I have bad news. Young or older, veteran teacher or newbie, all of us will encounter difficult parents. Unfortunately, I don’t know any colleague who has never had a sleepless night because of an issue with a student’s parent or guardian. But the good news is that over the years, I have gained some insight and wisdom, and I have a few tips to share with you about how to handle these unpleasant situations.
Wait Before Responding To Difficult Parents!
Oh man….. If only I knew that I had the option to pause BEFORE I reacted when I was in my 20’s! For me, this has been an area of significant personal growth, but I just wish it had come much earlier in life!
I have learned that when I receive an email or phone call from a parent that triggers my emotions, it is always best to pause. Each situation will need to be addressed in a timely manner, but when appropriate, take the time you need to breathe and let the emotions ride for a bit. In my experience, a little time goes a long way in terms of being able to see a situation more clearly and respond more professionally.
Get A Second Opinion
I hope that you are fortunate enough to have an administrator you trust, or a wise colleague that you can go to. It can be very helpful to get feedback on a situation with a difficult parent from a different set of eyes- one that is not directly involved in the situation.
If a parent is being very disrespectful or abusive, it is the administrator’s job to take over at that point. You are not obligated to be mistreated.
Try To Diffuse A Difficult Parent
Now that I am a parent of a secondary-aged child, I have both the teacher and the mother viewpoint. I think it helps me understand a parent’s perspective a little better. When I receive an email or a phone call from a parent who is upset or angry, my first step, when I am ready to respond, is to let them know that I care about their child very much.
Often, the anger comes from a place of love and the need to protect their child. (YES- it is sometimes misguided!!) Parents want what’s best for their child, and even when we may not agree on what that is, I think we can all understand their sentiment. So step 1 is to reassure the parent that you care about their child and that you are going to help and move things forward.
To do this, you can start with a list of all the student’s talents, positive character traits, examples of good work, etc. After you explain that all of this evidence lets you know that “Johnny” is capable of better work or better behavior, a parent may be more open to working with you instead of against you.
Know Your Boundaries
Teachers have the right to NOT be abused by difficult parents or students. Fortunately, this has not happened often, but it has happened at least once to almost every educator I know. That phone call with the yelling, the accusing, the cursing….
That’s not ok.
Though this may be easier said than done, simply say, “This conversation needs to remain professional. If you cannot speak to me respectfully, I will end the call and reschedule with an administrator.”
Keep in mind that when parents react in this way, it is their fault and their problem, it is not a reflection on you. If you have trouble seeing this, turn the tables. Would you ever speak to a parent or a student in that way? Of course not. So you don’t need to listen to that from anyone else.
The last piece of advice I have for you is to try to document all contacts with this parent. Name, date, means of contact, what was said, etc. Creating a paper trail can be very effective when an administrator needs to get involved. It helps protect you and helps show the efforts you made to help a particular student. It would also be wise to document what’s going on with the student in question. Write down any behaviors, comments, etc. that might be relevant so that you have a good list to refer to. It can be hard to remember details later on, especially when we are under the stress of dealing with a difficult parent.
I had a lot more incidents with parents when I was a new teacher. I think it was a combination of being young and being seen as less competent, and also the fact that I was young : ) and a lot less skilled at avoiding situations in the first place or diffusing them more quickly.
When you encounter a difficult parent, keeping in mind their motivation will help you resolve the situation more quickly and with more satisfaction for you and for the family. Remember that we are part of a team to produce healthy, happy and skilled students so they may become productive members of our society. It is both a HUGE responsibility and a great honor.
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