Author: Meg Melville
Parental contact is potentially one of the most stress-inducing situations for a teacher. The angry email, the request for an urgent meeting, being bailed-up at a school function or worse-unexpectedly, out of the school context.
Open, constructive and respectful communication should always be the guiding principle when parents seek to engage with their child’s teacher. Neither party should expect anything less but unfortunately, reality does not always play out this way.
Challenging written communications are one thing but face to face meetings are quite another. Even the most experienced educator can feel a little anxious, let alone a teacher relatively new to the game. So, careful planning is essential.
Why do parents become angry, anxious or upset?
Their child is unhappy, frustrated and not enjoying coming to school.
They do not believe that the school is delivering on what they said they would.
They see their expectations of their child as realistic; the school may not agree.
They question the personal or professional qualities of the teacher.
They feel that their child has been unfairly treated/targeted.
Their values are not aligned with those of the school.
Their anger might be about something else entirely but the school becomes the target.
Any form of conflict needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency to avoid the risk of escalation and once again, careful planning is essential. Obviously it is helpful to know what the issue is prior to the response and it is appropriate that any parental concern about a teacher is addressed directly with that teacher in the first instance. Parents may seek to “leapfrog” the teacher and take their complaint higher; professional respect is essential in this process. The teacher may seek to have their line manager present at the meeting if they have concerns about meeting with the parent directly.
Schools will all have a series of policies, procedures and practices to guide staff in managing parental concerns and complaints; these are designed to assist staff in difficult interactions by providing clear guidelines and expectations on interactions. Whether it is the Parental Code of Conduct, Complaint Management Process or Communication Protocols, be well-versed in these.
Staff need to attend the meeting well-prepared and willing to listen to the parental concerns. Whether in agreeance or not-hear them out. Take clear and concise notes on the issues, not the emotions. Seek clarification as required on the issues. Repeat the issues back to the parents to ensure clarity of understanding. Aim to de-escalate emotions by not arguing and asking some pre-prepared questions about their child and their school experience and what is working for them. This may be a useful circuit breaker and diffuse emotions if they are stalling the discussion.
Address the concerns that have been identified and focus on the pathway forward. Identify what can be done for the child by the teacher, the parents and the child themselves. Continually going back over territory is counterproductive. Focus on moving on with clear actions and a realistic timeframe.
Keep the lines of communication open. It is always helpful to be allies rather than enemies! At the end of the day, everyone wants the same thing-a child who loves coming to school, is happy, feels a sense of belonging and a strong sense of making progress with their learning, be that academic, social or emotional. This is the best possible outcome. At the other end of the spectrum, it may be that the school and family part company. As with all conflict situations, if the parties to the conflict feel that the process in managing the conflict was fair and reasonable and that they were heard, even if they don’t agree with the outcome, that too, may be the best outcome possible. It is important for parents to understand what is within the scope of the school’s influence and what is not.