Let me explain.
Have you ever sent an email to a parent to update them about the child’s not-so-great grade? Has that parent ever received the email on their phone, at work, only to drop everything, drive to your school and burst into your room demanding to know why the child is struggling?
Yes, it’s happened to me.
When you first started your teaching career you probably daydreamed about becoming the next Erin Gruwell or Jaime Escalante. (If you’re scratching your head at this point, go to Netflix and add Freedom Writers and Stand and Deliver to your queue right now. Go on, I’ll wait. All set? OK, let’s continue.)
As dreams of changing the world one student at a time danced through your head you were most likely blindsided by one of the biggest challenges teachers face: a difficult parent. While I can’t tell you that there is a way to avoid this issue entirely, I can tell you a sure-fire way to make it easier to deal with.
Stop taking it personally. It’s not about you.
I know what you’re thinking, because I’ve had the same thoughts. “Of course it’s about me. They are attacking my class and my methods.” But stay with me.
The first thing to remember is that this is their child- the most important person in their lives. While as the teacher it’s easy to feel some ownership over the student, this clearly pales in comparison to what a parent feels. They are allowed to over react from time to time. But you are not.
If you want to be taken as a professional you need to act like one, even when you don’t want to- especially when you don’t want to. Before we go over how youshould deal with a difficult parent situation. Let’s look at what you shouldn’t do.
As teachers we need to stop doing the following three things.
Justifying- When our teaching practice is questioned, the immediate instinct is to justify what we do. I get it. It’s natural. I have done it too. But it doesn’t work. Almost without fail you will end up just feeding the fire of an argument. If a parent is really upset then they are not really ready to hear you justify your methods. In their mind they have already judged your methods, and they don’t like them.
Blaming- This one is even worse, and yes, I’ve fallen into this trap as well. It feels so natural to blame the student, (he’s the one not doing the work after all!) or even the parent, (if they just enforced some discipline at home, he’d be able to keep up). Unfortunately playing the blame game will not get you to a resolution, and it will cause further damage to the relationship.
Defending- If we are under attack, sometimes the last line of defense is…well…to be defensive. You have spent a lot of time planning, evaluating and delivering your lessons and you know what you’re doing. You have a strong desire to show off a detailed PowerPoint of reasons why you are right and they are wrong. Aside from the obvious sin of wanting to set up yet another PowerPoint of bullet points, this strategy will lead to nothing but more conflict.
So what should you do? Here are three steps to take that should make it, if not easy, at least easier, to keep some professional distance.
1. Be a good teacher. Sounds like strange advice, doesn’t it? But it really isn’t when you stop and think about it. If you know your content area, have a clear goal of what you want your students to learn, and have a solid plan for getting there, it is a lot easier to remain professional when a parent gets angry. You can calmly explain your methods and records, and proceed from a position of authority. Note that this is not the same thing as being defensive. You are not arguing. You are laying out clearly thought-out facts.
2. Listen first, talk later. Quite often I have found that what a parent really needs is to be heard. Chances are, if you are having a hard time with the student in class, things are not going so great at home either. Let them have the floor and air it out. Then, once you’re sure they have had their say, you can explain your side of the situation.
My standard opening to a sure-to-be-challenging conference goes something like this: “I know Jimmy has been having a tough time lately and I want to see how I can make some changes to get him back on track. But first, it would be really helpful to hear how things have been going from your perspective.” I tell them I am willing to make changes and that I want to hear their views. This alone can do a lot to cool the situation down.
3. Look forward. Don’t spend a lot of time rehashing what has gone wrong. They know there has been a problem or else they wouldn’t be talking to you. So look at what you can do next. Make sure you have this planned out ahead of time. I can’t tell you how many times presenting a solid plan of action to rectify a situation has defused an otherwise tense situation.
So remember, next time you get an angry email, or an upset parent at a conference, don’t take it personally. It’s not about you.