Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dealing with Difficult Parents: Unexpected On-the-Job Training That I Never Learned in Teacher Ed

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I remember one of my first experiences with a parent who disagreed—strongly—with something I was doing in my class. I was caught off-guard and was unprepared to have the discussion. After stumbling through an essentially one-sided conversation that reduced me emotionally to the size of a stubby pencil, I was left sorting through shattered feelings. I was offended, angry and embarrassed. My pride was crushed. “Don’t they know that I am doing my best for their child?” I also had to face the devastating reality that I had some very naive assumptions about the way parents interact (or should interact) with teachers. Worst of all, I was overcome with doubt. In the many hours I spent dissecting and analyzing that short conversation, I spent most of my time wondering, “Was that parent right? Am I wrong? I am, after all, only a first -year teacher.” 

Thanks to the empathy and insights of my colleagues, I came to understand that these kinds of situations are not uncommon. Even with their support, however, the most resounding advice they gave seemed almost unachievable: Get thicker skin. I could accept that there would more confrontations of this nature in my future, but training myself to let it “roll off my back” seemed like trite encouragement masking a huge impossibility. As I have had more of these encounters, I have realized that I need to be careful not to let thicker skin be a substitute for avoiding the need to resolve real issues with students. It’s easy to say, “Oh, that parent has always been like that. Don’t sweat it. Just ignore her.” However, the reality is that behind every difficult parent is a student whom I am responsible for teaching and inspiring every day. I need to make sure that I am doing everything I can to create the best learning environment for him or her—even if Mom or Dad says mean things to me. 

I never learned about this in my teacher education classes, and I wouldn’t have known to comment on the need for it at the time I completed course evaluations. Instead, dealing with difficult parents has been more on-the-job training than anything else. 

Here is the most valuable knowledge I’ve gained (sometimes painfully) in pursuit of better relationships with parents: 

Set an appointment. Whenever possible, do not allow yourself to be ambushed by a parent. This is important for a couple of reasons: It gives you time to gather documentation, review notes, and carefully consider the comments and thoughts you’d like to share with a parent. Also, if you and the parent have time to thoughtfully prepare for a discussion, chances are that a lot of the negative emotions will be taken out of the meeting. More can get accomplished. 

This also includes a common happenstance when parents pull you aside either at the beginning or end of the day to ask to speak to you about something for “just a minute.” While you want to make yourself available to parents, chances are, the conversation will last more than a minute, and your lack of preparation and focus will result in an ineffective discussion. It’s important to provide the parent with your best information and attention. I’m a people-pleaser so it is difficult for me to deny these seemingly simple requests. Knowing this, I created a policy that goes home with students on the first day that spells out the procedure for meeting with me with an explanation of why I require appointments. Most parents appreciate and follow it. 

Get prepared. When setting up an appointment with a parent at his or her request, try to get an idea of the topic he or she wishes to discuss with you so you can do some preparation, such as pulling up grades, making copies of work, reviewing notes, etc. You can help to avoid a blindside by asking about the concerns and questions ahead of a scheduled conference. 

Document everything. Make sure you have a system in place to document your students’ behaviors, actions, and work as well as parent communication. If you think that something could even remotely come back as a question or issue, document it. Make a note. Make a copy. Print e-mails. Keep a telephone log. As an idea, I keep a file folder for each student, and on the inside cover, I document the date, time, and parties involved in all meetings, calls, letters, and e-mail correspondence for quick reference. I then take detailed notes of each meeting and place those in the file as well. Depending on the preference of your principal, share communication with him or her, especially when a parent shares that he or she is taking the matter to the administration. 

Meet with a third party. Don’t ever meet alone with a difficult parent. If you are dealing with a difficult parent, consider bringing a third party to the meeting. I invited my principal because she has relationships with the parents and can often act as a mediator between parties. I have also asked other teachers who either have the student in class or have witnessed the student’s behavior to attend. I don’t consider that ganging up because it is sometimes apparent that another set of objective ears and eyes is needed to facilitate a productive discussion. 

Be calm. If a parent begins to show anger or frustration, stay calm. Show compassion by repeating phrases like, “I understand” or “I appreciate your concern.” Parents sometimes want to vent. You are like the customer service representative who must sometimes take the brunt of a frustrated customer—whether you like it or not. Your calm demeanor could help diffuse the emotion on the other side. 

Be confident. This is where documentation and being prepared pays off. When you have your ducks in a row, you will exude confidence. Remember that your relationship with a parent is a partnership, not of the employee-employer variety. You should be accommodating when necessary, but you are a trained teacher. Your principal, superintendent, and school board entrusted you with a classroom where you are making the most informed choices for your students. Be honest about what you see in the classroom, but do it in a respectful way that shows you care about that student. 

Be realistic. The truth is that not every parent is going to like you, regardless of how kind, rational, and helpful you are. This is a hard one for the people pleasers of the teaching world. This may be a controversial statement, but I think it’s good if hurtful words and actions of others affect you. It shows that you have a tender heart, which can help you reach students. While it hurts your feelings, you cannot change people. You can influence them, though, so continue to be kind, rational, and helpful. Furthermore, continue to model these traits to your students as well so that they see a good example of handling a difficult interaction. Students need to learn how to be respectful communicators and how to resolve conflict. 

