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Working Better with Parents

By Dave Stuart Jr.


The past few weeks have provided me several opportunities to reflect on parenting from the teacher's perspective. Some of the opportunities have been normal — parent/teacher conferences, my interactions with my children — and others have been serendipitous — a conversation with a mentor, repeated run-ins with an intriguing parent.

Also, one of the chapters I was least satisfied with in v1.0 of Never Finished: Continually Becoming the Teachers We Want to Be (and Staying Sane in the Process) is the one on parenting. When the release date for that book was approaching and my wife's illness was in full swing, I decided getting the book out with a skimpy parenting chapter was better than not getting it out at all.

All of this has me thinking that it's time for some reflective writing. In our pursuit of better, saner teaching, then, here's the question of the day: how do we work better with parents?

0. Begin at humility

Want useful interactions with humans? Begin at humility. First, properly understand it. If you don't have time to read my last post, here are the Sparknotes:

An attitude of humility seeks to habitually detect arrogance in oneself. We are wary of “I'm better than this person” or “My way is the best way” attitudes. This results in us seeking to habitually assume that others are better than us: more logical, more noble-hearted, more intelligent.

It's not self-deprecation; it is other-exaltation.

Humility applied to parents and guardians

Look: I am constantly in search of ways to promote the long-term flourishing of my students. It's my job; I'm a teacher. So chances are that, eight years into my pursuit of this kind of knowledge, I probably do know more, book-wise, about promoting success in children than most of the parents I interact with.

This isn't to say that I know Raul better than his mom does — just like my doctor doesn't know my body better than I do.

But it is to say that I'm a professional. Like a doctor, I devote part of my working hours to developing a growing knowledge of my field.

Yet knowledge alone isn't wisdom — nor is it love.

We must not forget that, in most cases, no one feels more passionate about a kid than that kid's parents. You may feel very passionate about your students, you may even tell them (as I do) that you love them, and truly mean it (as I do). But it is arrogant to think that your feelings for a child exceed the deeper, instinctive stuff felt by primary caregivers, the stuff honed through years of cleaning bodily fluid messes and seeing first steps and dreaming big dreams and snuggling before bedtime.

Humility calls us to assume that the parent or guardian we are working with at any given time loves the kid more than we'll ever be able to. It calls us to assume that the parent, therefore, wants that child's long-term flourishing infinitely more than we ever can. We make a grievous mistake that estranges far too many families from our public schools when we arrogantly assume anything different than this.

Pragmatism calls for this attitude toward parents, too.

Nelson Mandela has this awesome, short interview with Oprah. I've showed it elsewhere, but it bears repeating:

If you look at great teachers who rarely have issues with parents, I think you'll find them living out Mandela's recommendation: “…[L]et people know that you are no threat to them, [and] they will embrace you, they will listen to you.”

It's not a silver bullet, mind you,  but a humble attitude disarms people and makes them believe in their gut that you're on their team because, in humility, you realize that you are.

Phrases that communicate humility

With all that said, let's be very practical. Here are some points I try hitting when sitting down with a parent or guardian:

  • “You've poured countless hours and years into Lexi's upbringing, and the result is a young lady who is a pleasure to teach.”
  • “It is my privilege to team up with you this year in your continuing quest of guiding your child into a flourishing adulthood.”
  • “I, like you, want your child to have the skills needed to leave this school and do whatever it is he's on the planet to do. That's what I mean when I say we're aiming at college and career readiness.”

These samples serve as a fine transition into Part I of working well with parents: communication.

I. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Communicate is a word we use flippantly.

It is not communication when you just talk at someone. It is only communication when they actually understand you.

It is not communication when you just listen to someone. It is only communication when you actually understand them.

It is not communication when you spout off 500 things in your head at someone. It is communication when you take the time to think about what's most important in those 500 things and minimize them to three or so.

You'll know you have communicated when, after a conversation, both parties know what they need to do or they feel better or both. You'll know you haven't communicated when, after a conversation, nothing has changed.

