Are you unsure of what to do when approached by a visibly aggrieved parent?
As a parent, I recognize that when it comes to our children, sometime immediate calm isn’t the first reaction. When it comes to issues concerning our children and school, we sometimes put on our armor looking for a battle. I don’t mean to generalize all parents, but it is true that sometimes emotions can get the best of us when it comes to addressing a situation concerning our children. Teachers who have children of their own have a better feel for the parental thought process. Yet when we think of the demographics of urban teachers and urban parents, there are some barriers to effective communication and understanding. With all of that said, the urgency of the moment when aggrieved parent speaks to teacher does not lend time for a discussion on the politics of teacher and parent communication. As a teacher, you need to know what to do right then and there. There may or may not be an administrator present to back you up. You have to be able to stand on your own two feet and fast of you will lose an ally in that parent and worse, the respect of their child who sits in your classroom. Here is what you should do:
- APOLOGIZE – even if you are not “wrong,” take the initiative to take ownership of the issue: I apologize for my role in why (INSERT NAME HERE) is not having a positive experience in my classroom. I also apologize if I have failed in my communicating to you what I see happening with (INSERT NAME HERE) in the classroom. The first priority is to diffuse anger and frustration to a level where you and the parent can speak about solutions. An apology can go a long way in making that parent comfortable with you as the conversation continues forward.
- BE AGREEABLE – this means that you ought to compromise with the parent. Agree with them on the basics: we want the child to succeed, we want the child to academically perform well, and we want the child to feel safe and secure. From there, agree (compromise) on proposed solution and the road for getting there.
- HAVE A PLAN OF ACTION – don’t go into a conversation without a plan to help that child get from where they are to where everyone wants him or her to be. These conversations MUST be solutions oriented. Pointing out the problems means nothing to a parent and here is why. Even if the child is totally in the wrong, they are a child. You and the parent are the adults and you actually went to school for education. They may know their child, but you know more about the formal aspect of classroom instruction and classroom management. You are the expert (believe it or not). Make sure you come to the table with a plan, but do not be condescending. Have your evidence together and be ready to offer solutions.
- HIGHLIGHT THE GOOD THINGS THE STUDENT HAS DONE – make sure you highlight the positives about the child; positives about his or her personality and positives about their work. The conversation is not a deficit based one. It’s a conversation rooted in understanding the talent and gifts of a child and how can you and the parent partner in how to get the best out of that child. Don’t lose sight of that.
- DISPLAY YOUR KNOWLEDGE ABOUT AND CARE FOR THE STUDENT – this is a bit more nuanced than number 4. One thing that shows a parent that you actually care for their child is when you can speak to an aspect of that student’s personality. For example, you notice that the child is always more self-assured when he or she is working in isolation rather than when working with his or her peers. When a parent is aware of that level of care expressed on your part, they may be more likely to accept your input and also offer you leverage with their child moving forward.
- DOCUMENT THE CONVERSATION – DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT and DOCUMENT. There are laws in various states about whether or not you can tape a conversation without the other party’s knowledge of it, however you can ask if the conversation can be taped. I wouldn’t do that per se. What you can do is take copious notes; minutes of the meeting/discussion. As soon as you do, type an email of your notes to the parent and carbon copy your administration. Keeping everyone in the loop protects you in addition to keeping you and everyone else accountable moving forward.
- HAVE AN ADMINISTRATOR PRESENT – if not for the initial meeting (because it was spur of the moment), certainly for the next one. Especially if you are a new teacher (and your school is without a union), you want administrative backup for the following reasons. First, you’ll have another set of eyes and ears to corroborate what was said and done by all attendees. Second, you’ll have support from an administrator who will serve as a collaborator as you and the parent attempt to solve the problem. Lastly, you keep your administrator in the loop – administration hates surprises. The last thing you need is for a meeting to go bad and that parent go to the principal and blind side him or her.
- MEET IN OPEN QUARTERS– don’t meet where no one is around. If you can, meet in an administrator’s office. If that is not feasible, meet in your classroom with the door open. Both you and the parent should be easily seen if someone walks past your door. Meeting in close quarters where no one is around is not a good idea in case there is nothing you can do to assure the aggrieved parent. You want to be in an open area so that others are aware that you are meeting, that the parent is angry and that you are doing what you can to address the issue. A cloud of witnesses is never a bad thing.
- REACH OUT TO THEM FIRST, IF YOU CAN – this is a long shot (you probably will not have the chance to), but if you can head off the aggrieved parent before they arrive to school, you should do that. Address them where they are and offer to meet with them. This is an attempt to get control of the situation prior to their arrival. Again, this may not be available to you as an option, but if so, take it.
- STAY IN CONTACT WITH THEM – moving forward, promise to stay in regular communication with that parent (as you should with all of your parents – but I am aware there are so many things on your plate). But you must manage your parents, like you would your students. Some parents need that regular contact while others just want to be contacted if something is wrong – with the occasional good report. Gauge where this parent is and meet their communication needs with either a phone call or email and set up another time for them to come in to speak with you. Offer them the opportunity to come into your classroom to observe. Opening yourself up to that parent will go a long way in establishing them into a trusted ally.
Remember that there are things that have gone on behind the scenes that can lead to any parent approaching you about their child with some hostility. You may not be the source of the parent’s hostility, but you may be the person in front of them when their anger is at its peak. Make sure that you remain compassionate, have your evidence to speak to the truth of whatever the matter is, and speak to the parent with love. Doing those things will ensure that you get the best response.
Let’s continue to press towards the mark!