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How Can You Deal With Angry Parents?

Very carefully.

By Alain Jehlen

Dad and Mom, eyes wild, barge into your room screaming, "How dare you give Ashley an F?!"

Ashley smirks. The class cheers. The principal walks in.

OK, that's probably not going to happen. But furious parents can do a lot of damage, whether or not there's any basis for their anger. So in case Dad and Mom ever do show up mad, here are some ideas on how to cope, and maybe even turn the encounter into an opportunity for everybody—parents, kid, and you—to do better.

Our advice comes from experienced teachers we contacted, from NEA members who posted their ideas on an discussion board, and from Jerry Newberry, head of the NEA Health Information Network, who used to train teachers to work with parents.

Success, they agree, depends on moving from confrontation to problem-solving. That may not always be possible. "Sometimes parents are angry about other things in their lives and choose to take it out on teachers," wrote Leadville, Colorado, sixth-grade science teacher Peggy Pothast. "In that case, there is nothing you can do but let them vent."

But these techniques can greatly improve your chances of moving beyond the venting.

If possible, before meeting  with the parents:

Document the child's problem behavior and your conversations about it.

"I document every time I talk with a parent or a student and keep enough details to answer questions," says Leavenworth, Kansas, elementary school counselor Janice Troyer.

If you want parents to help you get the homework turned in, you need to tell them how often it hasn't been, because their child is not likely to 'fess up.

"A lot of kids, if they are not doing well, will hide information from their parents," says Newberry. "So the parent is missing information. The parent's tendency is to defend the child and assume the teacher is wrong. Then the teacher gets defensive. The solution is concrete evidence."

Don't talk to a parent—or write—when you're mad.

"Never ever reply immediately to an angry e-mail," says Linda Robb, a high school English teacher in Indianapolis. "Wait. Do not delay more than 24 hours, but give it time. And then call them instead of writing an answer."

Talk to other teachers who work with the child.

Often, a student with academic problems in one class is finding success in other subjects. If so, you want to be able to let the parents know. That may help them feel less defensive when you describe their child's performance in your class.

Decide what you want to come out of the meeting.

"Don't let the only goals at the meeting be the parents' goals," says Newberry. "They may just come in and yell at you because they think you've been unfair. Your goals should be child-centered—a clear plan of action.

At the meeting:

Start on a positive note.

"Robert is doing really well in ______."

Remember? That's why you talked to other teachers beforehand.

"Many parents come to a conference highly defensive," says Newberry. "Year after year, for 12 or 24 conferences, maybe all they've heard has been bad news. You have to be different: 'I'm here to help your child be successful.'"

Don't propose your solution first.

If the teacher lays out a plan, there's a good chance the parent will come back with, "We tried those things and they were an utter failure," says Newberry.

Instead, he advises, ask the parents to explain what's been done in the past and whether it worked. "Often a meeting fails just because the teacher talked first," he says.

Use 'active' or reflective listening.

"I hear you saying ______. Is that correct?" That's how Diane Postman, an early childhood special education teacher in Gloucester County, Virginia, summarizes this very effective technique, which lets the parent know you're sincerely listening. It also makes sure you understand.

"Often, the angry person is part right and part wrong," notes Postman. "If you begin by agreeing or acknowledging what they are saying, they will calm down."

Describe the problem in behavioral, nonjudgmental terms.

"Robert is not turning in his homework."

"Janet is distracting the students she sits next to. She argues with me and won't follow rules."

Don't bring the student in until you and the parents are on the same side.

If the parent is upset, it's better to work that out before the child is in the room, says Newberry. "Children need to see their teacher and parents singing off the same song sheet."

Agree on specific steps that you and the parents will take.

Pick two or three practical steps each of you can take. "Perhaps you and the parents can use a school Web site to communicate about schoolwork," says Newberry. "You will post the assignments, and the parents will check the site to see what's due and sign off on each completed task. You'll follow up with them when something isn't handed in."

If you're going to find something out for the parent, tell them when you'll get back to them.

After the meeting:

Follow up.

Agree to meet again, or at least to talk, in a few weeks. Don't wait half a semester to find out how your plan needs to be adjusted.

If you're unable to get information that you promised by the date you set, call them anyway with a progress report.

An Ounce of Prevention

By Bill Ferriter
Parents rarely intend to be the flame-breathing creatures you see in your nightmares. Here are three ways to build a positive relationship:

Recognize that parents are valuable partners.

Parents know a lot about their children. They have spent years nurturing and supporting the students whom you've sometimes just met! Ask for their thoughts and advice. Recognize them as experts and treat them as respected equals. Not only will you score points, you'll learn valuable information that will help you to do your job better.

Admit your mistakes.

You make thousands of split-second decisions every day. Who was pushing in the lunch line? Was a child being honest? Were the directions for assignments clear? Was I too harsh? Sometimes you make the wrong decision—you're human! Nothing is more damaging to your relationship with parents than to deny this reality. So apologize and move on.

Communicate early and often.

Parents are passionate about their children. They want to know what their strengths and weaknesses are. They want to hear what you are teaching in class, what the homework is, and how they as parents can extend and enrich learning at home. Yet often their only source of information is a cryptic conversation with a distracted 12-year-old—or, worse yet, picking through the pile of papers in the bottom of a backpack. (It's grungy down there!) Communicate with parents through e-mails and maybe a class Web site. Make phone calls—both to express concerns and to celebrate successes.

Bill Ferriter, (shown above in center) is a sixth-grade teacher from Wake County, North Carolina, and is active in the Teacher Leaders Network. His blog, The Tempered Radical, was named "Best Teacher Blog" in 2007 by EduBlog. This article is adapted from Teacher Magazine .

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