Keep a Classroom Confidence (K-12)

Tom is a kindergarten teacher in a small, affluent community. One of the characteristics of the town Tom appreciates is the great involvement of parents in the school.

When the new school year begins, many parents assist Tom in his busy classroom. This year’s class is a challenging one, made more so by one child with severe behavioral difficulties. Managing this child in a manner that does not affect the rest of the class’s learning and enjoyment takes a great deal of Tom’s and the parents’ time. Yet, after the first month, Tom feels that his class is coming together well as a community of parents and children.

Unfortunately, one parent doesn’t think so. She feels that the difficult child is so disruptive that she calls other parents, suggesting that they all complain to the school superintendent about the child. Through their efforts, and unbeknownst to Tom, the child eventually will be removed from Tom’s classroom.  One of the parents called by this individual then speaks with Tom to let him know what is taking place. She cautions him that she is telling him what she heard in the strictest confidence.

Tom now faces a dilemma. He wants to speak with the school superintendent about the disgruntled parent’s campaign to remove the difficult child. Yet to do so, he might have to mention how he came to know about the parent’s phone calls. On the other hand, he very much wants to keep harmony in his classroom, harmony that would be difficult to maintain if one parent were busy organizing one child’s removal.

[Quoted from http://www.globalethics.org/dilemmas/Keep-a-Classroom-Confidence/32/]

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22 Comments

22 thoughts on “Keep a Classroom Confidence (K-12)

  1. Addressing the scenario presented in the dilemma would require mindful considerations for multiple factors that are involved in this system. Knowing the context of the setting, a small, affluent district that take pride in parental involvement creates a higher order of priorities that most likely have been acknowledged. I would present the following ‘tiers of intervention’ that a kindergarten classroom teacher like Tom would create the best opportunities for successfully dealing with this dilemma.

    Political Implications

    We should assume that Tom understands the ‘chain of command’ that provides organization and structure in his school district. The superintendent whom the parent-volunteers are complaining to, not only ‘runs this show’ as the chief supervisor of the district, but must also carefully balance his politics and decisions with the interests of his governing board. Because the board is traditionally elected by popular vote, and the board appoints the superintendent, there is a fine line of political interests and agendas that must be considered. Politics and special interests are the unwritten guidelines that govern policy in districts. These political pressures seems to be intensified within districts that are smaller, and pull from affluent populations. Tom’s district is characterized as both small and affluent.

    If all it takes is parents making an ‘end-run’ to complain to the superintendent about an unruly kindergarten student, then this implies that the parent groups are wielding significant power. If I were Tom, I would look into what types of board policies and provisions exist that support the behavior of students in the classroom. Are there (there should be) board policy guidelines that provide a tiered approach to student discipline? Have these guidelines been shared with the parents? Has this protocol been adhered to?

    An additional political implication to be considered would be board policy for parent volunteers. Just because parents are willing to volunteer their time, this privilege does not necessarily extend the right to pass judgment any other students other than their own. They are free to voice their concerns about how the behavior of another student(s) impacts the educational experience of their own children, or the class, but the parents should not be utilizing their time to volunteer in the classroom to conspire to remove another child. If I were Tom, I would look into board policy about potential limitations on classroom visitations and volunteering. I would have all of this ‘political information’ at my disposal before moving on to the next steps of intervention. With that said, and for what it’s worth (probably not much, if the student will be removed), I would advise Tom to set up a meeting or conference call with his site administration and superintendent. Being ‘tipped off’ about these conspiracy plans does not commit Tom to secrecy. Naming specific names of ‘who told who about what’ is less relevant than making an effort to address the dilemma. The point of discussion should be to protect the rights of all children. He is a credentialed teacher. He is a mandated reporter. He needs to point out his knowledge of this theoretical injustice, lest he be considered part of the conspiracy himself.

    School Site Implications

    The next advisable action for Tom to take would be to set up a time to speak with his school site administrators. Through my experience working in K-12, parent complaints about students are very commonplace. Problems of this nature are usually handled at the site level through a team effort. Tom needs to speak to his site administrators and explain to them the seriousness of the dilemma. Have there been any efforts made to intervene within the classroom? Has Tom received coaching support to deal with management of this student? Has the behavior of this child been referred to school health or the school psych? Has the student been disciplined by an administrator or designee? These are all questions that Tom should ask his site administrators about. Now if Tom has already communicated his concerns and there is yet an action to be taken, I would expect this issue to be voiced at the district level.

