One of the most daunting tasks that educators will face is interacting with hostile or aggressive parents. You or another faculty member did or said something to the parent or, more likely, his or her son or daughter. Being able to appropriately and effectively deal with parents in such situations is one of the most challenging tasks to face, especially when the parents may be right. Fortunately, in most schools, only a few students are a real struggle. Although all students have strengths and areas for growth, for the most part, parents do a good job raising their children.
“You do not have to prove who is in charge; everybody knows who is in charge.”
Think about the best teachers in your school. How often must they prove who is in charge in their classroom? Almost never. Now think about the least effective classroom managers in your school. How often do they try to prove who is in charge? Most likely, several times every hour! And, as a result, the students in their classrooms try to prove them wrong. This same idea applies when working with challenging parents.
Effective teachers, educators, and administrators never argue, yell, use sarcasm, or behave unprofessionally. The key word in that sentence is never. There are several reasons to adopt this credo. One of them is that in every situation there needs to be at least one adult, and the only person you can rely on to act as the adult is you. I also believe that it isn’t a good idea to argue with difficult people. You will not win.
Difficult people may argue a great deal of time in every aspect of their lives. They argue at home, are confrontational at work, and probably have a great number of tense conversations on a regular basis. People can control how many arguments they get in. People also determine how often they yell or use sarcasm to make a point. We can teach others new ways to interact, not just polish other people’s inappropriate skills. When we believe that the difficult people are doing the very best they know how, then each of our missions should be to help them learn better behavior.
I believe educators have a responsibility to consistently model appropriate behavior to everyone with whom we come in contact. We should do so 100% of the time. If you question this, ask yourself two questions: Do I expect the students in my school to behave appropriately 100% of the time? and Do I hope that parents treat me with respect and dignity 100% of the time? If your answers to these questions are yes, then you must behave professionally 100% of the time.
The impetus for developing strategies for working with our most challenging parents is very simple: Such strategies will make our lives easier. At times, we all must work with parents who are angry or upset with them or their schools. If we do not resolve a parent’s concern successfully, the problem and the parent’s feelings will linger and probably escalate. Another reason for us to develop successful techniques is to teach other teachers and school staff and help teachers to confidently, effectively, and productively interact with parents.
Simply asking teachers to contact parents more often will not change anything. If we would like new teachers, as well as more experienced staff, to initiate contact with parents, it is important that they learn how. It is unrealistic to expect all teaching staff to inherently know how to talk to parents.
For teachers to initiate more contact with parents and be more comfortable when parents contact them, we must teach them what to say. Developing a particular approach to doing something that you are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with can be very helpful in building your confidence. There is an old saying that the best way to have the last word is to apologize. This saying may be most applicable and effective in working with difficult parents. One of the best ways to defuse any situation is to apologize. However, the specific wording is important because it can help us calm the waters and yet retain our dignity.
It is very difficult to say, “I was wrong.”, and even more difficult when it isn’t true. But there is one way we can approach all situations that will help satisfy even the most aggressive parents while allowing us to be honest, and that is to say, “I am sorry that happened.” This phrase is applicable in myriad situations. It is essential to adopt a sympathetic tone and manner when using this technique. Rudeness, arrogance, impatience, or sarcasm makes a bad situation worse.
Imagine that you receive a phone call from an irate parent who is a consistent complainer with ‘attitude’. The parent belligerently exclaims that their son, Jamal, was being picked on in the hallway at school that day and nobody did anything about it. You check around and found out that a couple of other boys shoved Jamal against the wall, threatened him, and called him names. Obviously, you know little more about the situation than what the parent has just told you. But you can still say, “Mrs. Smith, I am sorry that happened. I appreciate you calling to share this information and I will make sure to look into it tomorrow and visit with Jamal to see if he has any more details to share. I will also make sure that I visit with the other boys that were involved, but I sure am sorry that happened.”
Examine closely what you said. You did not assume any responsibility for the incident, but you expressed regret that it happened. You might be thinking to yourself, “I am not sorry that it happened; that is a lie.” Well, it isn’t true if you add a second part to the statement. With the most unpleasant parents, I say out loud, “I sure am sorry that happened.” But to myself I add, “Had it not happened, I would be doing something other than talking with you right now!” That’s the real truth.
This technique enables us to help parents feel that we see things from their point of view while we retain dignity in the situation. This approach is empathic and particularly appropriate for face-to-face interactions. If a parent storms into your office and vents about a situation concerning their child, stating that you are sorry that it happened may be very beneficial. If the parent’s complaints are about a teacher, this is also a productive approach. You are not blaming or defending; you are truly sorry that the situation occurred. Getting parents calmed down and into “willing to listen” mode is an important step to addressing their concerns.
Even if you initiate the conversation, this tool is appropriate. If I have to call a parent and share that his or her child was caught cheating or is being held after school, I say that I really am sorry that it happened. This helps develop some common ground with a parent. Because, regardless of his or her disposition, the parent is probably equally sorry that it happened, too. And in any type of negotiation, establishing some commonalities is an important step to settling the issue in a way that both sides can live with.