It has often been said that teaching would be easy if it was just dealing with students; it’s the adults who make it so difficult. Parents can be a teacher’s greatest ally, but it just takes one or two difficult parents to make it feel like they are all against you (we will touch on working with difficult colleagues or administrators in another post).
While the majority of parents are probably very supportive and grateful for your investment in their child’s life, there will be that small percentage of parents who will have you considering giving up education and answering phones in a call center cubicle under fluorescent lights.
The goal is to prove to all parents that you truly care for their child and that you are both on the same team. If handled correctly, by the end of the year the parents that make your job harder could be your biggest supporters.
Try and remember, regardless of their actions, 99.9% of the time the motivation for what they are doing comes from genuine love and concern for their child, and their child is the most important thing in the world to them.
The Naive Parent
There comes a day for every parent when they realize that the sweet, innocent child they have known for the past 10-14 years has transformed into a creature that they no longer recognize. They wake up one day to find a hormonal adolescent grumping through the house in the throes of puberty.
Some parents are in denial of this fact while others are just completely naive to it. These parents usually experience shock or denial when they receive calls from that school that their precious child who has never gotten in trouble before has been caught skipping classes, cheating, speaking rudely to a teacher, or sneaking around with a boyfriend or girlfriend. You’ll hear responses like:
“He told me he was late to class, but the teacher counted him absent.”
“She has never cheated before. How can you prove it?”
“That teacher must have said something that was very rude to her if she said that because she would never talk to an adult like that.”
“She couldn’t have been found in the stairwell with her boyfriend - she knows she is not allowed to date yet. Besides, she tells me everything!”
While it is most likely that this will happen around 7th or 8th grade, some students simply mature later than others so parents who think they have escaped the fate of a Jekyll/Hyde middle schooler start getting these calls in the early days of high school.
It usually takes several incidents for them to come to the realization that what have judged other parents for is finally happening in their house, too. We have found that about midyear, these parents’ tones and responses start to change with traces of acceptance and even support coming through.
Just be patient with them. Try and understand why they are being resistant. Gently explain that it is normal for students this age to test their limits and see what they can get away with. Let them know that your goal in assigning discipline is to help them make better choices in the future and that you look forward to praising them when they do.
This tends to happen most often if the student is an only child or the oldest child. Parents who have raised other children have already had to face this reality and tend to catch on pretty quickly (they've been expecting and preparing for it).
Some parents will cling to their naivete with a death grip and will continue to make excuses for their child no matter what. In situations like this, be as supportive and understanding as possible, but if you have learned from experience that this parent will be resistant to an accusation about their child, gather as much information and facts to support a claim as possible before making the call. And, be prepared for them to show up and want to talk about it face-to-face.
The Oppositional Parent
Many teachers have said that when they met that kid’s parents, it all made sense! You have probably found that the argumentative, oppositional student has had that behavior modeled for them at home.
These parents will argue when you call to report that their child is out of dress code: Well, all the other kids are wearing that, and the dress code is unfair anyway.
If you call to tell them that their child was skipping: But I dropped him off this morning and watched him go into the school. I even checked the GPS on his phone and know that he was at the school all day. If he was there, the school is responsible for not letting him skip.
A truancy notice: Look, she’s 16 years old. I cannot physically force her to get out of bed and go to school, so I shouldn’t be held responsible!
Other things these parents tend to argue about are grades (feeling like a teacher’s grading is unfair or the assignment’s directions were unclear), unwanted schedule changes (their child’s behavior or grades only became a problem after their schedule was changed), or issues involving extracurricular activities (it’s unfair that their child didn’t get to play at the game last night or participate in a competition, or that they had homework on a game night).
The best tactic with these parents is to know the school policies and stand behind them. Understand protocol and how similar situations have been handled in the past. If they disagree with your decision, direct them to the next person in the chain of command.
You may not win them over, but they will learn to expect your consistency.
The Hinderance Parent
Some parents simply do not help the situation and tend to make it worse, even though they may have the good intention of loving and supporting their child. This can take many different forms.
Some parents go to the extreme of trying to show their support by yelling at and belittling their child during a conference. This can be very uncomfortable. Do your best to take charge of the conversation and steer it away from such a judgemental or accusatory tone. Find something to praise the child for if possible. If the tone cannot be adjusted, wrap it up by stating the facts and consequences, stand and thank them for attending, and walk them to the door.
Then stay and speak to the student privately. State that you know how uncomfortable that was and reassure him or her that even though you have to enforce the rules, you do it because you care. Explain that you are available to listen if the student needs to talk about anything going on at home.
There will also be parents who are unsupportive of school discipline of any sort. They may use the red herring of insisting to know if the other students involved got the same consequences. Simply explain that you are bound by the same confidentiality you give their child and cannot discuss the details of other students.
Other parents will insist that they will handle the discipline at home so no consequences will be necessary at school. Once again, stick with the school policies and explain that protocol will be followed.
Unfortunately, there will be students whose parents don’t want to be called or even those who are impossible to contact. Some will even ask you to stop calling because there’s nothing else they can do. Simply knowing the situation is likely to have a strong impact on how you deal with the student. You are still legally obligated to at least attempt to keep the parent informed regarding certain issues, but not necessarily every detail (be sure you keep a detailed account of attempts to communicate, even if they are unsuccessful). Be frank with the student; let them know that you are there to help and be an advocate if and when it is needed.
After attempting to reach a parent or guardian, it may become evident that there is no parent present. Students may be estranged from their parents for a variety of reasons, but it makes things particularly difficult when the parent still has legal custody.
While some students may be living on their own, or even homeless, most will be living with a relative or a friend. It will be tempting to reach out to the adult taking care of them, but use caution not to share confidential information and make sure you keep FERPA regulations in mind.
You will also come across neglectful parents and unfortunately abusive parents as well. Even though you may be worried about what calling child protective services may do to your student, you may be legally obligated to call if you have any suspicion of abuse.
One other challenging parental situation involves working with parents that are divorced. One parent may have legal custody, or they may share custody. One of our writers even knows of a family where the student lives with one parent, but the other parent has the sole legal right to make all decisions regarding education.
While you probably don’t want to delve into the specifics of divorce proceedings, there will be legal stipulations regarding who you can speak to. It is the responsibility of the parents to provide this information, and it is the school’s responsibility to abide by those stipulations, even if requested otherwise either by the student or the parents.