Flexible Assertiveness or Autocratic Intransigence – Charming them out the door with a suitably raised eyebrow or dismissing them with a flea in their ear?

As writers of various school management handbooks have noted, a pleasant manner, tempered by a finely tuned balance between assertiveness and flexibility, can lead to schools becoming happier, more successful places of growth and learning and is likely to motivate parents to do what is best both for the school and their own children and. It is, of course, essential that the authority of school principals be recognised. However, there is a difference between being authoritative and authoritarianism. Choosing autocratic approaches to promoting systems that ensure the smooth running of a school and allow for children’s safety and well-being can lead to alienation. It is right that a principal be firm with parents and protect teachers from unnecessary harassment and time-wasting. When a principals manner is cold and officious rather than warm but assertive, however, parents may become alienated, antagonised and defensive. Cooperative parents who are already ‘playing the game’, as it were, and doing all that they can, may feel judged and under greater pressure, possibly leading to increased tension and greater stress levels in the home. This approach conflicts with the ideals  of both the secular Irish education system and those of a Catholic school, a place of believers and non-believers, where both the the historical Jesus and the figure of Christ inform and enliven the schools characteristic spirit, where all members (from staff to children and parents) feel cherished and valued.

Mistaking authoritarianism for asserting one’s authority can also be detrimental to the life of a school. Sometimes, the teachers suffer, sometimes the children loose out. In attempting to ensure  parents do not to interfere with the running of classrooms and schools, one has to be very careful. When one is overly assertive, one can fall into the trap of taking very little of what a parent says on board in any meaningful way. There is a tendency to assume that one already knows what to do and that their input will not make that much of a difference.

If  schools place too much emphasis on bureaucracy and the assertion of authority, it can lead to the creation of  atmosphere of ‘them and us’, where schools, principals, teachers and other staff may feel they know more than any parent. This can lead some to assume that they require minimal input from parents, the people who know their children best, and may  not engender trust and mutual understanding. If this is the case, parents may feel that they cannot speak about their concerns for their children or be sure they will be heard.

What does it say of one’s confidence and competence as a leader and manager if one feels one must neither be warm nor gracefully acknowledge mistakes in order to assert one’s authority?

What does it say of one’s commitment to human flourishing if one severely limits any form of interaction between parents and teachers  and approaches the planning of parent-teacher meetings in a very rigid manner that does not seem to differentiate between the needs of those who need five to ten minutes and those who may need longer, or who may need to make separate arrangements?

What does this say about a teachers’ confidence, or indeed that of a principal if they cannot take advice from parents who may have something positive to add or, indeed, know more on a particular subject then they themselves do?

Clearly, schools have to set boundaries on when and how often parents and teachers communicate and on the form and amount of input parents make, but if they are not open to any real collaboration with parents a divide between the school community and parents may be created.

Parents need to feel respected, that they are equal partners in the education process. They need to trust that, if they have problems, the school is an open place where they can speak and be heard.

Should those of us involved in education not endeavour to listen carefully to what others have to say, reflect carefully, comparing it with prior knowledge and previous experience?This does not mean that one has to concede to everything a parent says but, rather,  that one takes what they say on board, allowing  it to inform one’s attitudes, approaches, decisions, management and teaching so that so that children’s needs are met and they are nurtured and allowed to grow.

This requires care, attention and, above all, pragmatism. Nuanced pragmatism however, would surely lead to a well run, welcoming, caring, Catholic school committed to social justice that responds appropriately to the needs of all.