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Dealing With Confrontational Parents: How To Make Allies Out Of Enemies
by Jacquie McGregor
All teachers have been there: today in class, you had to ask a child to stop talking again. You know you have to call her parents after school, and you are dreading it. A conversation with this child’s parents never goes well and usually ends with your blood pressure in the high 200s.
Another child got a “C” on his quiz last week, and you got a note from his parents saying they want to meet with you right away. You cringe, knowing that his parents are about to tell you that you’re a horrible teacher — and that he had better get an “A” on his next assignment.
Although most teacher education programs make some mention of parent-teacher conversations, very few of them spend time on parent-teacher confrontations. It isn’t until that first parent walks in your door, ready for a battle, that you realize that impassioned parents are a challenging part of the teaching experience.
However, battling with parents is not an inevitable part of the school year. Believe it or not, there are ways to counteract, and even prevent, confrontations with angry mothers and fathers.
Three steps to turn angry parents into teacher allies
Step 1: Listen
First and most importantly, parents want to be heard. I once had a parent tell me that she dreaded speaking with her children’s teachers because they clearly valued their perception of her child more than any information she could provide. Parent/teacher confrontations often arise from a lack of communication on both parts.
Although you may not agree with the parent’s assessment of the situation, taking the time to sit and listen to the parents’ concerns goes a long way toward creating a positive atmosphere. Also, never doubt the power of creating a partnership. I have seen the most confrontational parents turn into my greatest allies the minute I said, “I hear you, and I want to help. How do you see us working together to create the best possible learning experience for your child?”
Step 2: Keep in mind that parents are more afraid of you than you are of them
It may not seem true, but most parents approach parent/teacher meetings with as much, or more, apprehension as the teacher. It’s helpful to know that whenever a teacher requests a conference, a parent can experience many emotions — they may feel embarrassed about their child’s behavior, frustrated with their inability to change the situation, or worried about their child’s academic progress.
Understanding this can bring a high level of empathy to parent/teacher interactions. One of the most important things teachers can do is to be mindful that you are meeting about both your student and their child. Put yourself in the parents’ place, and ask yourself how you would like to be treated if the tables were turned.
Step 3: Talk to your colleagues
There is a timeless truth — if a student is having difficulties in your class, she is almost always having difficulties with other teachers as well. Your colleagues can be your greatest source of information in these cases. If you are a secondary teacher, you may only see that student one hour a day. Finding out about her interactions during the rest of her school day may give you insight into what to expect — and how to approach your relationship with her parents.
If you are an elementary teacher, it can be easy to forget that students are different when they leave your classroom. Seek out the special area teachers. Ask them how the student behaves during PE, art or music. Not only will you gain valuable insight for your parent interactions, you will garner significant respect with your specials teachers.
If you are a special area teacher, make sure you consult with their regular classroom teacher prior to approaching a child’s parents. I remember my first year as an elementary school music teacher. When one of my students completely changed his behaviors in the last two months of classes, I arranged a parent-teacher conference. Only after a rather difficult conference with mom, during which she defended her son’s behaviors without question, did I approach the general classroom teacher. It was then that I found out the student’s father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer two months before. Although the communication breakdown occurred on many levels, I could have solved the whole issue by talking with the general classroom teacher first.
Building relationships with parents helps everyone
Teachers often say, “Teaching would be easy if I only had to deal with students!” The prospect of confrontational, heated parent meetings is one of the most uncomfortable aspects of a teacher’s duties, but the steps above are a good way to begin building a relationship with parents that benefits their child. There may still be parents with whom you will never see eye-to-eye, but this should be the exception rather than the rule. Make allies of your parents early; your school year will reflect the effort.
Jacquie McGregor has taught a wide variety of subjects in 15 years as an educator, including music, art, language arts and life skills. She currently works in online education as a course mentor, teacher and curriculum writer, at both the K-12 and university levels. She is completing her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focusing on arts programming in educational free markets.