The cause of most problems between parents and teachers

Many of the problems we run into with parents come down to a breakdown in communication.

Often, either the parent or us stops receiving communication because they've been threatened or offended in some way. When we're threatened or offended, our brains shut down and we enter this kind of “fight or flight” mode.

This is why, like I discuss in Part I of Never Finished, it's so critical that we keep our professional identity separate from our sense of self-worth. If I encounter an angry or offensive parent and my sense of self-worth is attached to how things go, then I'm going to fight or run to protect myself. Yet if I enter the same situation with professional detachment, I'm able to analyze it like one would a puzzle and determine how to best remedy things.

Whose fault is it when communication breaks down?

There are two ways to approach this question: the pointless way, and the empowered way.

Want to chase after the wind? Then approach parent-teacher communication mishaps as the parent's fault. I mean, heck — you're right. But you're also completely powerless to impact the situation if you choose to focus on the other party's fault in the situation.

Instead of doing anything about it, we end up complaining about the parent with our colleagues. #RecipeForAnAwesomeLife

Instead, approach every single communication snafu with this truth in mind: I played a role in the breakdown. What can I do to fix it?

This enables action and disables the life-draining, I'm-a-victim mentality that I see killing far too many teachers. Folks, we're not victims. We're professionals. It doesn't matter how the public views us. Standardized test insanity is a blink of an eye compared to the long, noble history of our work as educators. It will pass away. Root yourself in the nobility of your calling to teach.

Having done this, own communication breakdowns like a professional, then put on your work boots and get to work.

How to not communicate with parents

If your goal is to ensure that most parents don't understand you and that they stay at arm's length, try things like this:

  • Throw lots of edu-jargon at them.
  • Speak for minutes without end.
  • Use a condescending tone.
  • Tell them only nice things about their kid, even when those nice things don't bring the whole truth.
  • Refuse to reflect on elements of your grading system or curriculum. Are they as developed as they need to be? Could they be simpler? Fairer?

How to communicate with parents

If your goal is to ensure that parents understand you and that you are maximizing the potential of the school-home partnership, try things like this:

  • Speak as simply as you can. (This should always be our goal no matter who we're talking with.)
  • Think more, speak less.
  • Experiment with both approachable and authoritative tones. Think: knowledgeable doctor with a great bedside manner.
  • Tell them the truth, which usually is: there are great things about their kid, and there are things that need work.
  • Reflect on your class from a parent's perspective. Whether you have kids or not, ask: Is there anything I would be uncomfortable with or confused by if I were a parent of a child in this class? Is there any part of what I do — grading, management, planning — that I wouldn't want a parent to ask about? Persistent thought applied toward an element of our work will yield greater clarity.

II. When it all hits the fan

Sadly, there are parents and guardians out there who, without intending to, have become insane. Some have an inordinate need to hear that their child is perfect; others are blind to faults that are blatantly obvious to the world.

Humility teaches us that these folks never set out to become like this — yet, somehow, here they are.

So when you next get into one of those situations where a grown person is yelling at you like a child, or an intelligent person sends you an absurdly juvenile email, or you hear that you're being slandered along the Little League sidelines, here are some things to help you take heart.

You're a professional

It is my job to do all that I can to promote the long-term flourishing of students. One of the ways I do this is by working as best I can with parents and guardians because I know that they are one of the greatest predictors of my students' life outcomes.

Yet at the same time, I hold no pretensions of omnipotent power or inordinate responsibility. I am not able to change a person, nor do I feel that it's my job to try.

If a parent insults you, it's generally not at all about you. It's about their own issues, their own idolatries, their own warped psyches. We'll know we've nailed this when we continue to wholeheartedly seek to serve them and their child even when they treat us horribly. For my literary types out there, channel Atticus Finch and his encounters with Mrs. Dubose.

You are not your job

There's also a chance that the parent is angry at you because you've legitimately messed up. You said something you shouldn't have. You are negligent of your gradebook. You behaved unfairly. (I've been guilty on all counts, by the way.)

