All teachers, no matter how experienced, will face a time when parents are frustrated with them. In most cases, it may not be because the teacher has done anything wrong. Frustration is often the result of unmet expectations or misunderstanding. No matter the reason, there are a few things teachers can do to help ease the tension.
Seek first to understand. In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey coined Habit 5 as “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Stephen Covey himself stated that it was one of the most challenging habits to master. When meeting with a parent, don’t try to defend yourself or your methods, at least not at first. Your first job is to listen, not with intent to respond, but with the intent to understand the parents’ perspective.
So what does active listening look like? It means two things: First, you should be able to restate (or reflect), in your own words what the parents are saying. Second, you should be able to state the emotion the parents are demonstrating. For example:
“You sound frustrated and confused because I haven’t communicated about…”
If you practice reflecting both their statements and emotions, most people will trust that you have heard them and they will likely even affirm that you are hearing them. Listen for it. You may surprise yourself in that you will also begin taking on a new perspective.
Don’t forget about the second half of Habit 5: seek first to understand, then to be understood. After the parents believe that you understand them, you can then make your case and offer ideas. At this point, you can politely help the parents understand your perspective. Be sure you come prepared with examples and data supporting your case. Parents might slip back into previously voiced frustration. If they do, be prepared to return to listening mode. Sometimes, you may not get a chance to be understood, so don’t try to push being understood.
Be open to ideas. It’s easy to get stuck in your own way of doing things or believe that your perspective is the right one. Be aware of this tendency in yourself and notice if you slip into usual patterns. The parents know their child better than the school and they may provide some innovative ways to work with their student. If you and the parents are both stuck for ideas or can’t agree, it may be time to seek help from others.
Ask for help. When you’re stuck or need assistance, another teacher, the principal, counselor, or school psychologist can be excellent partners in thinking through the situation. The principal can be especially helpful if you reach an impasse with the parents and can’t come to an agreement. The principal can bring forth resources that you may not have thought of and can provide the parents reassurance of follow through. School psychologists and counselors can be helpful in thinking through and supporting behavioral or emotional challenges.
Communicate the positives. This one is so important. Always communicate positive attributes about the student to the parents and show them that you care about their student’s success. If your communication is primarily about negative behavior or lagging academics, don’t be surprised if the parents react negatively or defensively.
Tell them, specifically, what you love about their student. Demonstrate how excited you are when the student makes good choices and experience success. Parents will begin to assume that you have good intentions if they know you care.
Occasionally, you will encounter a student who is a significant challenge to your abilities as a teacher. See this as a learning opportunity. The difference between a good teacher and a great teacher is being willing to take on the challenge of learning how to work with even the most challenging students. When parents see this willingness to learn and to help their student, they will see how much you care.
Have you been in one of these situations? What has worked for you?