When asked to remember problems with parents, a teacher in Tennessee related this experience:
One mother stands out. She complained to the principal that I was not being attentive enough to her son. Somewhat immature, the boy still threw temper tantrums in second grade. His mother expected me to give him individual help with everything. She was a very large woman, intimidating, and one day she came to my class and asked to talk to me.
I thought uh oh, but was surprised when she volunteered to help in my classroom.
After a few weeks we had become chatty. She told me she so admired what I do and had no idea that teaching was so hard! What a blessing came out of that initially bad situation!
Most teachers can recall similar stories, with or without the happy ending.
A cover story in Time magazine in February 2005 documented increased pressure on educators in the United States(Gibbs 2005). Students challenge authority and parents trust teachers less, validating their child’s view of the classroom over the adult’s. School staff members end up dealing with students and parents more delicately than a few decades ago.
Problems take many shapes: disorganized parents who lose papers, hovering moms and angry dads, and of course absentee parents who never show up for anything. Private schools take even more heat, with high academic goals and expectations that misbehavior “shouldn’t happen in a Christian school.”
Let’s look at ways we can foster parent-teacher partnerships by setting a positive tone and structure to prevent misunderstandings, being prepared to respond to potential confrontations, and showing empathy and patience while processing conflict.
Prevent Problems: Proactively Establish Relationships and Structure
As the professional in charge of your classroom, set the tone early in the year for positive interactions with parents. Get a list of upcoming students in June and pray for them throughout the summer.
Contact families before school begins. In The First Days of School, Harry and Rosemary Wong encourage preschool or kindergarten teachers to schedule home visits, inviting parents to a back-to-school open house and handing them a list of supplies to have ready. Easing the transition means a lot to families.
I send my fifth-graders a handwritten postcard inviting them to orientation on the day before classes begin. When parents bring their children to arrange supplies in desks and cubbies, I get acquainted with parents and begin to forge connections.
After school begins, our back-to-school open house offers another opportunity for a good start with parents. In a short speech, I introduce myself, mention my training and experience, and outline my policies on grading, homework, and discipline. I hand out the class schedule, talk about the curriculum, and then point out ways they can support and help their students, urging them to contact me with any problem.
At the meeting, let parents know how you’ll keep them informed, perhaps with a weekly newsletter that you post to the school’s website, send by bulk e-mail, or print and send home by kid mail. Tell parents if you take calls at home or prefer a message during school hours. Ask them to let you know when to call them back.
Also, invite moms and dads to get involved in the classroom. Decide how much parent help you want, being aware of your own comfort level with the presence of other adults in the classroom while you’re teaching. The school where I teach has a mandatory family participation program, so parents often choose to work in classrooms to fill their volunteer hours while supporting their children.
Positive, clear communication with parents sets the tone for helpful interactions all year and prevents many problems.
Prepare for Problems: Research, Document, and Plan
In an ideal world, teachers would not have problems with parents, but in a fallen world, the question is more when than if. Prayer and a personal relationship with the Lord underpin the teacher’s preparation. Take Paul’s advice and “Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood …” (Eph. 6:11–12, NASB).
Next, devise a plan to use when needed. Bill Gallagher, a California teacher and administrator for forty years, gives these tips:
- Avoid discussing pressing problems when approached in an informal setting such as bus duty after school or a chance meeting in the grocery store. Set up a formal meeting at these initial contacts.
- Be prepared with documented information about behavioral problems or answers to questions on why a grade was given.
- Be positive and choose your words carefully. If the parent gets even a hint that you don’t like the child, all is lost.
- Assure parents you want the best for their child and would love to set up a system between home and school that can lead to solving the problem.
- When a parent has a history of difficult behavior, hold the conference in the principal’s or vice principal’s office. Make sure the administrator is versed on the problem as expressed by the parent. If possible, the teacher should direct the meeting. Stick to the point of working out a simple and manageable solution to which all parties can commit. Keep the meeting as short as possible without giving the impression no one cares. If the child is reasonably mature for his age, have him or her present because sometimes parents don’t get the whole picture from their child.
- Explore the possibility of special testing when appropriate. If indicated, the administrator can encourage parents to authorize it.
- If parents don’t approach you, use your intuition and careful observations to detect dissatisfaction. Take the initiative and innocently suggest meeting with the parents after school. This opens the door to finding out what’s on the mom or dad’s mind and shows a caring attitude.
If you’re a new teacher, learn your school culture. Familiarize yourself with school policies about potentially touchy issues like discipline, grades, and the dress code. If your school publishes a parent handbook, study it carefully. It’s invaluable to be able to direct parents to the handbook if they aren’t managing concerns according to policy. Our school’s parent manual spells out detailed steps for conflict resolution based on Matthew 18:15–17, discussing the matter only with the people involved at first and widening the circle only if needed.
Also, if you’re new to a school, ask about hot topics parents don’t want discussed with students at all or only in prescribed ways, such as puberty, sexuality, abortion, or drug and alcohol prevention. If these topics appear in the recommended curriculum, you may need to discuss with parents the importance of their children being given the facts about sensitive subjects in a Christian context.
Process Problems: Pray for Empathy, Show Patience
My grown children attended the school where I now teach, and I recall unwittingly giving teachers difficulties.
One morning my son’s kindergarten teacher called and said “I have Brian here with me.” I didn’t understand why she called until she sweetly informed me it was not a school day! The typical disorganized mom, I had either lost her newsletter, neglected to read it, or simply forgotten about the teacher in-service that day. There were good reasons for my overload, since I was helping manage a business and raise three children. Today’s families have even more frenetic lives and need our patience.
In addition, I was sometimes overprotective. When I was offended at ways my children were disciplined, I often talked to other parents instead of going directly to the teacher. Recalling my own failings as a parent helps me understand where parents are coming from.
In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says empathy is the root of compassion, and those with a talent for empathizing and connecting with people “can be excellent teachers.” They have good skills for reading the nonverbal signals of facial expression, body language, and tone of voice to infer what another person is feeling. Mirroring those emotions goes a long way toward defusing a tense situation.
“I’m sure if she were my daughter, I’d feel the same way,” you might say to a frustrated father. Expressing understating lays a foundation for communication. When emotions have subsided, you can present your point of view. You’ll have a better chance of being heard.
Working through disagreements requires patience, as the process may continue over days or weeks. Nurture yourself. Vent emotions in prayer to the Lord and find a confidante who will listen. Seek advice from your principal or a veteran teacher who can supply wisdom from experience. Humble yourself before the Lord, asking him to reveal if you’ve been wrong. Apologize to the parties involved, if appropriate. Follow the steps of conflict resolution based on scripture outlined above.
When it’s over, move forward, forgiving yourself and others, and using the lessons learned to improve your teaching.
Whether you’re dealing with minor irritations or a major emotional blowup, problems with parents are part of the workplace environment. Prevent as many as you can by establishing positive relationships and structure. Prepare for potential issues by researching your school culture and documenting touchy areas. Process conflicts with empathy, prayer, and patience. Remember, God is at work in our schools.
- Gibbs, Nancy. “Parents Behaving Badly: Inside the new classroom power struggle: what teachers say about pushy moms and dads who drive them crazy,” Time, February 2005, 40, 42.
- Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1995), 118–119.
- Wong, Harry K .and Rosemary T. Wong, How to Be an Effective Teacher: The First Days of School (Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications, Inc., 1998), 103.
- Scripture texts credited to NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation, 1960, 1962, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977.