Family Nature

Mean Girls, Cougar-Style


Last year, right around this time of year, there were a few parents at my kids’ school — two of whom were particularly determined about it — who were actively engaged in a campaign to turn people against me. They spoke to teachers and other parents in the school yard, trying to convince them of the atrocities that I had committed. According to them, I was trying to cancel an outdoor education program and ruin everything. To make their case, they had some completely fabricated story about how I had forced my kids’ previous school to stop selling chocolate milk (?? seriously, I have no idea) and how I had imposed my will on everyone and everything that stood in my path. This story was somehow “proof” — a pattern of behaviour, I guess. It was evidence that I was imposing my will on the school community. I was using my power to snatch expensive outdoor education away from the community! I was using my influence to ruin everything! I was trying to “further my own agenda”!

(As I side note, I got a genuine, good laugh out of the “furthering my own agenda” accusation. That one came at the end of a two year stint as school council chair. Yes, spending countless hours volunteering my time, being bullied by other parents, doing what can only be called a completely and utterly thankless and soul-crushing job was “furthering my own agenda”. Sure, if furthering my own agenda is letting dishes and laundry pile up around me while I slowly but surely drive myself crazy trying to do the very best that I can while being criticized constantly. Let me tell you, if I had ACTUALLY been furthering my own agenda I would be living in Vegas right now gambling all of council’s money away on the penny slots.)

Of course, none of those accusations were true. What had I done to deserve such treatment? Ask questions about how we were going to pay for an expensive outdoor education program at our school. This program costs upwards of twenty thousand dollars. Yes, you read that right, TWENTY THOUSAND DOLLARS. This is for our small (200 students), public, TDSB school to hire an outside organization to come in and deliver an outdoor education program. It provides programming and staff for 6-8 field trips per year at a cost of $120 – $160 per student.

Full disclosure: It’s actually a fantastic program. The program is wildly popular. My kids like it. It’s a good fit for our school. They have surveyed the community about the program and the survey results are overwhelmingly in favor of the program (although, the questions read like: Do you support our fabulous outdoor education program, which is an absolutely essential part of our school, and is the be all and end all of everything? Yes? Wonderful!).

To be clear, I have no problem whatsoever with the program itself. I just feel strongly that there needs to be a plan in place so that it’s not such a heavy financial burden on the community.

The truth is, the program is so popular that it has a cult-like following. If you dare question it or have concerns about such an expensive program in a public school, then its bad news for you. Yep. That’s all it takes to be blacklisted in our school community.

Laughable, isn’t it? Like something out of a bad high school flick, eh? It sounds so dramatic but the sad reality is that it’s true. It would seem that having an opinion is quite the liability around here. Dare to ask a question and you are burned at the stake. Not just this expensive outdoor education program, but ANYTHING. Suggest something that school council might want to spend money on (even when there is LOTS of money to be spent and ALL of the requests can be granted) and instantly be accused of not supporting the teachers. No, I didn’t suggest something crazy. I suggested we spend money on musical instruments (*gasp* the horrors!).

Loudmouth. Disrespectful. Power hungry. Inconsiderate. All of these things and more have been said about me. People start whispering “Why is she even at this school?” “Doesn’t she have anything better to do?”

Secret discussions have happened about how to “manage” me. Secret meetings that don’t include “those people” (like me) because apparently I am trying to “harm” others. There are “strategies” in play here. You know, how they just “let” me speak my mind so that I will be appeased then maybe, just maybe, if everyone just closes their eyes and wishes hard enough, I’ll shut up.

Then there are the implications: I don’t care about my kids; I don’t like the teachers; I don’t respect the teachers; I’m never happy with anything; no matter what happens, I’ll complain about something.

“Well WE just want what’s best for our children,” someone muttered under their breath as they walked by me when they were leaving a meeting last week. “Well we WERE moving forward, but now [since I arrived] we’re going backwards again,” one staff member said.

All of these nasty things said about me, by parents and even some staff, are because I dare to have an opinion and ask questions. It’s no wonder people don’t speak out more. This community is NOT a safe space for those who speak what is on their minds.