Be willing to listen (and, if necessary, adjust). A difficult parent may not say it in the most diplomatic way, but he or she may provide you with some food for thought about some of the methods and procedures you have in your class. One of the main things I’ve learned from situations with difficult parents is that I do need to evaluate and adjust certain aspects of my teaching and management so that expectations are clear to everyone. Through these experiences, I have eliminated a lot of gray area in my teaching, classroom management, and evaluation of students. I have learned that it is important to spell out expectations clearly and to be consistent in applying them. 

Recruit help. Many of my encounters with difficult parents occurred at the end of the day as they were picking up their children. Knowing this, my colleagues would alert me if they knew a parent was headed my way so that I could be prepared to meet him or her at the door. I did this so that students would not witness a confrontation in the classroom. In extreme cases, another teacher or school employee covered my room so that a confrontation was avoided altogether. 

Knowing how to handle difficult interactions with parents is a skill that every teacher should have, though it most likely won’t be learned from a Teacher Ed textbook. (Hello, experiential learning!) Take heart in knowing that all teachers experience difficult parents to one degree or another so it will happen to you. With the right attitude and perspective, though, you will become a better teacher because of them, and better teachers beget better students. 

What has worked for you when dealing with difficult parents? Leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you!


  1. Your "Be Realistic" paragraph is pure gold! Helicopter parents can land *plop* right smack on a tender teacher's heart as if it's their personal landing field! Well, hello, it's not! I find keeping a sense of humor helps. For example, the word "helicopter" has always made me laugh.

    1. I had never even heard of the term until I started teaching, but I can see where it comes from! It is pretty funny, and that's one way to keep things in perspective.

  2. This post is wonderfully written. Every point is spot-on, and gives sincere and accurate advice. I had a difficult (impossible, really) to please parent last year, and I made it through doing many of the things you suggest! It's always good to have a reminder handy... (thanks for the link!)
    Amy Marie

    1. Thanks so much! I'm glad to hear that you made it through last year's challenges. I also know what it's like to have that impossible-to-please parent as well, and it makes for a long year. I'm glad you can use this post!

  3. What a wonderful post and thanks for reminding me about being calm and diplomatic, as these can be difficult for me, as is the documentation piece. I am going to set up folders and have them on my desk. One thing I have found helpful when I have had a difficult encounter with a student, is to call the parent right away, before the student gets home, and let them know what happened. This has prevented many parents from hearing their child's point of view and marching down to school to give me a piece of their mind. I still get phone calls but the parents are not as angry and we are able to discuss the situation rationally. I teach special education, so this might not be something everyone experiences.
    Jannike Johnsen

    1. Thanks so much! Great suggestion! I absolutely agree with you about communicating with the parent before the student shares his or her side of the story. It saves a lot of stress on both the parent and teacher ends.

  4. Great reminders that, I'm sure, many of us had to learn the hard way.

    I remember one time a parent marched in and said, "I'm not happy with my son's report card." I responded, "I don't blame you." It completely took the wind out of her sails and we were able to have a calm discussion. I learned empathy works!

    Pinned this blog!
    Pam =)
    Desktop Learning Adventures

    1. I think you're right about learning the hard way! I totally agree that empathy works. A lot of the time, the parent is taking his or her frustration with the child on the teacher, and showing the parent that you understand what he or she is feeling helps to diffuse unnecessary confrontations. Thanks for sharing the post!

  5. I love this!! Required reading for all first year teachers (or second year, who were lucky enough to avoid these situations in their first year!)

    Tammy aka Madame Aiello @ Teaching FSL

  6. How do you deal with the difficult parent who is also a co-worker and exhibits adult bullying tendencies toward you in the workplace?

  7. What a sticky--and sad--situation. If I were in this situation, first, I would make sure to keep all interactions consistent with my established parent communication policy. If he or she insisted, for example, on trying to discuss his or her child outside of a set conference or meeting time, I'd keep reiterating that I would be willing to meet with him or her at a designated time when we could talk uninterrupted and with a focus on the student. Second, I would document EVERY encounter with this parent/coworker. Save e-mails. Document encounters in writing. And, if I thought this tactic would be effective, I would ask him or her if I could record his or her complaints, concerns, etc. using a SmartPhone's video or audio recording feature. Also, I would bring in a third party to witness all interactions and/or be a mediator between myself and the parent/coworker for every conference. What's happening in this situation is wrong so I would consider speaking to administration. I had a very supportive principal, whom I felt very comfortable approaching with issues like this. If that's not the case for this situation, I would still approach the principal with all my documentation, and I would ask the principal to mediate conferences between the parent/colleague and myself so that he or she could see the interactions first-hand. If the teacher finds that the administration will not help resolve this, he or she may want to consider speaking to a union rep to help. Staying professional in the face of this would be difficult, but it is important to maintain professionalism and take the high road so that nothing would come back to bite me. I hope that these suggestions are useful. It's sad that this would even happen considering that the parent is also a teacher.


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