People often comment on the financial difference between working in the public sector and working in a business. When contracts are being negotiated comparisons are made and we often end up bemoaning  the relative under pay.

But it’s not under payment that is causing me to age a little more quickly this week, it’s people. Specifically, some of the people we are mandated to serve – ‘difficult ’ parents.

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There’s a fundamental difference between how you can deal with difficult people if you are running a business as opposed to running a school.

Imagine owning a bookshop where a particular customer is always rude to staff or publicly criticises the decisions you make – it wouldn’t be long before you asked them to leave. Or perhaps you run an irrigation supply business and one particular farmer is often awkward to deal with and abuses your sales rep – it’s likely that you would simply stop working with them.

Therein lies the problem for public servants, we can’t simply stop working with our most difficult people. And unlike a retail business where an unpleasant customer calls in once then goes away forever, difficult adults in our school communities stay with us – often for years.

So, both management and teachers have to continually work at maintaining relationships with people that for varying reasons do not reciprocate this responsibility. Its often an unequal dance with one party demanding/expecting something more akin to servitude than service!

So here’s a question – what standard of behaviour is acceptable for parents in your school? In effect, is there a ‘line’?

Many years ago, a principal of mine had a very clear personal view that there was a line, and that crossing it meant you either changed or left. In the top righthand drawer of his traditional old school desk was a stack of ‘transfer slips’. These small pieces of paper were for recording the basic details of a student’s enrolment and were used when a student was moving to another school.

When he felt all avenues had been exhausted, he would calmly open the drawer, pull out a slip and place it on the desk. He would then say something like, “I’m sorry that we can’t meet your needs, perhaps another school might”. An interesting effect was that often the parent would immediately start retracting some of their more unreasonable statements and demands. 

Putting the slip on the desk was effectively drawing a solid line in front of the behaviour.

As we sit here at the end of the Term, with pressure on everyone’s’ time and energy, perhaps we need to get more direct with some in our communities. Perhaps we need to rehearse a verbal version of the old transfer slip – “I’m sorry that you feel like that, but that’s all we can do.”

Fullstop, no more commentary.

While the almost universal implementation of ‘zoning’ has made shifting schools difficult for most, the well known saying that, “you’ll get what you are willing to accept”, is never truer than deep in Term 4 – service needed, not servitude.



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