    Classroom Implications

    The issue that seems to be most urgent to Tom is ‘maintenance of confidentiality’ between parents and the school/teacher. Tom needs to realize that as a teacher, his number one priority is to consider what’s best for his students, not necessarily keeping secrets about conspiracies. Tom needs to ask what type of culture and presidents are being established by allowing a parent group to conspire to remove a child from any classroom? Once these actions are supported, what’s to stop these parents from moving on to another student, seeking arbitrary removal? Tom only has so much authority to address these actions at the classroom level. Knowing that this student has already been (or will be removed), I would encourage Tom to establish classroom guidelines and protocols for parents that support communication to minimize future issues such as these. Furthermore, Tom should refrain from making promises to ‘keep secrets’ and ‘not tell’ when parents share information with him. Instead he should clearly communicate his obligation to do what’s best for all students regardless of the circumstances or special interests.

    This is a scenario which far too prevalent in the K-12 setting. You have some ‘square peg’ children who for whatever reason don’t fit the ‘round holes’. Regardless, Tom is right to want to maintain good standing with the parents but he should not sacrifice his moral and ethical obligations to his student to do so. While it’s been stated that the decision has already been made to remove the student, Tom can take a proactive stance to minimize the future occurrence of these types of issues, and strengthen the communication with the parents and community be clearing establishing his goals and expectations within district parameters.

  2. Excellent post Dylan.

    You examined the issue from a variety of pertinent angles. Of all your statements, the most important was that, “Tom needs to realize that as a teacher, his number one priority is to consider what’s best for his students, not necessarily keeping secrets about conspiracies.” This is where I, too, fall on the issue. He doesn’t necessarily even need to name the parent who told him. I would have asked the parent who else may have been called, speak with those parents, then speak with site and district administration. This would allow him to make the vague statement that “a number of parents were called and asked to complain about a particular student.”

    A strong administration, not wanting to set precedent that complaints result in the removal of another child, will deal swiftly with the situation. As an administrator, I would note who the instigator parent is, wait for the complaint/phone call from her, and then advise the parent that if she is unhappy with the educational setting her child is in, then her child can be transferred to another class. With the exception of bullying or harassment that is affecting their child, parents should have little impact on the educational placement of other students in a school setting. This is especially true if the student has an IEP that states certain modifications must be met. It sounds like Tom is an effective teacher and the best educator the student with behavioral problems could have.

    • Duncan,

      Here is a higher ed perspective that may not be as applicable for kindergarten…but hey, it’s worth mentioning:

      It’s always a good idea to get more information before going to administration. I absolutely agree that the parent’s report is deeply concerning, and it is presented as if it is true. If this is an accurate account of what is occuring, I find that the ethical obligations to the child and the school override the obligation he may have to keep a secret at the request of one parent.

      However, I follow the motto “trust but verify.” The report from the parent indicates there may be a major problem. Emphasis on may. There are always at least 3 sides to every story: A, B, and the truth. Tom needs to learn what he can about the situation–quickly, quietly, and well–before passing the information along to administration. If this doesn’t seem possible or appropriate for the situation, then Tom at least needs to be very clear that he is presenting the story of what one mom said another mom is doing–not “this is what’s happening.”

      That being said, sometimes an awful situation only comes to our attention through the willingness of one individual to say something when others stay quiet. It is important for Tom to respect the privacy of this mom and keep her name out of public conversation if possible, so that others in the future will feel comfortable confiding in him.

    • You bring up a very smart way of addressing the problem without revealing the identity of the parent who spoke to Tom. While I think Tom should intervene, I don’t believe it ethical to reveal the identity of the parent who brought the situation to his attention. It’s always important to gather as much information as possible from a variety of perspectives before taking a concern to administration. By contacting other parents to inquire about any concerns they may have about their child’s class, Tom will be able to gather other parents’ perspectives. This will also provide him with the opportunity to share concerns of “several parents” without undermining the confidential conversation had with the one parent.