In these situations, we learn from our mistakes. We apologize openly and without reservation. Never Finished teachers own their mistakes.

But when we leave that school building for the day, it's not as a failure. We don't haul home a load of self-recrimination. Why? Because we are not only teachers — we are people. Our identities are based on more than how well we do our work.

The greatest teachers are those who let the fire refine them, not those who never experience the fire

I love Rafe Esquith. He got knighted — as an American — for being an awesome schoolteacher. You should read his books (Real Talk for Real Teachers is his newest, and it's great).

One thing I love about Rafe is that he's widely considered one of the greatest teachers of our age, and yet he still experiences berserker parents. The thing about Rafe, though, is that he hasn't allowed these situations to burn him out. Rather, in humility he has sought to learn from him what they can, to let them grow what character in him they can — and then he's gone on to continue to do the work he's on the planet to do.

If you're in the thick of a parent maelstrom right now, I pray this post is a little aid in helping you to do as Rafe has done: hold on and learn what you can. This too shall pass.

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19 Responses to Working Better with Parents

  1. nothingblowsupinbiology April 11, 2015 at 7:57 am #

    Perfect timing on this post! I have a parent meeting on Monday for one of my senior AP students. I was busy worrying about justifying my grading and gathering evidence, so this post refocused me. Now my focus is how can we work together to support the student so she can bring up her grade. Thank you!

    • davestuartjr April 13, 2015 at 4:34 pm #

      I’m so glad to hear that it was well-timed. Part of me felt like it was a silly post to write right after spring break — but the purpose of writing article (he says to himself) isn’t to hit the perfect time based on some objective measure. It’s to write what I’m grappling with or thinking about right now and hope there’s some benefit to a reader. Thank you for taking the time to comment!

  2. princessjj71 April 11, 2015 at 11:29 pm #

    I appreciate that you “heard me” when I mentioned helicopter parents. I am sure I am not the only one, but it is nice to be heard-in a message as well as in life. I have led a charmed teaching life up to this year. No parent has ever truly been angry with me in my 13 years of teaching. However, I have moved to a small town and am very slowly working my way into the sphere of SOME trust. Your post is truly helpful, in that I take these parent outbursts (there are few, but boy!) fairly personally. I lie in anguish over them, unfortunately. Since it is my first year here, I feel that everything is counted and tallied either for or against me. This would have been true at my former school, perhaps not so here. It is helpful that you mention that this too shall pass. I look at what I do very much with reflection, but I also need to remember that I do most things pretty well where my students are involved. Thanks for your post. 🙂

    • davestuartjr April 13, 2015 at 4:35 pm #

      It is so hard to not take them personally — I’m still with you there. These posts are largely written as self-reminders — I am so glad it helps you in the midst of the “fire!”

  3. Elizabeth April 12, 2015 at 10:50 am #

    This post is unbelievable! I have written to you before about the difficulties I have had with parents this school year. I have had to deal with some truly awful emails blaming me for their child’s poor grades or poor behavior. It took me some time to realize it was not all my fault. In my opinion, these parents are upset with their child for either not taking notes in class, not looking at the help pages I post online, not turning in assignments on time, not coming in for free help each morning when I offer it or so many countless other things. They are upset with themselves for not keeping a tab on what is happening in my class through my posts I put online daily or just plain upset that their child is not trying to be the best he or she can be. Unfortunately for the first time in 15 years, I have spent many days and nights this school year questioning my teaching style and my character. I have done a lot of soul searching and have even thought about a career change because I was so hurt by some of the things parents have said to me. I have come to the realization that I know I am a very good teacher who loves teaching and I need to focus more on all the positive comments and experiences I have had as a teacher and not focus on the negative comments and experiences. Fortunately, this took me most of the school year and I finally realized the positive comments and experiences far outweigh the negative ones. Sometimes I wish parents could read your blog and hear the pain they have put us through. Parents need to trust that we are professionals. We love what we do. We continually take classes to improve ourselves and our teaching. We do have their child’s best interest at heart and we do want their child to succeed.

