From time to time, all teachers will be faced by a difficult and demanding parent. From challenging academic results to accusations of bullying, some parents can be very intimidating or even aggressive.
Until relatively recent times, the school was viewed as the realm of the professional, the educator, the teacher.
As Carol Vincent states:
‘No parents beyond this point’ – such signs could have been seen in schools around the country, symbolizing the clear division between home and school.’
She goes on to describe schools as:
‘[I]slands of professional expertise, of calm, order and learning’.
How we all miss the good old days in the midst of a hectic, stressful Parents’ Consultation Meeting, when we see the approach of Mr and Mrs Smith, looking as happy as we might have predicted with John’s latest report!
Conservative government educational policy, from 1979, was underpinned by the notion of parents as the “consumers” of an education system, who would be empowered with considerable influence over the way in which the “producers” – the teachers – operated, not least by the use of “parental choice” as a factor in determining which schools would thrive and which close. More recent educational policy, during the Labour Party’s terms of office, has stressed the importance of the home/school partnership in promoting the learning of young people.
Carol Vincent, quoting a 1986 study by Cowburn, summarises this shift in perception as follows:
“Parents were once kept out of schools so as to allow the professionals uninterrupted control: parents are now being encouraged to get involved, to come into school so that they can understand why the professional exercises control in the manner he/she does”.
Communicating clearly, therefore, what we do, what we have done, being prepared to justify our actions by reference to school policy, to educational theory and practice, to the statutory demands of the National Curriculum, for example, needs to be at the forefront of the teacher’s agenda in any meetings with parents, whether arranged or a surprise encounter. We are no longer autonomous rulers in our own little world, but need, as professionals and experts, to be prepared to explain, or justify, our actions and decisions in language that is accessible to the parent.
H or S
In the table above, jot down in the first column possible situations which might generate an ‘interview’ with parents. For example:
- report sent home
- detention issued
- o praise postcard sent home
* In the second column, indicate whether the ‘invitation’ to meet is most likely to come from Home (H) or School (S)
* In the third column, rate the likelihood of the meeting becoming heated on a scale of 1-5, 1 being highly unlikely, and 5 highly likely.
Getting the basics right – conflict avoidance
The importance of the dialogue between school and home cannot be underestimated, and those schools which have taken steps to ensure that their relationship with their parents is a good one, based on mutual respect and concern for the young people whose care they share for at least five days each week will have fewer flashpoints on the level of personal interaction between parent and teacher. Everyone has an experience of school life, so, in that respect, all our parents feel that they are experts! For many, their own experiences of school and of teachers are not particularly good ones: some find entering school premises a daunting prospect, and this unease can quickly escalate into difficult or aggressive behaviour. Many associate their visits to school with negative emotions: they have responded to so many summons because of a child’s poor behaviour, attitude or progress that any chance to “get one’s own back” by criticising the school is pursued with relish.
Make a note below of skills which you use in the classroom:
· to defuse tension
· to manage behaviour
· to foster co-operation
· to ensure compliance
· to foster a good working relationship
A couple of examples are included to get you off to a good start!
Skills I use daily:
· Friendly greeting as pupils arrive.
· My ‘no nonsense’ face.
· Standing up – full height to look imposing
Which of the above are also useful in dealing with parents?
Many difficult encounters can be avoided if the school:
· Has clear policies on a variety of relevant topics e.g. uniform, behaviour, information that is shared with parents on a regular basis. As a teacher, ensure that, in your dealings with pupils, you apply such policies with fairness, consistency and equity.
· Takes steps to involve parents in the life of the school whenever possible – the good old school play, or talent show, provides opportunities for parents to cross the school threshold in a non-confrontational context. As an individual, seek out opportunities to establish a dialogue with parents, even if it is only a nod of acknowledgment, if you meet them outside school in a supermarket or in the queue for a plane at the airport! Look for, and utilise, any opportunities to share an interest in something other than the child who is the focus of your relationship.
