While there are many supportive and amazing parents out there, unfortunately all teachers will eventually deal with a parent interaction that is less than pleasant. Maybe it comes via e-mail. Maybe it comes during a conference. When it happens, it can consume your thoughts and deal a huge blow to your self-esteem. For the first few years of my teaching career, I took every criticism personally, which is a recipe for burnout. I thought if a parent was upset with me, I must not be trying hard enough or doing a good enough job. I now try to remember that no one is perfect and criticism is necessary for growth in any profession. I also used to struggle to empathize with parents. I’m sure it is tough for parents to deal with negative news about their child. It can be incredibly frustrating and emotional to deal with the highs and lows that come with a child’s life at school. It should be no surprise that tense moments arise.
Of course, there are scenarios where I have been in the wrong, and I all I can do is sincerely apologize. There are also times when a parent is angry at a situation beyond their control, but the teacher has to bear the brunt of that frustration. They really feel the need to be heard– after all, who doesn’t need to vent now and then? I’ve realized that when I become defensive, that only fuels the flames and furthers the rift between us.
I’ve had situations where parents start the year adversarially; some come to open house and question my ability to meet the needs of their child. Other times, parents have grown upset with me because they feel I have treated their child unfairly– whether it’s in regard to a grade or behavioral consequence. I once received a long accusatory e-mail from a parent after their child outright admitted to cheating on a test; it was a bit of misplaced frustration. Difficult interactions come in many forms, but often boil down to the same underlying issue: a lack of trust, either in your judgement or your expertise.
So, admittedly, it may take some guts, but try simply asking, “What can I do to earn your trust?” Don’t ask it sarcastically. Don’t ask if you are not ready for an answer. The question makes a bold statement by implicitly saying that you believe the parent does not trust you. If asked with the wrong intent, it may come off snarky. It also opens the door for them to give you honest feedback. Rather than go back and forth about exactly how I know an essay is worth a B and not an A, or debate the extent to which a behavior was disruptive, I want to get to the heart of the problem. I genuinely want the parents of my students to trust me, and when it seems they don’t, I want to know why.