Let’s face it – teachers are parents whether or not they have biological children of their own. As teachers, we spend 7-8 hours a day with other people’s children. We play the role of caregiver, counselor, nurse, referee and of course, educator. We do the best we can with our limited amount of resources and staff. And we do it with a smile because your children are OUR children too.
So, when a disgruntled parent uses all caps in an email, places blame, curses, yells, and degrades our profession, it’s very easy to feel defeated. Yet, we are professionals and thus, must exhibit professional behavior.
This is what I call “The Parent Trap.” It seems that parents get to treat teachers with disrespect, yet teachers are supposed to remain level-headed and professional. It’s a trap and one that every teacher will find him/herself in at some point.
However, not all parents set out to “trap” teachers and most have good intentions. It took me a long time to realize this and even longer to navigate difficult conversations with parents. Here are some tips for dealing with parents:
Assume good intent. All parents want their children to be successful, so when a parent hears that their child has failed a test, assignment or course, they will obviously be upset. They will want to get to the bottom of things, which is why constant teacher-parent contact is key. I email parents whenever their child does not complete a homework assignment; if a child earns below a 70% on a quiz or test, I send it home to get signed and email the parents. Yes, it takes up some time, but I find that parents would rather know of these minor infractions before they turn into something bigger. And always, always document when you contact a parent. Save the emails too. Basically, cover your butt.
Know when to let go. Contacting parents is a great way to build relationships with families. However, when an email or phone conversation becomes heated, it’s best to call it quits. If speaking to a parent on the phone, politely state that you will be happy to discuss the matter at another time. For emails that get ugly, for a lack of a better term, be sure to forward or carbon copy your administration and let them advise you on how to proceed. Also, do not feel the need to respond right away. If a particular email upsets me, I let it simmer. Usually, after I’ve had time to process it (and maybe speak with administration), I am able to approach the matter in a more professional and level-headed manner.
Have witnesses. I do not recommend meeting alone with parents because well, it can be intimidating. Instead, have a colleague join you, preferably one who also teaches the child. Not only can they offer support, but often behavior or academic struggles that the student exhibits in one class is true for other classes. In cases of parents who you anticipate may have issues or “beef” with you, ask an administrator to sit-in on the meeting with you.
See all sides. Listen to the parents’ concerns instead of going into meetings with your guns blazing. Many times, the concerns are not directed at you, the teacher, at all. I recently had a parent who was very upset about our homework policy. I acknowledged that we needed to do a better job of explaining the transition from elementary to middle school to parents and I agreed with the parent in regard to her viewpoint about homework. In another meeting, a parent was outraged that tests have a great deal of weight on a student’s overall grade. I explained that this was a school-wide grading system and that his concerns were valid and to contact the administration.
Sometimes it’s difficult to see all sides, especially if a parent is upset. However, acknowledging parent concerns and finding some common ground go a long way. Parents will not always agree with your policies, but that does not mean they are wrong. However, it always gives me an opportunity to pause and reflect on why I put the policies into place to begin with.
Remain professional. Seriously. Go home and tell your significant other/friends, etc. what you really want to say if it makes you feel better.
Don’t get defeated. Sometimes, no matter how much you try, you won’t be able to reach a parent (or two or three…). It’s okay because you know what? Next year, you will get new parents. And 10, 20, 30 years from now, whatever issue the parent has with you will be forgotten. Take this from someone who’s lost sleep over parent drama – it is not that deep.
Do you have other tips for dealing with parents? Also, check out this article for information on handling upset parents.