    • davestuartjr April 13, 2015 at 4:37 pm #

      Elizabeth, you had me worried at first! I’m glad it’s unbelievable in a good way 🙂 It is so hard to not focus on the negative comments and experiences. I think what befuddles me most is how an adult can treat another adult like they aren’t human — but we see it all the time with servicepeople at the post office or Wendy’s or wherever. Civility is, unfortunately, not universal — but that is part of our good work as society shapers.

  4. laura April 12, 2015 at 11:18 pm #

    Love this post – I plan to share this with my colleagues. Thanks so much for your thoughtful insight into this topic.

    • davestuartjr April 13, 2015 at 4:33 pm #

      Thank you so much, Laura. My warmest regards to you and your colleagues. This is something we all grapple with.

  5. Ginger April 13, 2015 at 8:43 am #

    “It’s not self-deprecation; it is other-exaltation.” One of the best and clearest definitions of humility I’ve ever read. Thanks so much for this perspective.

    • davestuartjr April 13, 2015 at 4:31 pm #

      Thank you so much, Ginger — that’s helpful feedback because I felt it was confusing during my re-read of the piece!

  6. Melissa April 13, 2015 at 1:05 pm #

    My husband and I just had this talk after an upset parent e-mail. His words, “It’s part of your job. It’s going to happen. Don’t take it as a personal attack.” He’s a police officer who sometimes encounters upset people when he writes a ticket. He said he never takes a traffic stop personal. He pulled the person over for speeding and ticketed them. They may be unhappy, but that’s part of his job and not a reflection on him.

    • davestuartjr April 13, 2015 at 4:32 pm #

      Yes, Melissa — exactly. Your husband’s perspective is a really useful one to my thinking. I don’t think I saw that kind of “professional detachment” in a positive light until these last few years of my career.

  7. C Book April 14, 2015 at 4:52 pm #

    Thanks, Dave – for being there to support the rest of us with your down-to-earth wisdom.

  8. Martha April 15, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

    “they are one of the greatest predictors of my students’ life outcomes.” Wow! This is a motivating statement. Thanks!

  9. Evan April 15, 2015 at 9:13 pm #

    Hey, Dave,

    Would’ve sent you a private e’mail, but I couldn’t find your contact.

    Hard day today; hard year so far (year 2). Trying to teach a class of Advanced Freshmen, but it hasn’t gone so well. It is my first year through this curriculum. I have tried so hard to keep my expectations high, to prepare them for AP/CE classes.

    But your line “You have been negligent with your gradebook” brings tears to my eyes. I know it is true.

    Parents are real mad at me. I’ve had so many meetings and calls…

    I think my administration is supportive, but I heard today through the grapevine that they are taking me off this class.

    I walk into school everyday praying for a strength of character that I know I don’t have.

    How do you keep your head above the water?

    Really value your writing,


    • davestuartjr April 22, 2015 at 4:37 pm #

      Evan, thanks so much for making this a public comment. You would be amazed how many people are in your exact shoes. I want to write more about managing grading. It is hard, grueling work, and I’m far from an expert (grading is totally on my top not favorite parts of our work), but it has been coming up in conversations lately.

      Just remember: you are on a long-term journey, Evan. In Year 2, you are still developing a slew of important, COMPLEX skills simultaneously.

      My first years of teaching were the most prayerful ones — continue to pray and work toward your character, Evan. Your persistence, your humility, your efficiency, your wisdom — these are what will make you not just a great teacher in the long run, but a great man. (Please keep in mind that I think of greatness as the small ways we live our life, not the big things or results; also, keep in mind that I’m still desperate for these elements of character in myself, and I’m still failing aggressively)!

      Take care of yourself, Evan. Summer is coming. Glad to be with you on the journey.

  10. Joel April 22, 2015 at 10:55 am #

    Thanks for the post Dave. I struggle with humility as a coach much more than I do as a teacher. I get a smugness about me when I am on the court that for some reason I don’t have in the classroom and I know it affects my relationships with parents. Good stuff Dave.

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