10 Tips for Handling Difficult Conversations Between Teachers & Parents

It’s September and already, I’ve heard from a teacher who was ambushed by an upset parent in a hallway after school. Students and faculty were all around when an argument surfaced that failed to reach any resolution and, in fact, only built walls between the teacher and parent. All they accomplished was venting.

Most of the time, both teachers and parents want answers—but often we don’t know how to find them.

A friend of mine began teaching this semester and quickly discovered his greatest challenge was not his middle school students, but their parents. So, what are some proven tips adults can use to handle such interactions? Let me offer ten.

1. Clarify the specific problem ahead of time.

Too many teachers (or parents) can get ambushed by a surprise topic once the interaction begins. It is helpful for both parties to recognize exactly what the issue is that needs to be resolved. Focus the conversation as much as possible.

2. Meet face to face, away from others.

Any interaction that potentially involves emotions should not be handled via email or text messages. It’s too easy to hide behind those and let emotions rear their ugly head. Meeting in person usually forces people to be a bit more mature in their words. Additionally, it’s best to include one other peer, but not have a public audience nearby, as was the case above. Audiences distract and turn things into a show.

3. Recognize there are different types of parents.

Just like kids differ in style, so do their parents. The “Lawnmower parent” is the one who intends to mow down anything in the way of their child’s success, regardless of what’s right. “Dry cleaner” parents are the ones who want to drop their child off to the teacher (as a professional) and hope they can fix that child, just like a dry cleaner can clean their clothes. “Karaoke parents” are the ones who want to identify closely with their child, becoming a pal more than their parent, in the same way, karaoke singers sing, act and dress like a pop star. “Volcano parents” tend to erupt at any moment, sometimes for no good reason. There is no reasoning with this person who’s facing deeper emotional issues beyond their child.

4. Follow the S.A.L.T. sequence.

Listening may be the most important step you take in a confrontational discussion. Just pausing to hear them out and demonstrate you understand them will relieve at least some anger. When disagreements surface, I’ve found the best way to wade into the troubled waters is to follow this sequence of steps:

S – Say anything. Start the conversation with any relevant small talk.

A – Ask questions. Begin to inquire about where you should focus attention.

L – Listen well. Listening will be your greatest ally. People need to feel heard.

T – Turn the topic to solutions. Eventually, action steps should become clear.

5. Work to identify issues you agree on.

It is vital that the conversation doesn’t become more adversarial. Anytime you feel you both agree on something, bring it up and smile, nodding that you are with them and want to collaborate as much as possible. Building bridges is the way to reach the other side. If you build an emotional bridge to them mutual respect usually follows.

6. Empathize with the person.

Whether you’re the parent or the teacher, conversations go better when each person works to step into the other’s shoes and identify with them. Express empathy for their perspective and communicate you want to work toward a mutual “win” for all sides, where the school standards are met, and families feel understood and valued.

7. Offer evidence.

If the two of you reach an impasse, the best and most convincing method for choosing a plan of action is to show evidence for your perspective, if you have it. If the parent feels a teacher’s grading methods are wrong, they should demonstrate proof (not just feelings) for their belief. Teachers can demonstrate why they use their method and how it works fairly for students. This is key regardless of the issue—bullying, grades, assignments, deadlines, student behavior, you name it. Burden of proof is important.

8. Apologize and seek forgiveness.

When the parent or the teacher has made a mistake, own it. There is no act more mature and more adult than taking responsibility for the error and working to make it right. Summon the courage—even when it feels humbling—to say you’re sorry, and to seek reconciliation. Even if they don’t respond, you’ve taken the high road. Isn’t this what we teach our children?

9. Keep records and talk to peers.

One great way to stay level headed and maintain accountability is to keep detailed records of each interaction and date them. Then, assess what happened. Parents, you can talk to a respected and rational friend; teachers, you can talk to a department head or an administrator and debrief what happened.

10. Fix the problem when you can.

Obviously, the best resolution to a disagreement is to fix the problem as soon as possible. Following up and solving the problem is the surest way to deepen a trusting relationship. Words are important, but actions speak louder than words.

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10 Tips for Handling Difficult Conversations Between Teachers & Parents