Working with ‘Big Parents’ — A Teacher’s Guide to Confrontational Situations

Fortunately, they are rare. I’m talking about “big” parents — the ones who are loud, confrontational and bordering on combative.

They can make a teacher’s work life challenging, to say the least. Big parents consistently push back on your expectations, challenge your grades or provide little or no support at home. But there are ways to work with this distinct variety of parent effectively. Here’s how:

Ignore the volume

Being argumentative and combative doesn’t usually reflect a big parent’s authentic emotions. It’s just a strategy they use to get what they want. Once you recognize volume and intimidation are nothing more than a strategy, it’s much easier to avoid being pushed in a direction you don’t want to go.

No one has the right to demean or belittle you during a meeting. If a parent does this, ask them to stop. If they continue anyway, you have every right to stop the meeting. We are nobody’s punching bag.

Bring an ally

If you suspect a meeting is going to be difficult, ask an administrator to sit in. Meet beforehand to go over the facts driving the need for the meeting. Make sure the facts align with your school’s expectations and confirm that you’ll have support during the meeting.

If you need to change a practice or backtrack on an action, try to know this before the meeting. Nothing is more disempowering than being forced to change course during a meeting in front of the parent. If an administrator is not available, invite a more senior teacher to attend.

Let them exhaust themselves

When you’re in a meeting with an emotional parent, sometimes it’s best to just let them get it all out. Take notes, nod your head, ask for clarification when necessary, but never ever interrupt. When they are completely done (be prepared to be patient and wait), then begin to speak of your actions and the logic behind them.

Interrupting mid-sentence, even to correct inaccuracies, creates a far more difficult meeting dynamic than necessary. Instead, give them their full say, listen carefully and do your best to completely understand their point of view.

Stick to the facts

The best way to counteract incorrect claims and expectations is to rely heavily on the facts of the matter. Be studious in your collection of information on the student’s performance, and speak to the data.

Avoid making subjective judgments or comparing the child to other students. Instead, clearly explain the standards presented to the student, and compare the performance to those standards. Yes, it does sound somewhat simplistic, but often this common-sense method is the best way to cut through “noise” and achieve clarity.

Stay consistent

To succeed, you’ll have to lean heavily on being consistent in all situations. You are professionally and morally obligated to treat all students the same, and appearing to have a different set of standards for various students will lead to incredible headaches on your part.

There is great power in difficult meetings by being able to show that your expectations are the same, and that the parent is the one being unreasonable. Do not let your frustration with a parent affect your relationship with a student.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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