By Stephanie Filio
My city is voting tonight on face-to-face versus virtual classes for the fall, and it has gotten me very inspired. People are passionate, concerned, and very vocal on all sides. Is every school district across the United States experiencing this? Will this change the relationships we have with parents and the community as they begin to direct angry comments toward school and educators?
I watched our televised school board meeting regarding the upcoming vote until I just had to log off for my own mental well-being. It is difficult to hear some of the things public commenters are saying about educators, and it is also very sad to see these same people struggling with such intense emotions and worry about their children. At the end of the day, everyone wants what is best for their student, and when a decision of this magnitude has to be made, it seems that someone will get hurt either way.
Responding to Parents
Of course, disheartened parents are not new to the 2020 pandemic. Responding to angry parents can be intimidating, and these moments can follow us throughout the day and into our homes. It is hard to find a balance during uncomfortable calls where we hear parents out and also advocate for ourselves, but it can be done. The hallmarks of patient communication are:
1. Check in with your own feelings and remain a calm force, even in the middle of a storm. In counseling, we say that we can be a mirror and reflect productive communication and disposition by our steadfast composure.
2. Do not interpret parent frustration as personal criticism. Sometimes these angry comments are simply a parent’s need to vent about their own difficulties with their child, and often a parent’s comments will provide clues about things going on at home that are adding to parenting stress.
3. Discuss something you love about a child with their parents and give parents details about things you know about their child to show the rapport and trust you have built.
4. Listen to and validate the parent’s anger by rephrasing their language. For example, maybe a parent says, “This school never does anything about bullying. My kid needs help!” Reframe the parent’s language by responding like so, “I understand your frustration. It is really difficult to see our children hurting. It sounds like you need more help getting to the bottom of this, and what we have already tried needs reinforcing. Let’s talk about some possible next steps.”
5. Use careful word choice to avoid encouraging more negative feelings. Avoid why questions, for example, which can produce defensiveness. Use we instead of you for a show of solidarity.
Make a plan that includes solicited advice from the parent. Show how your interventions will take some weight off the parent’s shoulders and help their student in the long run. Provide resources or referrals when warranted and helpful.
What We Can Learn
Because our industry is a public service, we educators are used to being under the microscope of scrutiny. In a way, it is good because we are here to serve our youngest generations and should be listening to the community. But it can feel exhausting at times. I try to process this public battle over everyone’s opinion on education (and I do mean everyone has an opinion, from parents to students to community observers) by finding the lesson within. I cannot let defensiveness bring me to a place where I forget what my job is and what my purpose is in the lives of my students and their families. Though I am not always positive and can sometimes feel brought down by the angry comments I hear and see on the news or social media, I try to focus on the following questions to broaden my understanding:
- What can I learn from what people are saying, even when I am told I have failed?
- What can these comments teach me about what is important to my students and their families?
- How do I use this information to help students view me as separate from the controversy and here for them?
The first component to consider when speaking with someone who is unhappy with a new school procedure or practice is that this person’s comments may offer a better understanding of what you can provide students. If a parent feels the system has failed their child, for example, they may provide insight on what they think could have been done differently. As a school counselor, what I hear is the parent describing an obstacle that has made learning difficult for their student. I can then validate the parent’s feelings without agreeing to everything they say.
Recently, I have heard a lot of comments from parents about how our virtual schooling choice and program has been deficient and ineffective. Parents often cite their students’ lethargy, disengagement, and withdrawal. Though I may feel compelled to discuss actions that parents could take in the home or to defend our school’s efforts, I can instead focus on the student and the likelihood that they have been traumatized by the abrupt changes in their life. Students may be experiencing feelings of sadness (and possibly situational depression), which are accompanied by a loss of interest in daily activities. My work then is in reframing the conversation in hopes that it can become more productive so that resources can be sent home for assistance. After validating parents’ concerns as serious and needing attention, I can offer interventions such as check-ins, regular parent updates, resources, weekly checklists, goal-setting prompts, and/or mentorships.
Keeping a Generous Perspective
Returning to school this fall after such an incredibly tumultuous spring and summer, there will be many hurdles that we will have to jump over on our own, together, with our families, and with our students. We have all experienced the wild 2020 ride, which has included rapidly changing ups and downs. Though we have all been through broad trauma together, we have also each had our own difficult experiences. Moving forward, it will be important for all of us to process our emotions while listening intently to the needs of others.
There are always diamonds in the rough, even in the toughest conversations. I am finding that, especially during these difficult and charged times, I have to think deeply about how I can best be present in communications and make tough conversations as productive as possible. Here are a few things I have found important to remember:
- Try really, really hard to keep your own voice the loudest one in your head. When someone is criticizing you, it is easy to internalize the negative comments. By being mindful about your own thoughts, feelings, and strengths, you can stay confident and better hear the beneficial information instead of focusing only on the requests that are beyond your control.
- Listen intently to specific details about a student. When I respond to parents who are passionate about their stance on their child’s education, I try to pull out and hang onto the information they give about their child. If parents don’t provide this information, I ask more questions to steer the conversation in that student-centered direction.
- Offer solutions you have control over. Sometimes we do not have control over many of the things parents are upset about. We can let them know where they might be able to go to voice concerns over things we cannot change, and can provide interventions or school services for those that we can.
The second component to consider when speaking with someone who is unhappy, after listening for the lesson, is that it is important to acknowledge this truth: educators take every negative comment personally, even those spoken in generalities. We try our hardest not to, but we do. When someone says students are falling through the cracks, not learning, or being treated poorly, we take that upon our own shoulders.
Now more than ever, we need to give ourselves as much grace as we give our students. When we feel bruised, we need our administrators to give us some extra reassurance that we are doing a good job. When we feel under siege, we need to let parents know that these comments are hard for us to hear because we work very hard and we are incredibly affected by the barriers between us and our students.
No one promised us that educating children would be easy, and no one promised us perpetual solidarity. What we have been promised, by ourselves and by each other, is that we will remain steadfastly committed to the growth and development of all students. This might lead to tough judgment from others, self-evaluation, and advocating for what is right. We teach our students that “failure” is not a state of being, but a word used to keep us from taking an opportunity to learn and progress. This goes for us too. We were not perfect last spring, and we will not be perfect this upcoming year. But we likely will be more far-reaching than we could have ever imagined.
What we can do when we feel defeated or discouraged is use some of the negative comments we hear to better understand how we can structure our student and parent relationships to be proactive. We can advocate for our profession and what we believe is best and safest for our students while still providing our families with as much support as we can offer. This year especially, I hope that as school staff across the country hear negative input and criticism from the public about education, we keep one thing in mind: where someone else might see weakness and destruction of the education system they are used to, we educators see opportunities for innovation and adventure.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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