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All teachers and principals must deal with angry parents from time to time. In those times of heated passions, our responses carry great weight. A miscalculated response can backfire; it can fan the flames of a parent's upset and even burn bridges we've worked hard to build between school and home. That's why experienced principals use techniques aimed at extinguishing fires before they develop into full-fledged infernos.
The key to controlling the blaze, most principals agree, is listening. The first thing Addie Gaines does when confronted by an upset parent is to smile and extend her hand. Gaines, who is principal at Kirbyville Missouri Elementary School, invites the parent into her office and offers a seat. As she is making the upset parent feel welcomed, Gaines is also reminding herself that the parent is usually not angry with her.
Instead, the parent is usually upset by an event or something else in their life -- and it's her job to listen. Listening intently can go a long way toward resolving most problems, said Gaines. Principal Bridget Morisseau has a similar routine when she is approached by an angry parent. Almost always, Morisseau added, parents calm down once they know that she is willing to listen and assist them.
Empathy goes a long way in finding a solution to any problem we may be facing. Principal Jack Noles of Shallowater Texas Intermediate School, agrees that the most important thing "is to show genuine concern about a parent's feelings. I always make sure they hear me say that I understand and will do whatever I can to make things right. Karen Mink tries to remain calm and offer the parent compassion.
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Allen School in Aurora, Illinois. It is better to show that I understand how they feel Mink agrees that listening is the most important thing a principal can do in this situation. If you stop a parent before he has had a chance to say everything he came in to say it might appear that you don't really care to get to the bottom of the situation. It will appear that you just want to defend yourself, your teacher, or your school.
That and listening and taking notes. Doing that helps give me a better understanding of the issues, and they realize I am listening to them. Sometimes I even give them the opportunity to read over my notes and add anything that I left out. When Marguerite McNeely greets concerned parents at Hayden Lawrence Middle School in Deville, Louisiana, she does so with a smile and a firm look directly into their eyes. I expect them to behave like an adult and, if they don't, I will end the meeting immediately.
I take a few notes, even if I am already aware of the matter. That ensures them that I am being attentive. The bottom line: I attempt to treat them as I would like to be treated if I was the one who was upset. Before Les Potter became a principal he was a teacher and a guidance counselor. His experience as a guidance counselor helps inform the way he handles concerned parents at Silver Sands Middle School in Port Orange, Florida.
When Tim Messick must deal with an angry parent, he reminds himself that the parent is there because of their child -- because they want what is best for their child. Therefore, he tries "to listen with an open ear and keep the child first and foremost in mind. Unfortunately, we seldom provide them with training or lessons on how best to do that. The second thing that Messick tries to keep in mind is that the parent probably only has part of the story.
They often react and respond without all of the details. So I need to listen, and then I need to find out as much as possible before I react or make any decisions. Like Messick, principal Nina Newlin tries to remember that the parent has only heard one side of the story and is reacting, through love and concern, to that side. Newlin, principal at Rock Hall Maryland Middle School, also tries to remember that the parent is coming in out of love and concern for their child.
Jack Noles tries to see everything the parent brings to the table through the lens of the student. Bonita Henderson is another school leader who tries to put herself in the parent's shoes. The one thing that Henderson will not stand for is verbal abuse of any kind. If a parent turns abusive, Henderson remains polite but ends the meeting.
She tells the parent they can continue the conversation when the parent has better control. I will not allow the parent to verbally abuse me or a staff member. KathiSue Summers tries to encourage parents to talk calmly, but she also tries to turn a deaf ear when the parent edges toward being abusive.
Sometimes, by assuring parents that you are there to listen to their unedited thoughts, a principal can actually help calm down an angry parent. When a parent is clearly heated up, some principals have found that it can help to give that parent a little space. Marguerite McNeely has never had to call in the law to gain control of an angry parent, but she always has a couple strategies in mind for handling difficult situations. For example, if a parent is extremely agitated, "I might simply inform them that I am going to take a walk around the school so they can get control of their thoughts, and that we will continue the conversation when I return," she explained.
Jack Noles tries to get the gist of a parent's complaints at the start of conversation. Leaving them alone for a few minutes often helps calm them down. When I return, they are almost always more receptive to what I might have to say. Principal Shari Farris has worked hard to build a school community that focuses on the positive. A school community built on such a positive foundation helps Farris deal with the difficult issues that arise from time to time. They know that I value them as a partner and a valuable member of our school community.
