Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach. (This is part one of a two part series of posts on parents).
My husband and I are both educators, and as luck would have it our oldest child is the student who educators commonly refer to as “that kid.” From the moment he was born, our son has been strong-willed, inquisitive, and likes to push the limits (we have no idea where he gets this from).
Teachers often describe our son as “spirited” or “rambunctious,” and he frequently gets in “trouble” at school. In fact, our son got in trouble in his very first classroom setting: the hospital nursery. Yep, that’s right. Our newborn was “kicked-out” of the nursery after a brief 45-minute stay because he was bothering the other babies by crying too loudly.
As he has grown, our son has maintained this dynamic personality, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We appreciate his sense of humor, and ability to engage in lively debates. However, we also recognize that our son defies the definition of a “good” student and can be perceived as a challenge. Because of this, my husband and I become closely acquainted with our son’s teachers over the years. And, while it pains me to admit, at times my husband and I have been “those parents.”
Difficult parents are part of the job for educators. During my career, I have certainly had my fair share of “those students” and “those parents” (you can read about one of those incidents here). But, education is no different than any other profession. Just as doctors have difficult patients and businessmen have difficult clients, teachers encounter difficult customers as well. The key to successful relationships with difficult clients (parents in this case) is to determine what the parent wants and then try to deliver.
But, what do parents want? Distinguished educators and authors, Todd Whitaker and Douglas Fiore, make a simple claim in their book, Dealing With Difficult Parents. They assert that all parents want the same thing: what is best for their child. However, problems arise because parents don’t always know what is best for their child or how to communicate this desire.
Whitaker and Doulas present profiles (single parent, economically disadvantaged, etc.) and behaviors (yelling, defending their children, unresponsiveness) of demanding parents. None of these groups or actions describe my husband and me. We fall into an entirely different category of difficult parents, perhaps, a much more undesirable bunch. We belong to the category of parents who are also educators.
Ideally, parents and educators are partners in the education of their children. So, in theory, a teacher-parent would make for a perfect partner. But, many times, the opposite occurs as teachers (myself included) feel threatened by educator parents.
Why do teachers feel threatened by educator parents? Whitaker and Douglas address the notion of teacher defensiveness when they encounter difficult parents. The authors write:
“If we are truly caring people, then as teachers, principals, and superintendents, we should never feel defensive when we deal with parents. We might feel awkward, uncomfortable, intimidated, but we should not feel defensive. If we are making all of our decisions based on what is best for students, then this defensiveness should not be occurring. If we do feel defensive, then it is probably because we, or someone we are attempting to support, has done something wrong.”
The Best Defense is A Strong Offense And, the best offensive play for educators is effective communication. Peter DeWitt, author of Collaborative Leadership, (yes, I am a guest writer for his blog. No, he didn’t ask me to plug his book; I am plugging his book because it’s awesome) writes: “Make sure you use positive words when talking about students, teachers, and school. It may sound silly to offer this advice, but we hear one positive for every ten negative statements.”
This statement is so true, yet we often don’t realize the words (or the tone) we use are negative. Take the two examples below which both address our son’s inability to focus/engage in learning. Notice how word choice and tone contribute to the message:
Example #1: “Your son has demonstrated an increased attitude of disengagement in classroom activities (whole group, small group, and independent work). He selectively chooses what he will and will not participate in. As I stated in his progress report, “it is a goal for him to become more invested in his learning.”
Example #2: “Good morning! I wanted to let you know that your son received a card change in library this morning for not engaging in the lesson. When he and I chatted about it after he returned to class, he said that he was having a hard time focusing today since he found the lesson to be boring since he already knew the information. I was impressed that he was able to openly talk about how he is feeling and just wanted to keep you in the loop. I will continue to help him practice effective problem solving and from what your son tells me, I know you are doing the same at home.”
Our son presented with the same issue. The teachers responded differently, and so did we.
With example #1, we responded with a battery of questions for the teacher. What interventions had been put in place? What was different about the activities he was choosing to participate in? How did she know it was a choice? Whose goal was it for our son to become more engaged, his or the teacher’s?
With example #2, we responded with gratitude. We felt like we had a genuine partnership with the teacher. In spite of the fact we detested the school’s mandated public shaming system (card changes), we were able to get past our negative feelings because we were so appreciative of the teacher’s positive and collaborative approach.
Reading this back now, I can see the difficult parent in myself in example #1. I can see why the teacher became defensive. We put her in the hot seat. But, as Whitaker and Fiore report, we acted the way we did because we wanted what was best for our child. And, perhaps, as Whitaker and Fiore suggest, our line of questioning caused the teacher to feel defensive because she knew she had done something wrong.
In reflecting on my reactions to my children’s teachers over the years, I have developed a list of items to consider when communicating with educator parents (and all parents for that matter).
Rather than listing attributes of the child, what concrete examples of behavior, academic, and social-emotional behavior can I share?
How can I best communicate the steps I have taken thus far?
How can I best communicate my plan moving forward?
How can I show (not tell) the parent I want to partner with them in the learning process?
How can I positively report negative actions?
How can I ensure I am proactively communicating with parents?
How can I mitigate the fact that this parent may (subconsciously) feel jealous that I get to teach her child?
This list is not comprehensive and we surely need to consider each parent situation individually, but it’s a start. What works for you when working with difficult parents? I encourage you to share your experiences so we can all grow as educators and parents.