  3. This is a scenario that brings me sharply back to my son’s years in elementary school and the pettiness of those parents who considered themselves the magistrates of the school. Because of their socio-economic privilege, they were able to make the daytime PTA meetings and noontime presentations. They would sit around and gossip about the other students and parents in a very unproductive manner.
    As an advocate for what is best for every child in his room, it appears that he has made every effort to help this child assimilate in a way that has not required the child to stifle who they are, but instead to help them learn coping skills for that which causes frustration.
    What you stated is several important considerations: “He is a mandated reporter. He needs to point out his knowledge of this theoretical injustice, lest he be considered part of the conspiracy himself.” The child is to be his first concern. We are to place a child in the least restrictive learning environment.” A parent that cannot understand that is free to remove their child and place them in a private school. However, even private schools have learned that they are not to be pawns of the parents. Again, the needs of the child are to outweigh any other concerns.
    Another statement that was made, “Tom should refrain from making promises to ‘keep secrets’ and ‘not tell’ when parents share information with him. Instead he should clearly communicate his obligation to do what’s best for all students regardless of the circumstances or special interests.” is aptly stated. I have even included in my syllabus to parents and students that I will keep confidentialities only if they do not infringe on the rights and needs of the child. As a credentialed and licensed educator with the state of California, I have made a commitement to certain ethics of behavior.
    It is never easy to do the right thing, but it is of immense importance.

  4. This scenario reminds me of my eldest child’s first year in kindergarten. I recall it vividly because my chiild was the one that the Sherman Oaks parents were buzzing about. My son was one of only a handful of African American children at the entire school, and parents were trying to have him removed from the classroom because they felt he was too disruptive. (Sound Familiar?) Anyway, due to all of the parental concerns, I motioned to have my son assigned to a different classroom. The principal accomodated my request, but unfortunately, my son’s new teacher made me aware that he had heard about my son and that he would be “watching” my son. So, I have some background knowledge on this issue.

    I That said, I mus agree with Allison when she states that “Tom should refrain from making promises to ‘keep secrets’ and ‘not tell’ hen parents share information with him. .

    • There is a responsibility that we have as educators to ensure a sound, safe opportunity for each student to be successfully educated within or systems, I believe the parent not only had the right idea but I appreciate her for the courage displayed to confront the issue. As a special education professional I’m aware of many conduct disorder or behavior disorder students whom are misplaced in regular day classrooms and are making the education process almost impossible because of the negative energy they bring to a classroom setting. The willful misconduct becomes contagious and consumes the loyalty normally on display in many classrooms. There’s an enormous population of teacher’s who burn out because of the bad influence of those students whom should be placed in a special needs classroom setting.

      • While I believe that educators have the responsibility to ensure a sound, safe opportunity for each student to be successfully educated within our system, I don’t believe that parents have the right to determine what that means and how to create it. Tom’s responsibility is to all his students, including the difficult ones. In the scenario, Tom felt his class was beginning to come along after the first month. Parents should have a voice in addressing their concerns with the teacher or administrator, and if necessary, the superintendent. However, it’s the responsibility of administration (at every level) to do their own research and involve the teacher in the discussion about proper placement of students. It’s unethical to allow a parent to dictate where students should be placed without a comprehensive understanding of the situation by all involved. Our system requires us to implement a number of interventions, both academic and behavioral, in order to address student needs. This should have been the first step taken by administration.

    • Chappelle — Thanks for sharing this. I have had a similar situation. My sister is handicapped and has a number of mental disabilities, and we have experienced this type of treatment as well. I had not thought about how it informed my view of the situation until I read your comments.

    • Hi Chappelle,
      It’s sad to know that some people are so self -centered and can only think about themselves and their kids, but nobody else’s. It’s sad when teachers take on that roll at the cost of another teacher’s sanity. I had a situation at my school last year where kids from different classrooms were thrown in my classroom because the teachers didn’t want to deal with the problem students. I had so many problem children in my classroom already, yet whenever teachers complained about their students, those students ended up in my room. Save another teacher’s sanity at my expense.

  5. I think that we have to consider the needs of the adult and the child. But they are different needs. The privacy of the conversation between the parent and the teacher needs to stay in tact. I agree with the comment made on how the teacher can make a more general statement about the concerns of the boy’s behavior (made by several parents). If the principal asks for specific information, I would suggest that the teacher not give names and tell the principal that he’s protecting privacy. The principal can make a decision from there. The need of the child is to have a classroom that has a teacher able to work with his needs. So, I would suggest that the teacher ask the principal for ideas or tools to help him better manage the child in the class, having less impact on the kids (and their parents). In the end,it helps the boy feel successful with the teacher and the other students.

    • Hi Shannon,

      I thought your note about considering the needs of the adult and the child was interesting. In my view (as I noted below), the needs of the adult are not the core of the situation — they are ancillary to the mission of educating children. As such, I found their needs to be secondary and not something that should drive decision making in this case. Can you elaborate as to why you felt that they should be given equal consideration? Perhaps I am missing a different thought that you had that might have led to this.