Creating such a strong community "takes some additional time and effort, but it is truly a case of an ounce of prevention being worth gold," added Farris.
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William Winsor School is another school where creating a positive atmosphere helps teachers deal with an occasional upset parent. Morisseau often includes advice, communications strategies, and reminders of communication expectations in her weekly Staff Notes bulletin. Her back-to-school bulletin includes an entire section in which she outlines her communication expectations, including.
Fosters and promotes dialogue between home and school? Creates an overall sense of warmth, kindness, and high expectations for learning and behavior? Even in the strongest of school communities, disagreements or difficult situations can arise. When that happens, Addie Gaines listens to a parent's complaints -- without interrupting. In the end, I hope to be able to propose a logical solution, and a parent must be calm before a logical approach will work. When the parent finishes venting, Gaines tries to stick to the facts.
If the conversation stays tuned into what is best for the child, "I am usually able to empathize with the parents' frustrations but lead them to a reasonable and logical solution," said Gaines.
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Gaines always tries to offer alternatives, so the parent has some control over the situation and so there is a sense of shared decision making. In that situation, I will not back down on consequences no matter how mad a parent might be. When I mention safety, it is difficult for a parent to continue to argue, because no one logically would say It is okay for my child to endanger the safety of everyone else on the bus.
When Bridget Morisseau finds herself confronted by an angry parent, she listens. Then she listens some more. Then she asks questions and listens some more. Instead, she asks questions such as What do you think we should do to solve this problem? By asking questions, the angry parent often proposes a very workable solution. Marguerite McNeely is another principal who tries to use questioning techniques to solve problems. After she listens to a parent's complaints, she often poses a question such as What do you want from the matter?
If they offer something I cannot do or do not feel is in the best interest of the school, I tell them so.
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And I tell them why. When it comes to parents with complaints or concerns about a teacher, principal Karen Mink makes it a policy not to talk about a teacher with a parent if the parent has not already spoken to the teacher. Mink uses that same approach when a parent has a complaint about another student or another parent.
Other principals prefer to run interference for their teachers. If at all possible, I like to be in with the teacher to mediate. In truly difficult or inflammatory situations, it might even be a good idea to have another person or two in the room with you, added Newlin. A guidance counselor is a good person for this role, because they know about mediating conflicts and may have valuable knowledge to contribute to the situation.
At Berryhill Elementary School in Milton, Florida, principal Terry Neustaedter follows the same venting-then-clarifying approach that many other principals use when approached by an angry parent. If a parent has not addressed the issue with the teacher, Neustaedter recommends that they schedule a mutually acceptable time when everyone can sit down together. Even if everyone doesn't agree with the final results, hopefully they understand you are not making a decision capriciously.
A well-trained office staff can be an excellent line of defense when it comes to handling complaints from parents or the community. She is also well-versed in our policies and procedures and can explain things to parents, so oftentimes the problem is solved without involving anyone else. Principal Terry Neustaedter says his office staff is very capable too. They are very good at diffusing parents who are upset. If a caller is abusive, Neustaedter added, "I tell them to call me, our assistant principal, or the school resource officer. They don't have to put up with that.
When Les Potter hires new office staff at Silver Sands Middle School, "we always look for caring and calming secretaries, because any of our secretaries could pick up a call from, or be greeted by, an upset parent. We work with them on this aspect of their jobs, and our district provides staff development and workshops on this topic. When a parent is upset, most principals agree that the key to solving the problem is to make the parents concern a priority and provide a quick response. Or if the problem is a learning disability, it can be overwhelming to find out that your child is struggling to keep up with others and may need extra help outside of class there are a lot of special education terms and information to take in.
In what can be a very emotional moment, do your best not to let those feelings take over. Be clear. She tells me everyone is teasing her. By being clear with the teacher, you have a better chance of solving the problem. Give the teacher helpful information. No one knows your kid better than you do. The more you can do to gently help the teacher get to know your child better, the easier it will be to solve the problem together. Move to solutions. Get to know the teacher. Take a minute to get to know the teacher on other levels. In other words, treat her as a person by finding out more about her.
Does she have kids? Is this her first time teaching this grade?
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Does she know anyone who struggles with learning? As with any relationship, the more you know about the other person, the easier it is to make a connection. Hand out praise. Instead, take time to point out the good stuff too!