parents or guardians pay the price of Catholic education up front, and in full.

Historically, Catholic school were established by Italian and Irish immigrants as places of learning where their children could be educated in their faith outside of the prejudice many Catholics faced at the hands of state institutions. Not surprisingly, the prevailing political winds at the time blustered hard against the rising tide of “papist” immigrants. Parochial schools were funded largely by church collections, wealthy benefactors, and community organizations, and costs were kept extremely low by clergy instructors who took vows of poverty.

Now, with a dwindling reserve of nuns and priests, Catholic education is left up to professional instructors making far less than public or other private school counterparts. The average Catholic high school teacher makes $35,000 a year, while the average public high school teacher makes roughly $50,000. With dwindling enrollment, and rising costs, Catholic schools often struggle to operate, causing many to close their doors over the years.

As a result, every student is precious at a Catholic school. Every tuition is necessary, every dollar is highly prized. Each student of Catholic parents who attends a charter school, private school, or a public school is an opportunity lost. It is because of this that Catholic schools face an increasingly awkward, and tenuous situation, the subject of Jodee Blanco’s seminar, and that is an increase in instances of parents bullying the school.

This of course is a touchy subject to broach. Parents have a right, in every sense of the word, to address every aspect of their child’s education. They have every right to question the teacher, to question the administration, and to question the curriculum, they are after all, a customer of the school. They are paying for their child to receive an education, they are paying for a product, and the school needs to work with the parent on delivering that product. However with dwindling enrollment, rising costs, and the precious nature of full tuition payment, parents have found themselves in a position of power and authority over administrators and teachers.

That position and authority is derived from the either perceived or implied threat that if the school does not work with the parent on a given issue, then the school will simply have to go without the full tuition payment that parent brings. Essentially, they are threatening to withdraw funds from the school in order to achieve their end.

This puts teachers and administrators in awkward and oftentimes damaging positions. When a parent asks to see teachers and administrators to address a particular issue, the majority of times it is to discuss what can be done to correct behavior and improve performance. When a parent asks to see teachers and administrators to discuss matters of discipline, the majority of times it is to discuss what steps to take next, and where the root of the problem may be. However there are instances where parents of aggrieved students will demand to see teachers and administrators concerning an issue, and during the course of the discussion attempt to sway the course of events in their favor based solely on the fact that they are paying customers, and not on any reason of merit or logic.

This is when parents bully the schools.

In the days of high enrollment, and blossoming faith, parents who threatened the school with withdrawal were kindly shown the door, with five replacement students waiting in the wings to eagerly take their place.  Unfortunately in this time of dwindling spiritual interest, many schools are forced to amend the records of teachers or other administrators in the name of appeasing a parent threatening withdrawal. This not only undermines the ability of a schools administration to adequately and effectively run the school, but it opens up a rift between the administration who is feeling the pressure of filling seats and meeting budgets, and the teacher whose authority has been eroded in the name of bowing to financial pressure. Teachers who do not feel supported will simply leave, or worse yet they will relax their standards in curriculum or discipline leading to an overall drop in the quality of education. When the quality of education falls, a school cannot justify $10,000 a year for tuition, they will not meet costs, and they will face the danger of being forced to close their doors.

In brighter times, when the nation is more prosperous, perhaps it will not be as necessary to attend seminars such as those offered at the NCEA by Jodee Blanco. However the fact that during her seminar the line was out the door to hear what she had to say spoke volumes about the problem. Day after day, Catholic schools are forced to balance their duty to provide an outstanding education, with the ability to meet their budget.

We cannot have a problem without a proposed solution. That would be bad form.

The solution is not a political one, but it is effective. It is easy for teachers to support, but difficult for administrators to act upon. Let the parents go. If a parent comes into a school meeting, or demands an audience with the administration and teacher over an incident in which their child was in the wrong, over an incident in which the teacher and the school is blatantly in the right, and that parent threatens withdrawal, simply convey your regret concerning their decision, and offer to help place the student in another school.

This solution is simple, and has a few pros and cons. The cons are simple, the parent leaves, takes their money, you lose a seat, and your administration becomes known as unyielding and unreasonable among certain groups of parents. Perhaps more parents will follow suit, perhaps as a result enrollment may drop. The pros however, outweigh the cons. The parent leaves, the teacher sees that the administration wholeheartedly supports them, and the other teachers sees this as well. Teachers are more confident in their actions, increasing their involvement and their effort. Morale picks up as an atmosphere of unity spreads through the campus. Teachers like working their because they are supported, soon other teachers want to teach there because they too will be supported. Suddenly the campus becomes a place of learning where the teachers and the administration working in sync, which will in turn produce better students, which will increase enrollment.

The school is after all selling a product, a quality education. Catholic schools who find themselves in a buyers’ market are forced to bend to the whims of the consumer. Catholic schools who create a superior product will find themselves in a seller’s market, and capable of responding to bullies by showing them the door.


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