· Has clear and well established practices for communicating with parents e.g. on behaviour, attendance, progress. Such communication should be timely and prompt, not restricted to key points in the school year e.g. end of year report, and should also inform parents of a child’s positive contributions to the life of the school, for example via “praise postcards”. As a teacher, try to ensure, wherever it is reasonable, that particular parents do not always associate your name with bad news.
· Provides a welcoming environment for parents – a cheerful reception area; a cheery greeting from reception staff; a light, warm room in which meetings can take place
In many ways, the parents who arrive at the school fired up in defence of their child, or who demand to see a teacher to find out why progress is not being maintained, is less of a threat to the life of the school than those parents who refuse all attempts to initiate a dialogue, to the point that their child is excluded. Parents who are moved to anger by something they believe has happened, normally because their child says so, can potentially become the teacher’s greatest ally, once a more appropriate relationship has been established.
Communicating with parents
· In the table below, in the first column, list the means of communication which your school uses with its parents. There are 3 examples to get you started.
· In the second column, rate the effectiveness of each, on a scale of 1-5, 1 being of little use and 5 being highly effective.
Annual written report
Grade card – termly
How could any of the above be adapted to improve effectiveness?
What makes a person angry?
Anger is a natural part of the human condition, but it isn’t always easy to handle. Some people mask their anger. Others explode with rage. Good parents invest a great deal of emotional energy in their offspring: which of us, as a parent, has not been moved to strong emotion by something that our child tells us, or something that they have done, or not done?
We also acknowledge the importance of social and emotional intelligence for our young people in school, and many schools are delivering extensive programmes to support this aspect of their pupils’ development. Since youngsters learn more from models than from lectures, it is reasonable to assume that many of those pupils who have difficulty expressing emotion, or controlling an outburst of anger, are not seeing positive role models at home in this respect. It may be, therefore, that a parent does not intend to show anger or aggression, but has never learned to express concern in a more appropriate way. There are a number of courses which schools can access and provide for their parents, to support them in developing their own emotional literacy, which will not only be of benefit in your encounters, but will also help them to reinforce, and model, the behaviours and responses that you are hoping to develop in the children.
The Millennium Cohort Study by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education, University of London, published in October 2008, shows that what parents are most concerned about in choosing a school in the first place is not only the school’s performance, but other characteristics that, taken together, parents rate even more highly – the “good impression” created by the school, a strong anti-bullying policy, its ability to accommodate an ethnic mix, and its facilities amongst others. It therefore follows that these are the sorts of issues that parents are most likely to seek to approach the school with if they feel that it is “all going wrong” for their child.
Psychologists recognize that anger arises for different reasons in different types of people, which may need to be handled in different ways by the sensitive teacher. You may recognize parents that you have had, on occasion, to deal with in the profiles detailed below, although it is highly unlikely that any parent has ever reached the point of hatred towards their child’s teacher – it just feels like it sometimes! Understanding what may be the underlying cause of parents’ anger, over and above the particular incident that has provoked this meeting, may help you not to respond too quickly, with mounting irritation, to what appears to be an unreasonable display from across the desk.
Types of Anger
These individuals may not, at first, let others know how angry they are. Sometimes, they don’t even know how angry they are. But the anger will come out! They look hurt and innocent. They gain a sense of control over their lives by frustrating others. The teacher needs to become practiced in interpreting body language, which may indicate anger bubbling below the surface, just waiting to explode when a trigger point in the conversation is reached.
This type of anger occurs when someone feels irrationally threatened by others. They seek aggression. They believe people are against them, don’t understand their viewpoint or their concerns. They expect others to attack, verbally at least. Because of this, they jealously guard and defend what they think is theirs – these parents are often those who say things like: “My son wouldn’t do that” “My daughter says she has done the work and you lost it – and I believe her”. People with paranoid anger give it away – it is self evident from their body language, both their verbal and non-verbal communication, that they are very, VERY annoyed. Such parents may often feel insecure, especially in the school environment, and unwilling to trust the school, or you as its representative.
