8 Ways to Tame an Angry Parent

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Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/5E9Ki
Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/5E9Ki

I remember the first time I confronted an angry parent. It was my second or third year of teaching; I was just learning about performance based assessment, and because I wanted to provide my students meaningful feedback on their work, I found myself documenting nearly every single thing they said and did and produced.

Not only was this exhausting and inefficient, it actually created a good amount of distance between myself and my students, and this did not go unnoticed.

The very first email I received from angry mom was vague enough to tie my stomach in knots: We’d like to schedule a meeting with you to share some concerns and work toward resolutions.

Uh, okay.

It didn’t get better from there. Both parents arrived as scheduled, just after the last bell on an especially warm afternoon. My head was pounding from the heat and the tension that tightened my jaw.

I was already on the defensive.

“Our son is really struggling in your class. We don’t understand why he has to do all of these projects anyway, and we don’t want you sitting at your desk so much when he’s doing his work. He tells us that’s all you do. You sit there taking notes.”

Well, not exactly.

Most of the time, I was actually on my feet making observations and documenting what I was noticing on the way too many rubrics and other assessment tools I was using at the time. My intentions were good ones!

And anyway, who were these people to be so critical?

Their kid never told me there was a problem, anyway.

It was clear that these were helicopter parents who needed to let go and let their son advocate for himself.

Right?

Right?

Of course I was right.

By the time the left, I agreed to confer with their son during each class. His parents felt I needed to talk with him more frequently, learn more about his needs, and spend more time intervening and providing him verbal feedback than “scribbling notes” all period. I nodded and smiled and finessed them as well as I could, eager to get them out of my room so I could go home and vent to my husband.

I left feeling ashamed and angry and abused that afternoon.

I never trusted those parents again.

I never trusted that student either.

And that’s a shame, because anger aside, those parents were right.

Maybe you have a story like this.

Fast forward ten years, and I’m suddenly on the other side of the table in my own daughter’s parent teacher conference with her entire team. We had concerns about the goings-on in one particular classroom–a genuine interest in the curriculum and the instructional approaches her teachers would be using, and a need to know that she would be doing some sort of inquiry work that year.

Memories of that other miserable conference came rushing back to me, inspiring me to take a more thoughtful approach. I wouldn’t send a vague email that put teachers on the defensive but rather, I’d send a message well ahead of my arrival making our interests clear.

I’d give them time to prepare responses. I’d speak to what impressed us, where our daughter was thriving, and what we appreciated about them. I’d frame my concerns as questions rather than assumptions. I’d let them know what kinds of experiences we were hoping for that year. I’d ask what we could do at home to support them. I’d ask for their feedback.

And despite these efforts, I still left that conference feeling ashamed and angry and abused.

Because I was. Badly, actually.

However, it occurs to me now that when teachers spend most of their days being criticized and even mocked by some parents and even colleagues, anyone who dares to question them becomes the enemy. Unless I was happy, I was the enemy.

Maybe you have a story like this.

Teaching and parenting are incredibly emotional endeavors. Nearly everything is uncertain, the stakes seem very high, and we’re often judged harshly when we fail.

And how can we not fail? Come on, now.

Maybe we all just need to give one another a break and help one another out.

There are more than a few ways to tame angry parents, but they require teachers to act in service to the very people who may have put them on the defensive. Consider these approaches.

8 Ways to Tame an Angry Parent

  1. Don’t take it personally. Their anger is often a reflection of their fear, their sense of helplessness, and their desire to help their child. It’s not all about you.
  2. Listen for the problem, and then reframe it. Regardless of how angry they are, somewhere in their conversation with you, they will likely share their perceptions about the problem. Wait for it, and then restate it.
  3. Validate their perceptions. Yours might be very different, and that’s okay. But parents typically have perspectives that teachers benefit from. Rather than reacting to their assumptions or tone, listen for this perspective and then validate it.
  4. Tell them what you’re learning. After you consider the problem and the perceptions shared, describe what you’re learning from them and how it will help you address the problem.
  5. Thank them. That’s right–even if they are angry, thank them for taking the time to meet with you, for being honest with you, and for having the courage to start uncomfortable conversations.
  6. Reassure them. Tell them what you will do to address the problem and attend to their perceptions.
  7. Invite them to support you. After you truly validate and plan to act on their concerns, share your warmest feedback about their child. Pose questions that reveal the nature of any problems you’re facing as the teacher, and invite them to problem solve with you. Let them know how you will need their support.
  8. Plan to check in again. Invite them to meet with you again, establish a good time to call home, or agree to send an email or a note updating them on what you are doing and what you are noticing. Assure them that you are interested in hearing the same from them.

Are there deal breakers? Sure there are. When parents fail to clarify needs or illuminate potential problems but instead scream and yell or use other forms of physical intimidation to bully you, you can and should end the meeting.

This is very rare, though.

Many times, teachers are put on the defensive by parents who express dissatisfaction by asking thoughtful but very difficult questions. This can feel intimidating, but it isn’t abuse, and it isn’t a deal breaker. The fact that the questions illuminate your shortcomings doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of asking, and not all angry parents are abusive ones.

Conversations like these can be a bit ugly for sure, but they offer us the opportunity to learn more about our students and ourselves too.

I’ll bet some of you may be wondering why I’m not addressing the other side of the table. Parents need to support teachers too, I know. I hope you’ll drop by later this week and contribute to that conversation. I’ll start it in my next post.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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