Parent-Teacher Relationships: Communicating with “Difficult” Parents

parent-teacher relationships
Teaching Methodology

Parent-Teacher Relationships: Communicating with “Difficult” Parents

One of the most terrifying tasks for new teachers is talking to parents. 

Having good relationships with parents makes a teacher’s job significantly easier. Even better is forming a cohesive team with parents for the benefit of students.  

“Difficult” is a relative term. Any parent—any person—can be perceived as “difficult,” kind of like a “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” thing. A teacher’s communication ability and style can turn reasonable people into “difficult” parents, but the converse is also true; traditionally “difficult” parents can become a teacher’s ally, forming a powerful team. 

How I Learned About Parent-Teacher Relationships 

Bill Fuller and I have worked together in other arenas. Before we formed the best MTEL prep team in the history of the known universe, we labored at a Notre Dame High School in Lawrence. At a Merrimack Valley high school, Bill ran a program for students who had histories of difficulty in school. 

I was brought in as special education Case Manager and Team Chair partly because of my experience with this population of kids; I had worked at the Gifford School in Weston and in the Newton Public Schools developing and running similar programs. I brought Bill with me from NDHS to help me implement this new program. 

The students who were most successful were those whose parents had formed trusting relationships with us. We had been warned that many of these parents were “difficult.” 

“You have a few ‘top 10’ parents coming up,” we were told by district administrators. 

By the end of our first year, they were amazed because we were able to form positive, collaborative relationships with these same parents. 

We did nothing special.  As in any relationship, being honest and respectful creates genuine, mutual bonds. After working in special education for over 20 years, I can remember only a few relationships with parents that I would not consider positive and mutually respectful. Many parents and I follow each other on social media (I recommend doing so only after the student graduates) and keep in touch. 

Of note, however, is that they did not always start that way. What is one to do when a parent holds a grudge against you, your district, or schools in general?

Effective Tips For Parent-Teacher Communication

Here are some simple tips to establish and improve your parent communication, so you can call home with confidence instead of dread. 

Call Early And Often

Do your best not to make your first contact a conversation about anything negative. The last thing a parent wants to hear is bad things about her kid. The only way to ensure this is to call early in the year and often.  

High school or middle school teachers with 100+ students will have trouble doing this, but an elementary teacher with 20-30 students can make a few calls every afternoon for a week for a quick introduction. 

I would try to call each family once a month or at least every quarter. Calling with good news and student success stories go a long way towards developing a good, productive parent-teacher relationships. 

It Is A Relationship Like Any Other Relationship

When I got my first managerial job, I was only 23 or so. I was hired as the manager of an admissions office for a private detox/psych hospital in the Greater Boston area. I was very apprehensive about it and asked my father for advice.

My father was the Business Manager for a school district and managed many people over a long period of time.  His simple advice has been invaluable. 

“Treat people like you would like to be treated.”  

Following that advice has served me very well over the years. Be honest and respectful. Never be judgmental towards them or their child. 

Don’t get defensive. These people do not know you. They know you in your role as their kid’s teacher. Their perspective may have been shaped by their children’s or other parents’ words, but they do not know you, so don’t take anything personally.  

Give It Time

A good parent-teacher relationships takes time. Trust and respect aren’t automatic or quickly earned. Communicate often. Be patient.

Let Them Talk!

Sometimes, people just need to tell their story. Sometimes parents will say last year’s teacher was terrible or that the principal is an idiot. Listening without taking sides is most often worth the extra few minutes on the phone. 

A helpful thing to say is, “I am sorry that you had a bad experience. We aren’t going to dwell on the past; all we can do is do better this year.”

Once they get it all out, don’t let them go back there. Keep saying, “We’re focusing on this year.”

Never Hold Advocating For Their Child Against Them

Advocating for their child is their job. Agree to disagree, if appropriate, but keep an open mind. Parents are often better aware of their child’s strengths and weaknesses and can provide you invaluable information. 

Explain the program and give perspective. You should listen actively, but you don’t have to give in to every demand. If things get too thorny, ask for help from an administrator or mentor.

When It Is Necessary To Give Bad News, Use The “Compliment Sandwich”

Say something positive, then negative, then positive again.

Parent-Teacher Relationships: The Bottom Line

Parent communication can be daunting even for the most experienced teachers. By using the tips above, you can develop productive relationships with parents for the benefit of you and your students. And if you’re struggling to get certified because you’re struggling with the MTELs, we can help with many of those.  Check us out here.

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