Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.
What teacher has not received criticism from a parent? In my 30 years of working in education, I haven’t met a single educator who hasn’t. While the wrath of a parent can be stinging, we should always look for the message behind the critique.
During my early years of teaching, I took parent criticism personally, as an attack on my knowledge as a teacher. I felt that I had somehow failed as a person, an educator, and an employee of the school district. It took a lot of counsel from my mentor teachers for me to hear beyond the rant of the parent and grasp the real message they were sending. In many cases, the parent was expressing concern over how I was judging his or her child. Others were voicing years of frustration with the child’s performance in school while some were articulating a long-standing issue with the education system in general.
With a lot of guidance and advice from my much-wiser colleagues, I learned how to deal with being approached by critical parents. Here are eight tips for managing yourself and parents when it comes time for critical conversations:
1. Remember: It’s about the child. No matter how controversial the parent may be or how you react, keep in mind that we are all here for the students. Avoid letting your emotional response take over, turning the discussion into a power struggle. Repeat to yourself, “It’s about the child, it’s about the child.”
2. Only you control how you feel. Don’t take parent concern as a personal assault. I truly believe that all parents are looking out for what they perceive is best for their child. Remember, parents’ frustration, anger, and sense of injustice are valid. It is how they feel. Listen to what they have to say and validate how they feel. One way to support each other’s feelings is to say, “I sense you are upset,” or, “I feel your passion over this issue.” During these conversations keep in mind tip #1 (it’s about the child).
3. We all have our perspectives on reality. Parents’ feelings are based on their knowledge. Their information may be coming from their child or their view of how things happen in the classroom. Listen to their perspective and validate it. Be willing to accept when they are right, and be compassionate when correcting inaccuracies. Say, “What you are saying is _____. What I know to have happened is _____.” Don’t argue over who’s more right. Perspective is reality.
4. Try to reframe the conversation around the message. Too often, critical conversations can get caught up in emotions rather than the real issue. A good technique for getting to the heart of a discussion is to use rephrasing such as, “I hear you saying _____,” or, “What I understand your point to be is _____.” That way, you can help the parent articulate what the real issue or concern may be.
5. Focus intellectual energy on solving the problem. Instead of debating who’s right and who’s wrong, save your energy for coming up with solutions that are agreeable to all parties. Think through what you say and take the high road. Don’t allow yourself to be pulled down to reactions or gut responses.
6. Work together with the parent to find a solution. It’s in the best interest of the child that the adults work together to find a solution that benefits the child. In some cases, this may not be possible or may be difficult. If that’s the case, seek out the advice of your administration to create a solution in which all parties feel heard, validated, and understood, with the decision based on what’s best for the child.
7. Ask for an impartial set of ears. When conversations get tough with parents, it’s always wise to include others who can cut through the emotional tension and passion to get to the point. Ask the parent if it is okay for you to invite a school counselor, social worker, or community member to be a part of the conversation. You may even encourage the parent to ask someone unrelated to the issue to attend. The new set of ears may hear something neither of you could hear.
8. Reflect on the meeting. It’s always good to think about what occurred, how you handled yourself, and in what ways you may have done better. Think, too, about how you could have acted differently to avoid the conflict in the first place. Think of every critical parent encounter as a lesson learned.
The vast majority of my experiences with parents have been wonderful. They have been supportive, encouraging, understanding, and collaborative. There have also been a few occasions when I had to have those difficult meetings. They are not fun, but I was always able to reflect on what I learned to do or not do next time.
I’d love to hear your stories and tips for working with parents in both difficult and successful situations.
Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.
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