In any other situation, this would be considered bullying but for some reason, it is tolerated at our school among the adults. I think it is deeply concerning this type of behavior exists and that we do nothing to stop it.

What’s worse, is that this small group of people who are so against me, who feel so strongly that something MUST be done about me, do not ever come and talk to me. There are no attempts whatsoever to resolve any conflict in a productive, mature way. (And no, talking about me behind my back and plotting against me don’t count.)

This is classic, high school, mean girls stuff. It’s just plain awful and as long as it is going on, school council is going to be unproductive and unpleasant. Because guess what, folks? I’m going to continue to speak my mind. We live in a free country with free speech. We live in Ontario where parents have the right to have a say at their child’s school. Parents have the right to ask questions and make suggestions about curriculum, policies, trips, homework, spending, discipline, and anything and everything related to our child’s education.

There are better ways to go about making change. Gossiping and planning for behind the scenes “strategies” are pretty horrible ways to go about trying making “positive” change. Don’t fool yourself. You’re not fixing any problem by doing this. You ARE the problem.

Photo by dreamwhile via Flickr.

16 thoughts on “Mean Girls, Cougar-Style

  1. Patience

    “Living in Vegas gambling away all the council’s money” LOL! I don’t get those type of women. Maybe it’s cause aside from LLL; I haven’t participated in enough social/fundraiser type activities. Reading this doesn’t inspire me to change my habits. I guess there’s always a group of women like this. (when I was a teen; one of my friends described a group of women on the parish council as “Stella and her Raiders” I always picture this when I read about PTA groups like yours. (it is PTA whether they dress it up with words like “parent council” or not; it’s still a bunch of catty women (just not wearing yoga wear and Toms rather than twinsets and pearls)
    In society; we seem to be increasingly moving into these select little groups where everyone in the group thinks the same way and any dissension isn’t tolerated. Whether it’s right or left wing it doesn’t matter. Free speech depends on what the majority decides is politically correct for that circle. It’s like living in Salem Mass. in the 1600’s all over again.
    And finally; are these ALL women? As someone who went to an all girls high school; women tend to act differently when there are men present. Maybe what the council needs is an injection of men as well to balance things out.

  2. Gita Proudman

    It’s so high school it’s not funny. These are people setting examples for their children? Disgusting behaviour. If anyone behaves like this at work, it’s considered harassment, and is a something one can be reprimanded for. I feel awfully for you that you have to deal with this. Good for you for speaking out.

  3. Jacqui Gingras

    Viva Las Vegas!

    But, in all seriousness, by not fostering a culture of question-asking and curiosity, the school is contravening its mission as creating an inquiry-based environment in which learning unfolds. Shame.

    Of course, the outdoor ed program rocks! Best thing going. But the cost! It was a concern for us Every. Single. Time. And we loved the program. It is an act of social justice to ask about the cost because not everyone can afford to send their kids. How can it be made more equitable? There are a host of creative alternatives if the group of parents put their wise minds to it.

    This is the hardest work going – building community.

    No, parenting is harder, but community building comes a close second.

    You have my support, Amanda. Protect yourself, though and share your gifts wisely. Only those that can appreciate you should be invited to enjoy the talents you offer.

    With love,

  4. Kate Wallis

    Sadly, you are not alone. Many School Council members suffer similar and even more challenging working relationships. Also, there is absolutely no excuse for these abusive situations to continue. The solutions are varied, and sometimes there are no real fixes. More often than I’d like to acknowledge, valuable contributors must walk away from unreasonable school communities. Everybody loses. — The plain fact we rarely discuss is that the success of every public school is really based on personalities, relationships, healthy boundaries and the consistent, caring professional support of administrators and teachers. With so many and varied stakeholders having innumerable motivations it’s really a wonder the system ever works. — You already know the solution to your turmoil. Either walk away from the precious volunteer hours spent in a thankless, stressful situation, and give your time and talent where it’s welcomed and valued, or with joy in your heart, ignore the self-serving meanness and undermining and get done as much good as you can do, under trying circumstances. Without likeminded parent partners and support from the Principal and some teachers, you are doing no good, for you, your children or the school. — I think you are amazing, and I wish we’d worked together every year of my girl’s schooling. Sometimes it’s just the right place at the wrong time.

