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When Schools Behave Badly

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Author: Susan Heming

Schools behave badly sometimes. Systems and people are imperfect, so it's really unavoidable. However, some schools behave badly more often than others. The purpose of this article is not to bash schools, but to acknowledge that parents are often disadvantaged in the power stakes and can be left feeling alienated, talked about and treated with disrespect. The parents most likely to end up feeling this way are actually caring parents who try to address issues with the school on behalf of their children. This usually doesn't go down too well, as these parents are simply causing a problem from the school's point of view. Schools play by their own rules a lot of the time and those rules can be applied with partiality and changed on a whim.

Parents who are feeling let down by a school in how they or their children are being treated, need to seriously consider whether the problem is cultural. If the school culture is such that your concerns are dismissed, gossiped about or generally belittled, you need to consider whether or not you should change schools or look for an educational alternative. It does need to be acknowledged, though, that teachers and administrative staff may well believe they are right and your problem is fundamentally one of viewpoint. If it is a significant difference in point of view, however, it still comes back to culture and is not likely to change.

My children are in a Christian private school. My experience has been that there are teachers who have behaved well and those who have behaved badly at times. That is to be expected.. The fundamental mistake I have made in dealing with the school is in believing the advertising material that initially influenced me. The promise of a Christian environment, where children are nurtured and supported and where parents are partners, was alluring to say the least. However, it is a mistake to treat a Christian School differently than you would any other school, because it is no different.

The difficulty in deciding how to respond to schools when an impasse has occurred lies in the overall assessment of the benefit of that educational environment for your children. For me, my eldest daughter is in year 12 and it is her final year. Has the school been good for her? In many ways, yes! She has a great circle of friends. She is in a safe and moral environment. She has had some very good teachers over the years. Yet, the work load is very high and on the whole the school's ability to convert that high standard to good university entrance results is poor. Have I made the right decision to stay? From a purely educational perspective, probably not. From my daughter's point of view, she has probably made some good friends for life. Priceless!

My daughter is studying the NSW HSC (Higher School Certificate). It is the make or break final year and the university admission index given with it, if desired, is what allows access to university courses. The HSC is a rigorous course. All Board of Studies Assessments must be in writing and everything is very legal, but class work requirements do not have to be in writing because they don't count towards the HSC.

Year 11 in many ways was a trial run for this, but the marks don't count towards the HSC. In her extension English class, in year 11, class work (including non assessment essays and assignments) was collected without prior notice and on a day when my daughter was away. She was never told. She asked if she had missed anything and she was told she had not. You can imagine the shock when we got the half year report, with a mark of 36% on it. Her only assessment mark was 36 out of 40. You can see that the class work was given a mark of 60%. I addressed this with the Director of Studies, who told me the teacher had been unwell and she would get it marked. I got no response, but the final report indicated the class work had been marked but only given a bare pass. We decided that since it didn't count we'd let it go at that, but we wanted the work back to see how it was marked. We asked, we waited and we asked again. Finally, my daughter received back three pages out of the one and a half inch pile of papers taken from her folder in my presence, with the comment that that was all the teacher said she was given. At around this time, my daughter sat an Advanced English exam. It was lost. Just hers. I didn't find out till the Christmas holidays. By the time she went back to school, I was concerned that the school's actions had the potential to derail her HSC year.

I made an appointment, wrote a formal letter and asked for the work back or an explanation. I was assured very nicely that the teacher's motives were only good, and paranoia in me was implied. However, it has been at least 6 weeks now since that interview. There has been no response to my meeting. The year 11 work was not returned and no explanation was offered. We are well into year 12 now and the lost test was retaken. My concerns about the school's organization and management of the HSC year, and their competence in teaching to the requirements of the syllabus and not overloading students with unnecessary work has not diminished. My options? Absolutely none. It's too late to do anything but provide as much help external to the school as possible.

My daughter is basically an A level student in English, in courses that have high standards and rigorous requirements. So you would think that my concerns would be clearly understood by the school. This, however, is not the case because the culture of the school defines their integrity and honor as support and defense of their teachers. The religious mindset actually causes the individuals involved in a dispute to be offended that anyone could even think they might have done something wrong. This effectively means that from their point of view, they are always right.

Parents come up against strong group dynamics in a school. You will know if this is occurring in your child's school if one of two things happens: if you are actually abused or disrespected and dismissed when you are trying to communicate, or if you are spoken to politely (if a little condescendingly) and promised action that never materializes.

What can you do? Carefully consider all aspects of the situation. Overall, your child might be much happier at their school than they would be anywhere else. However, your child's desires cannot be the only consideration, though they are very important. Children do not always know what is best for them. No-one likes the upheaval of moving schools, but as parents we also have more experience than our children, we know that good credentials are very important in this modern world and we do not want to see our children sabotaged by an unhelpful environment. Sometimes we just need to make a tough decision.

About the author

Susan Heming is a freelance writer, editor and tutor. She runs www.1st-class-english.com and can be contacted through that website.


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