Schools have always collided with a small percentage of mothers and fathers. But the message from Australian staff rooms in all types of schools - primary and secondary, public and private - is that tension between teachers and parents is rising. According to teachers, parents see a world that's getting faster, more complicated and less forgiving, and figure their children's best chance of making it out there is to shine, from kindergarten onward, in everything they do. These high expectations can fuse with the view that no setback is ever just bad luck: it's always somebody's fault - though never their own, nor their child's. While parents will accept human frailty in other areas of life, says New South Wales Primary Principals' Association president Roger Pryor, "in schools they expect everyone to get it right first time, every time."
The pressure's telling. Only 10 or 20 years ago, Australia's biggest problem with teachers was recruiting them - encouraging enough brainy high-school graduates to study for a career in front of a blackboard. Today there's no shortage of trainees - high demand for places in education courses at universities has forced up entry scores to record levels. The concern for policymakers is retaining teachers, who are leaving the profession in droves. University of Sydney researcher Robyn Ewing says younger teachers are leading the charge: having studied for four years or more, at least 30% quit in their first three to five years on the job, while among those placed at remote or disadvantaged schools, the figure could be as high as 50%. In N.S.W. the most common age at which teachers toss it in - outside the retirement years - is 29.
Why are they fleeing? Australian investigators have found stress in the mix, but it's research out of the U.S. - where teacher dropout rates match Australia's - that has homed in on what the main stresses are. Asked to choose the biggest challenge they face, 31% of teachers cited involving parents and communicating with them as their top choice, according to the 2004 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. Some 73% of beginning teachers said too many parents treat teachers as adversaries. Australian educators make the same observations: "I say to some of our parents," says Allen Brooke, principal of Caroline Chisholm High School in Canberra, " 'Can we please start this meeting with an acknowledgment of mutual goodwill?'"
The key to better relations, most teachers would argue, resides with parents, who may need to accept that their child isn't gifted, or that there are 27 other children in their darling's class, or that there aren't 45 spots on the school netball team. But teachers won't be surprised to hear that, outside of staff rooms, there seems to be little sympathy for them. A prevalent view is that central to teaching is handling - patiently and professionally - the expectations and anxieties of even the most objectionable parents. "If you can't or won't do that," says Sharryn Brownlee, president of the N.S.W. Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations, "then don't teach." In February, the federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, Brendan Nelson, directed a federal parliamentary committee to find out whether the country's universities are adequately preparing students for the demands of teaching. "The single most important challenge that our country faces in education," Nelson said, "is how do we raise the respect society has for teaching as a profession?" While the committee will report back next year, New Zealand schools believe they could give their Australian counterparts a lesson in teacher–parent harmony right now. "There's an extremely pervasive culture here," says John Grant, principal of Kaipara College, a state high school in Helensville, near Auckland, "that emphasizes schools' accountability to their parents."