      Best,

      Russel

  6. In my view, this is a cut-and-dry issue. The underlying purpose of the educational program is for the kids — not the parents. The parents are invited into the classroom to support the learning and teaching that is being undertaken. This core — the learning and teaching — must drive all of the decisions the school and the teacher make. If the parents which are supposed to be supporting this core end up detracting from it, then the teacher must take action to correct it. In this case, the parents are unfairly harming one individual student and taking away from the one challenging child — who likely needs the program the most.

    Furthermore, I believe that the parents have violated the confidentiality of the challenging child and his/her parents. They are inside the classroom observing the child by acting as a volunteer, and they should not be disclosing information about the child to unauthorized individuals that do not have a need to know.

    The teacher should talk with the superintendent and address the issue.

  7. Russel,

    I agree that in the end we are educators to educate children. Obviously a teacher can’t prevent parents from disclosing private information about a child, but he/she can prevent that parent from returning to their classroom when confidentiality is breached. Parents that try to manipulate classroom rosters should not be welcomed into a class. Parent volunteers exist to assist the teacher not provide roster input. If a teacher is willing to work with a difficult student, regardless the level of disruption that individual may cause, parents should not have an opinion or access to impose their will on any classroom. I strongly feel the teacher should talk with the superintendent and describe what actions must be taken to correct the damage that may have already been done.

  8. There is no doubt that the teacher should take charge of the classroom and anything related to student matters. The teacher is the individual that should uphold professional and ethical standards setting aside any parental influences or pressures. As teacher, he has been entrusted by parents and administration to do what is best for all children. The teacher has the ethical responsibility to address the issue with the Superintendent without breaching any confidentiality requests.

    Although there are political forces pushing for the removal of the student, the teacher should step forward and make the appropriate recommendation without fear of repercussions by parents. Parent volunteers should not dictate the composition of a classroom nor should they place judgment on which students deserve to be in the classroom. The teacher should have sole say on the matter.

    In regards to the disruptive student, the teacher has received the proper pedagogical training and capacity to deal with students of diverse backgrounds and needs. The student should be receiving adequate support and interventions to address the disruptive behavior. Also considering the parental support, the teacher should use that as leverage in addressing the child’s needs. This in turn, should produce better results for the child and decrease the level and frequency of disruptive behavior.

  9. Joshua, you said this well. Sorry it’s taken awhile to respond Russel. I was intending to say that there are kids with specific needs, and our schools/communities need to be aware of how we communicate with them and provide support for them. Although many situations can be difficult for people to understand and address, educators (especially leaders) have the responsibility to be sensitive to those needs, while addressing concerns of the adults around them.

  10. I think Amanda made an interesting point when she said that educators have the responsibility to ensure a sound, safe opportunity for each student to be successfully educated within our system, but that parents shouldn’t have the right to determine what that means and how to create it. While the concerns of parents should definitely be addressed, I feel that it is important to consider the teacher in this matter. I think it is significant to note that Tom was feeling very satisfied with how things were coming along in terms of the students, parents, and classroom community. As the teacher, his opinion should carry some weight, especially when it comes to the issue of having a child removed from his classroom.

    Also, what happened to open communication? If the parent had concerns, the first person she should have spoken to was Tom. Instead, her actions were very surreptitious. Were it not for the parent who called to inform Tom about what was going on, he would have never known about the situation. Parents have every right to their concerns, but the teacher should have the opportunity to address these concerns first. In the same manner, Tom’s administration should have also spoken to him regarding the parents’ concerns, instead of proceeding with the removal of the student.

  11. In this situation the students best interest should be the first priority. If the teacher feels that the student is not an issue then there is no issue. If the subject is brought up by the superintendent than Tom if he believes so must have the fortitude to stand up for what he believes is right. If he believes “that his class is coming together well ” he should force the issue. Additionally, the accuser should have had the moral fiber to approach the teacher and address their concern. By going straight to the superintendent the parent has undermined the teacher, the principal and the schools authority. Being a parent in a local affluent “school district”, I have seen many stories similar to this. However, the school district has strict rules and steps to prevent such actions from occurring. If the school district is well organized this situation would never have gotten that far regardless of how affluent the parents are. These actions are discriminatory and a law suit may be in order. In addition, it puts the teacher in a bind since he ultimately had nothing to do with the decision nor was he asked about his opinion.

