The Secrets of a Good Parent - Teacher Communication - A Brief Handbook For Teachers
Editor's note: Some good material here on the importance of communicating with parents, which is after all, the theme of this website. It's a good and simple starting point for dealing with challenging parents, although we do recommend our book: Building Bridges Between Home and School: The Educator's / Teacher's Guide To Dealing With Emotional And Upset Parents.
The Difficulties Teachers Face
Besides the obvious challenges of classroom management, curriculum development and ever-increasing mounds of paper work, teachers often have to face the difficulty of having to work with a parent who does not want to work with them.
While many parents are helpful, cooperative and responsive, there are some who can be exceedingly challenging, particularly when your contact with them comes at the end of the day and you are both already tired. These parents can yell, accuse, criticize, act belligerently, entitled, defensive or, conversely, fail to be in contact entirely. Understandably, many teachers are left bewildered, hurt and angered by this behavior. Some take it personally and wonder what they've done. Others may dismiss it, and so doing, neglect pursuing that relationship at all, which, in the long run, doesn't help anyone at all.
Why Parents Respond The Way They Do
It may not make the behavior any more pleasant but it can help teachers engage with these parents by understanding that parents sometimes come to the classroom with notions that predispose them to being defensive or difficult. They may expect to have a negative experience for reasons having nothing to do with you.
Perhaps their childhoods were harsh or academics were particularly grueling or punitive for them. Perhaps as adults it is their chance to finally rebel and draw the line in the sand, even when it doesn't need to be drawn anymore. Many adults cover their own insecurities by acting fierce or non-responsive. If a parent has had a negative experience with school or they feel shameful about their own level of education, it may manifest in posturing with his/her child's teachers.
People most typically don't consciously choose aggressive or dysfunctional behaviors. They learn them and usually come from environments in which the behavior was needed, adaptive and helped them survive in some way. This is not an excuse for it, merely an explanation. And when we understand what moves people, we can better help them.
Common Traps & Pitfalls
Fighting Fire With Fire:
When we respond to anger and frustration with more of the same, we perpetuate and increase the problem. If a parent needs to vent their suspicions, criticism and confusion - let them. Unless you know you've made a mistake and are covering it up, it is decidedly not personal. A parent that is raging about their child's difficulties in class was almost surely raging before he/she got into your classroom. A parent that expresses helplessness and makes you feel responsible was almost certainly doing that elsewhere as well. See the person and the problem before you with a detached compassion. If, in fact, you have made an honest mistake or there are things you don't know and don't understand about your student, it's your job to say so and let the parent know how you are working on it. Elicit the parent's alliance. He or she knows the child better than most others. Let the parent know what an important and valuable resource he or she is.
Taking The Short View With Parents:
When you only see what's in front of you and forget about where you want to go professionally with your students, you start to lecture instead of listen, act before you assess and cut to the chase instead of taking the time to develop a relationship. Get to know the parent sitting in front of you. It's true that your time is limited. But if it requires more than one visit or you need to solicit the help of your school social worker to conduct home visits so that it is more convenient for the parents, do so. Mind you, some people feel very comfortable about home visits and some do not. Unless there is serious reason for a more assertive stance, do not force this. Offer it as a service and not as an investigative tool.
Talking Down - Condescending and Patronizing:
No teacher deliberately intends to talk down to a parent. But when you're rushed, fatigued, overworked or accustomed to acting in "teacher mode" all day, it can happen easily if you're not vigilant. No one, including teachers, wants to be lectured or judged.
Knee-Jerk Judging Of Parents:
Everyone but everyone makes assumptions. It is the way human beings engage socially in a complex, fast-moving culture. We make decisions based on how someone dresses, how he walks, talks or smells. Some of these assumptions may turn out to be true, some false. We judge people based on limited information even though we know it to be less than accurate and way less than useful in many cases. It may be rumor, a person's presentation or a difference in social status or culture.
We need to stay very aware of this tendency in ourselves and be ready to receive new information that can change the course of a parent-teacher conference, and in turn, the course of a child's academic career.
Handy Tips to Avoid Common Mistakes
1. Establish your Position Early - Let the parent know you're a collaborator. Send a card, have a chat, make a call. Express your excitement about working with the child. Make it clear that although you're the expert on education, the parent is the expert on his/her child and that you welcome, even need, his or her input.
2. Switch Gears - Take a deep breath and take a breath from the rest of the school day. Working with a parent is a peer-process. Do a little self-check on your inner attitude and tone: Had a tough day? Annoyed about something at home? About something to do with the parent? Can you create a calm and welcoming feeling? Sometimes a trusted colleague can be very helpful in providing a reality check.
3. Dealing with Defensiveness - If a parent comes in angry and you respond to the anger, you can be sure it will escalate. Even if you feel attacked, you don't have to attack back. Assume it's not you causing the reaction rather that it's about "the school," the frustrations of parenthood, anxiety, past experiences. If the parent is actually angry at YOU, maintain eye contact, listen till he's finished and try to understand what's motivating it and if there is in fact something you can fix.
4. Listen and Empathize - By detaching it's easier to listen calmly and emphatically. When we do, it's amazing how people suddenly soften and calm down. Listening carefully is also the smartest and easiest way to discover the real issues and not be misled by what is presented.
5. Keep an Open Mind - Set aside any assumptions. The truth is that for the most part we really don't know the full story. We get bits and pieces from different sources, many of whom are also getting it second or third hand. Preconceptions, like out-and-out prejudices, can get in the way of a productive relationship.
6. Assume the Best - At least until proven otherwise. Clearly, if you need to respond to a dangerous or seriously negative situation, it is your legal and moral responsibility to do so. Until then, however, assume a parent wants what is best for his or her child - even if they themselves are not sure what that is - and actively look for a way to connect, educate and collaborate.
7. Take Time and Make Time For You - That means on both fronts: professional and personal. Give yourself enough time to meet with a parent comfortably, if at all possible. And give yourself the time you need to unwind with your peers, your spouse or alone. If you're terribly stressed, take a break. Give yourself what you give to everyone else.
c. Judith Acosta, 2009. All rights reserved.
Judith Acosta, LISW, is a licensed psychotherapist, crisis counselor and homeopath in private practice in New Mexico. She is the co-author of The Worst Is Over: What To Say When Every Moment Counts, hailed as the "bible of crisis communications." She lectures around the country on Verbal First Aid, trauma, stress, and intuition development. She may be reached at her website: http://www.wordsaremedicine.com