  5. SStewart

    Wise advise from Kate. It is sad to hear about situations like this. I think that volunteering on a school council and/or being a chair can be one of the most difficult volunteer roles. Personality conflicts can happen on any committee, but the misunderstanding about the role of school councils and its members can lead to this too much. Also, it is unfortunate if support is only given to those who are in agreement, or don’t suggest ‘too’ much change or question practice. The debates over funds for programs/items seem like the most difficult. I am glad I avoided fundraising during my years of school council involvement.

    Could you clarify… your school council fully funds this outdoor education program? Does the school community know the financial details? You are one person asking a question.. I don’t understand why others would feel so threatened by that – you don’t make final decision.

    I hope next year finds you feeling better about this role and the time you give.

  6. FamilyNature Post author

    “we seem to be increasingly moving into these select little groups where everyone in the group thinks the same way and any dissension isn’t tolerated”

    So true. Which is so counter-productive! I think the only way to move forward as a community is to discuss these things — even if it’s difficult sometimes.

  7. FamilyNature Post author

    Yes, a number of people have pointed out the example we set for our children in these situations. I guess it’s a “do what I say and not what I do” kind of thing. :/

  8. FamilyNature Post author

    Yes, it’s so hard. Wanting the outdoor ed program (which is fantastic) is at odds with the very slogan of the organization (be more, need less) and what I thought were some of the fundamentals of our school (social justice issues). Why do we need expensive things like this? Or how can they be delivered in an equitable way? Tough questions. Difficult discussions but I have always believed that there is an answer somewhere. Too bad we haven’t been able to figure it out (yet!). xo (And yes, we totally miss you guys!)

  9. FamilyNature Post author

    “Everybody loses” So true. I know so many parents who are amazing people with good ideas and they wouldn’t be caught dead at a council meeting for this very reason. I know others who have walked away. We could be so awesome if we could just all figure out how to get along. xo

  10. FamilyNature Post author

    “…the misunderstanding about the role of school councils and its members can lead to this too much.”

    Yes! I think there is a definite lack of understanding of the role of school councils. At our school and every school.

    Re: the outdoor ed program: No, we ask parents to pay for it and council covers any shortfall if parents choose not to pay (for any reason). Who pays what amount is confidential (something I worked *really* hard on implementing). Parents are told what the cost is for their child (depends on the grade) and they pay what they can. Most parents pay the full amount.

    Many would say that I have a lot of influence at our school. Some even think I’m given special treatment (I’m not even sure what that means). I am persistent. I speak at council meeting.

    I would argue that *everyone* can be as “influential” as I am. All you have to do is make it so. Come to meetings, find out what’s going on and have your voice heard, talk to council members, join a committee, participate in some way. Not everyone feels comfortable speaking at meeting but there are lots of other ways to have your voice heard. What I hear most often from other people is things like, “I totally agree with you but I couldn’t be bothered getting involved”. Not because they don’t care, but because they don’t want to deal with bullshit like this. Who can blame them?

  11. SStewart

    Thanks for the clarification. I agree with your points too. There are many ways to link to the school council. It is hard to change perceptions though.

  12. Cat

    I’ve had your post open for a few days, thinking about the issues you brought up. Honestly, I had no idea this was going on, but I admit that it doesn’t surprise me. When I initially joined the interior space committee, I was amazed at the parental expectations of drastic changes that the board would make, without regard to budget, etc. It seemed to me, coming from different schooling situations with my own kids, that the sense of entitlement coming from some of the parents was rather OTT. It made me incredibly uncomfortable, and I couldn’t stick with it for that reason. At the time, with some personal things happening, it was also something I didn’t feel able to articulate to a group of people that were essentially strangers.

    The Mean Girls / Total Drama Schoolyard issue is such BS. You have my support, Amanda, I would not have handled the situation as gracefully as you have, and come back for more. I appreciate all you do for our kids!