How To Deal With A Difficult Parent
by Terry Heick
You’d heard about this parent from other teachers.
That this parent was a handful. Rude. Combative. Aggressive. Even litigious. In response, you worry, if just a little. You have enough to deal with, and butting heads with an angry parent–especially one angry just because–doesn’t sound like fun. You don’t get paid enough for that hot mess.
So you keep calm and hope to ride the year out. Maybe they won’t call. Maybe they’ll skip parent-teacher conferences. You’ve even considered grading their child a little easier just to avoid the hassle of it all.
We’ve all been there. Nothing can solve this problem, but there are ways to take the edge off so that you can open up the lines of communication and deal with the parent on equal terms so that they’re child has the best chance for success.
12 Ways To Deal With A Difficult Parents
1. Reach out first
Be pre-emptive. Reach out with a positive message to start off on the right foot.
2. Don’t patronize
And when you reach out, be authentic. Don’t pretend to be their best friend, nor should have that “nipping problems in the bud” tone. Don’t worry about “holding your ground” either. Just reach out as an educator to a member of your own community. You’re not selling them anything, and they’re not selling you anything. You’re both dutifully and beautifully involved on either side of a child.
3. See yourself
No matter how important the education of a child is, realize you’re simply a single cog in the life of that family, no more or less important than keeping the lights on, their job security, food and shelter, or any other reality of daily life.
4. Give them something
Not an object–a “handle” of some kind to make sense of the learning process. Something they can make sense of and understand and use when they speak to their child about education. Something less about the game of school and more about learning, curiosity, and personalization. (See here, for example–alternatives to “What’d you learn in school today?“)
5. Involve them
Keep your friends close and your…difficult parents…closer. Ask them to take on an authentic role in the classroom. Ask their opinion. Allow them to have a voice or show leadership. Give them a role in what their child learns. The fact that a parent has approaching zero authentic role in the learning process of their children is part of our challenge as educators. Help them find one.
6. Put them in a position to succeed
Just like a student, put the parent in a position to succeed. They may not have had a good experience in school, either as students, with siblings of your student, etc. Give them a reason to believe that you have the best interest of the family at heart–and that includes them.
7. Don’t judge them, or “handle them.”
Meet them on equal terms. For all of our overly-glorified differences, most people are fundamentally the same. We respond to pain and threats differently, and have unique ethical systems, but it’s easy to place yourself above someone even if you think you’re not doing exactly that.
8. Establish a common ground
An old sales technique. A favorite athletic team–or dislike for a rival team. A personal philosophy. Your own struggle as a person. Something to humanize yourself, and establish the overlap between yourself and the parent.
9. Focus on the work
This is the opposite of teaching and learning, where you focus on the human being (the student). In conferences and communication with parents, you can both see the child and what’s “best for them” very differently, but academic work has a chance to be more objective. Focus on the work and academic performance, and what you and the parent and siblings and other teachers, etc., can do to support the student in their growth.
Even in the midst of difficult conversations, always do your best to steer the focus back on the work, and the child themselves. The former is data/evidence, the latter the reason for the data/evidence.
10. Give them reason to see beyond the grade book
This is partly the problem with letter grades. So reductionist.
It’s easy to look at a grade book and both start and finish the conversation there. If that’s all they see, have a look at your curriculum and instruction, and see if you’ve given them ample opportunity to do otherwise. Talk less about missing work, and more about the promise and possibility of their child. Help them see that the school year is a marathon, not a series of sprints.
11. If all else fails…
If you have to, call for reinforcements, and document everything. Never feel bad about having another teacher in the room with you if you feel like a parent will be aggressive and you’re simply not comfortable with it. Better to depend on solidarity and hope than your own personal strength.
And document everything. Stay on top of grading, feedback, behavior management, missing assignments, your tone, sarcasm, etc. Document every call and email. Save exemplar work. Document differentiation, personalization, and other individual efforts in pursuit of the best interest of the student.
Whatever you do, no matter your analysis of the proximity between apples and trees, don’t hold the difficult parent “against” the child, even subconsciously.
12. Take it personally, then don’t
If you have a “difficult parent,” and in spite of your best efforts it all falls apart, I’d say don’t take it personally but it’s hard not to. So fine–internalize it. Own it. Talk to colleagues (better than a spouse, whose emoptional reserves you may want to save for more pressing issues in education). Cry if you need to.
And then let it go.
*previously published at TeachThought.com