Dealing With A Difficult Parent As A Teacher
by Terry Heick
In all of my years of teaching, I can count on one hand the number of ‘difficult parents’ I had.
Note, I don’t mean parents who advocate for their child. Now am I even referring to parents who are aggressive and even confrontational at times. I’m talking about truly difficult parents who, for whatever reason–well, they’re difficult.
But when I did have this come up, it was extremely challenging for me personally and professionally.
Difficult Parents In The Classroom
Difficult parents always mean well–and don’t always start out ‘difficult.’ But you never know what they’re going through personally and more commonly, you never know what can make a parent’s momma or papa bear claws come out.
Usually, you’d hear about this parent from other teachers. That this parent was a handful. Rude. Combative. Aggressive. Even litigious. In response, you worry, if just a little. You have enough to deal with, and butting heads with an angry parent–especially one angry just because–doesn’t sound like fun.
So you keep calm and hope to ride the year out. Maybe they won’t call. Maybe they’ll skip parent-teacher conferences. You’ve even considered grading their child a little easier just to avoid the hassle of it all.
We’ve all been there. Nothing can solve this problem (for lack of a better term, I’m going to keep calling it a ‘problem’ instead of ‘growth opportunity’ or ‘challenge to solve’; insert your own synonym as you wish) but there are ways to take the edge off so that you can open up the lines of communication and deal with the parent on equal terms so that their child has the best chance for success.
12 Ways To Deal With A Difficult Parents
1. Make sure you’re not the problem
Or even half the problem. There were times where, in hindsight, I probably was.
By being rational, you can identify exactly what their concerns are and solve them proactively–before they become an issue. Sometimes this works. Other times, it can seem like no matter how many times you ‘solve problems,’ new ones arrive.
2. Reach out first
Be pre-emptive. Reach out with a positive message to start off on the right foot.
3. Don’t patronize
And when you reach out, be authentic. Don’t pretend to be their best friend, nor should have that ‘nipping problems in the bud’ tone. Don’t worry about ‘holding your ground’ either. Just reach out as an educator to a member of your own community.
You’re not selling them anything, and they’re not selling you anything. You’re both dutifully and beautifully involved on either side of a child.
4. Stay in your lane
No matter how important the education of a child is, realize you’re simply a single cog in the life of that family, no more or less important than keeping the lights on, their job security, food and shelter, or any other reality of daily life.
5. Help them know what they’re looking at
Help them know what they’re ‘looking at’ as they try to help their child and ‘deal with school.’ Give them something–a ‘handle’ of some kind to make sense of the learning process. Something they can make sense of and understand and use when they speak to their child about education. Something less about the game of school and more about learning, curiosity, and personalization. (See here, for example–alternatives to “What’d you learn in school today?“)
5. Meaningfully involve them
Keep your friends close and your…difficult parents…closer. Ask them to take on an authentic role in the classroom. Ask their opinion. Allow them to have a voice or show leadership. Give them a role in what their child learns. The fact that a parent has approaching zero authentic role in the learning process of their children is part of our challenge as educators. Help them find one.
6. Put them in a position to succeed
Just like a student, do what you can to put the parent in a position to succeed. They may not have had a good experience in school, either as students, with siblings of your student, etc. Give them a reason to believe that you have the best interest of the family at heart–and that includes them.
7. Meet them on equal and common ground
Meet them on equal terms. For all of our overly-glorified differences, most people are fundamentally the same. We respond to pain and threats differently and have unique ethical systems, but it’s easy to place yourself above someone even if you think you’re not doing exactly that.
You can also find something in common: sports or hobbies or music or a personal philosophy. Even your own struggle as a person. Something to humanize yourself, and establish the overlap between yourself and the parent.
8. Focus on their child’s learning
This is the opposite of teaching, where you focus first on the child and then on helping bring them to the learning. In conferences and communication with parents, you can both see the child and what’s ‘best for them’ very differently, but academic work has a chance to be more objective in cases where talking to the parents is a challenge.
When dealing with a ‘difficult parent,’ focus on the work and academic performance, and what you and the parent and siblings and other teachers, etc., can do to support the student in their growth.
Even in the midst of difficult conversations, always do your best to steer the focus back on the work and the child’s relation to it. The former is data/evidence, the latter the reason for the data/evidence.
9. Help parents see the big picture–and make sure you see it, too
This is partly the problem with letter grades: they oversimplify everything in a reductionist way.
It’s easy to look at a grade book and both start and finish the conversation there. If that’s all they see, have a look at your curriculum and instruction, and see if you’ve given them ample opportunity to do otherwise. Talk less about missing work, and more about the promise and possibility of their child. Help them see that the school year is a marathon, not a series of sprints.
10. Bring other colleagues into the room (or Zoom)
And then give them a credible ‘role’ in the meeting other than as a ‘witness.’ Do what you can to make it feel more about community than ‘protection’–and certainly never do anything that could make the parent feel bullied or ‘ganged up on.’
11. If all else fails…
If you have to, call for reinforcements, and document everything. As mentioned above, never feel bad about having another teacher in the room (or Zoom) with you if you feel like a parent will be aggressive and you’re simply not comfortable with it. Better to depend on solidarity and hope than your own personal strength.
And document everything. Stay on top of grading, feedback, behavior management, missing assignments, your tone, sarcasm, etc. Document every call and email. Save exemplar work. Document differentiation, personalization, and other individual efforts in pursuit of the best interest of the student.
Whatever you do, no matter your analysis of the proximity between apples and trees, don’t hold the difficult parent ‘against’ the child, even subconsciously. You’re the professional, they’re their parent who almost certainly has their child’s best interests at heart.
12. Take it personally, then don’t
If you have a ‘difficult parent’ and in spite of your best efforts it all falls apart, I’d say don’t take it personally but it’s hard not to. So fine–internalize it. Own it. Talk to colleagues (better than a spouse, whose emotional reserves you may want to save for other challenges in your work). Cry if you need to.
And then let it go.