  12. Kao, I agree with you wholeheartedly. The teacher’s first responsibility is to himself, his ethics and his integrity in relation to how he protects his students. If he feels that the class is coming together well, he should stand up for the student and do what he needs to do to keep him in class. Allowing a parent to go straight to the superintendent without having had a conversation with him is his first problem. If the outcome is removal of the student, the parent will feel empowered and this will not be the last time this type of situation occurs. The fact that another parent came to Tom to inform him of the situation, may mean that not all parents see the student as a problem. Tom may have parents that will support him as he takes the problem on. Tom needs to contact his principal and let her know of the situation. He might also need to follow up with the superintendent and explain the predicament. Ultimately, he will have to talk with the parent and see why the parent is proceeding in that manner. Her will need to explain why he doesn’t agree with the parent’s perception about the students or her/his tactics of going to the superintendent behind his back. He will need to work with the parent to find resolution. Tom can do all of this without revealing his source and ultimately he will will earn the respect of other parents, of his principal and most importantly, he will be well with himself as he protects a student that is not able to defend himself.

  13. Kao and Maria,
    Good points! Another issue is the fact that parents should not have the power to remove students from a classroom ever. It doesn’t say what the students behavior is, but however that may manifest itself, the student should be afforded due process. On top of that or within that, the teacher and school must provide the student with intervention supports to help build social strategies for the student to learn. There are strategic and intensive methods of interventions, but never the less, that is part of the due process afforded to all students. It would be criminal to kick out a student without the appropriate supports and opportunities to help the child interact with peers, structures, and routines, especially given the child’s age.

  14. With the passing of PL 94-142 in 1975, the issue Tom is dealing with in his General Education classroom has become more and more common. The law indicates that students are to be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). While this supports the notion that all students deserve to be included as much as is possible for their academic success, it definitely poses a challenge not only for teachers, but also for students, administrators and parents.
    Ultimately, the best interest of the student is the priority. Although it is a difficult position and earning parent trust is important, sharing the information with the supervisor, may put some protections in place that would help maintains the student’s continuity of support.
    Tom is acting wisely by talking with a supervisor. I would have suggested he address the issue first with his school site principal before going to the superintendent, but involving administration at this point is a critical move.
    Although it is extremely important as a teacher to not only earn but also keep the trust of parents, it is also of paramount importance to keep the focus on the needs of students in a way that fosters a positive learning environment. Tom may be able to handle the dilemma by talking to his administrator about the situation in general terms by simply stating “It has come to my attention…” If he is questioned about who discussed the matter with him, he might be able to say that there are a ‘handful of parents’ involved in the discussion, and then redirect the superintendent to the core matter at hand…providing an appropriate education for the Special Ed student, while also ensuring that the Gen Ed students are not losing out on valuable instruction time.
    There are several things that can occur in the Gen Ed classroom (having a SpEd Support Staff person help in the classroom, Behavior Management training for the teacher, activities that help the Gen Ed students with understanding, peer coaching/support, etc.) that may make the situation better. Hopefully the meeting focus between Tom and the Superintendent will be solution based as opposed to calling out parents for expressing concerns.

  15. This is a common complaint at many of the school I have worked. Students see a peer get in trouble enough times, it often spreads that this is a difficult student. Parents in turn have called in and then have tried to use the other students’ behavior as leverage to either get a schedule change, modification to the work (like excused from low test scores or missing assignments), or to complain about the school as a whole. In most cases, Tom would not be able to comment on the behavior of the student to other parents as the child has a right to privacy. In this case, since so many parents have been in the classroom, it is pretty much common knowledge about the child’s behavior as people have directly collected evidence against the child.

    Tom has a duty to report this negative campaign against the child to his direct supervisor (VP or Principal), who could help support the student as the campaign grows in strength. In my opinion, he does not need to mention his source to the superintendent OR even his supervisor. In a small community, word gets around to what is going on and eventually the superintendent will hear about the campaign from someone else in the community.

    My biggest question about this is what supports have been put into place for this child? Does he have a behavior support plan? Are their interventions put in place for him? What has been documented already about the child and has the school been actively working to support the child? I think that if there should have been a written plan in place for the student, that the teacher, staff, and parents follow. Tom can also build up evidence that the child’s behavior has improved and data that shows that the students in the class have NOT suffered as a result of the child’s behavior. (It has just taken a lot of energy from the adults).

    If the child is removed from the class without proper documentation of why it needs to happen, I think the child’s parents have enough fodder to take the case to court, which would probably not be in the best interest of the “concerned parents” and the community.

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