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Parent communication – WhatsApp groups have gotten out of hand

Man in suit shouting at smartphone, representing parent communication

Introducing pupils to the basics of online etiquette is all very well… but won’t someone please think of the parents?

The Undercover Teacher
by The Undercover Teacher
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Teaching Year 6, an increasing part of my job is to help manage children’s initial attempts at navigating social media. But these channels can also cause problems around parent communication.

In Year 6, many pupils get a phone for the first time. They are instantly thrust into the ‘wild west’ of online interaction where it appears anything goes.

And sure enough, without proper guidance, anything does go: phones ping long into the small hours of the morning; children set up WhatsApp groups named things like ‘Anyone but [insert unpopular child’s name here]’; there has been racism, sexism and frequent homophobic insults.

In fact, I have seen more fixed-term exclusions issued for online bullying than for any other reason during my five years as a Year 6 teacher.

In short, we’ve learned through experience that our pupils need support and instruction to establish some ground rules of online etiquette.

Parents WhatsApp group

What is more surprising, is how it isn’t just the kids’ group chat featuring on my professional radar; increasingly, their parents’ groups need to be carefully managed, too. 

In fairness, these groups do have the potential to be a force for good. When was the last time you were asked for a copy of this week’s spellings? Or whether children are supposed to wear their PE kit tomorrow?

Generally speaking, the group will do this work for you.  

However, these same spaces also have the power to inflame; they are a potential source of misinformation, fuelling bad feeling. This sometimes reaches incendiary proportions before the official school channels are aware enough to intervene.

For example, parents now share the claims of every child who starts a sentence with, ‘My teacher said…’ with scores of other parents who seem to take them at their word; rather than believing the official communications from the school.

Like the views of the parent who told everyone that a piece of essential homework, with a week of lessons built around it, was ‘optional’. 

Online parent communication groups can also take on a mob mentality.

We were on the receiving end of this with the cancellation of Sports Day in summer 2022, due an unprecedented heatwave.

After missing out on a host of performances, assemblies and parent evenings through Covid, the cancellation of this event seemed to be the last straw. A number of (normally philosophical and measured) parents were enraged!

However, rather than quietly seething on their own, they shared this rage through the group. The result was a co-ordinated campaign of emails and phone calls to the school, sending the office into meltdown. 

Parents code of conduct

Elsewhere, users appear to have even less awareness of online etiquette than the Year 6 children I teach!

I recently spent a day dealing with an emotional child after a friend’s parent used the group to invite a choice selection of children to her daughter’s birthday party; the potential for divisive moves like this really sours any sense of community the groups may otherwise bring. 

I am in the rare position at my school of being both teacher and parent.

I took the political decision to stay out of the parents’ WhatsApp. However, my wife keeps me abreast of the goings-on; she often uses me as a ‘phone a friend’ to answer queries posed by other parents.

She is also able to informally warn me of any unrest in the group. And, I can act undercover to give colleagues a heads-up on parent rumblings before they become a big deal.  

Spy in the group

I suspect that every group has a spy like me; these large groups are, by their nature, public forums. And yet, people are willing to say things here that they wouldn’t say to your face; but just about every complaint, snide comment or personal vendetta finds its way to the teacher one way or the other.

To my knowledge, parents have called me a ‘jumped-up ar***le’ and have accused me of having ‘short-man syndrome’. Just a couple of examples!  

Others have had it far worse; for one teacher in my school, this was a source of great stress as they became aware of what the parent body thought of them.

They are now signed off from work for stress-related reasons. I am in little doubt that this was a contributing factor. 

With some concerted effort, by the end of Year 6, my pupils have generally learned how to behave on group chat; perhaps their parents could use some guidance, too? 

The writer is a primary teacher in England. 

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