People with sudden anger are like thunderstorms on a summer day. They zoom in from nowhere, blast everything in sight, and then vanish. Sometimes it’s only lightning and thunder, a big show that soon blows away, but can cause damage, occasionally physical, but certainly in terms of the relationship between the teacher and the home, and to the home-school partnership, that will take a long time to repair. Sudden Anger people gain a surge of power. They release all their feelings, so they feel good or relieved: you, on the receiving end, feel battered and emotionally exhausted. These are the people in danger of losing control: they may get physically violent and, at the least, will say and do things they may later regret. Sometimes, all you can do is simply let the anger blow up, and blow over – do not attempt to interrupt or respond until the storm has passed, but keep calm, keep still and make it clear that you are listening. It may even be that the best solution is to simply let this parent have his, or her, say, then suggest a return appointment, in the hope that regret has tempered their anger, and allowed reason to surface.
People who need a lot of attention or are very sensitive to criticism often develop this style of anger. The slightest criticism sets off their own shame – and since they share such close emotional links with their children, any criticism of the child is felt to reflect badly on them. They feel worthless, not good enough – and, like any living creature, when they feel backed against a wall, they will come out fighting! When they feel the teacher is ignoring them, like not giving in to their demands to move their child to a different teaching set, they take it as proof that the other person dislikes them as much as they dislike themselves. That makes them really angry, so they lash out; “You made me feel awful, so I’m going to hurt you back.” They get rid of their shame by blaming, criticizing, and ridiculing others. Their anger helps them get revenge against anybody they think shamed them. Such parents need reassurance; they are good people; they are doing their best for their child; their child has huge potential that is not yet being realised because of the issue at hand.
This anger is planned. People who use this anger usually know what they are doing. They aren’t really overtly emotional, at least not at first. They like controlling others, and the best way they’ve discovered to do that is with anger and, sometimes, violence. Power and control are what people gain from deliberate anger. Their goal is to get what they want by threatening or overpowering others. Firmness and fairness are the best responses to this: such individuals have to learn that he who shouts loudest does not always get what he wants, that you as an individual, and the school as an organisation, does not respond to threats and bullying, but decides what is best in the interest of the pupils.
Some people want, or even need, the strong feelings that come with anger. They like the intensity, even if they don’t like the trouble their anger causes them. Their anger is much more than a bad habit – it provides emotional excitement. It isn’t fun, but it’s powerful. These people look forward to the anger “rush,” and the emotional “high.” Anger addicts gain a sense of intensity and emotional power when they explode. They feel alive and full of energy. You, as an individual, are not going to break this addiction alone – but nor should you have to tolerate it repeatedly. If every encounter is the same, this problem needs dealing with at a higher level. It may even be that, in the interests of the health and safety of staff, it may not be possible to continue to accommodate such interviews.
Some people think they have a right to be angry when others have broken a rule. They view the offenders as bad, evil, wicked, sinful. They have to be scolded, maybe punished. People with this anger style feel outraged about what bad people are doing. They say they have a right to defend their “beliefs.” They claim moral superiority. They justify their anger as being for the best, in a good cause. They don’t feel guilty when they get angry because of this. They often feel superior to others, even in their anger. These people suffer from black-and-white thinking, which means they see the world too simply. They fail to understand people who are different from themselves. They often have rigid ways of thinking and doing things. Another problem with this anger style is crusading – attacking every problem or difference of opinion with moral anger when compromise or understanding might be better. For these people, you need to “prove” that you are operating “within the rules”: it is not your decision, but one dictated by a policy which you have to enforce. They may not like the rule, but should appreciate the evidence that you are applying it consistently!
Hate is a hardened anger. It is a nasty anger style that happens when someone decides that at least one other person is totally evil or bad. Forgiving the other person seems impossible. Instead, the hater vows to despise the offender. Hate starts as anger that doesn’t get resolved. Then it becomes resentment, and then a true hatred that can go on indefinitely. Haters often think about the ways they can punish the offender and they sometimes act on those ideas. These people feel they are innocent victims. They create a world of enemies to fight, and they attack them with great vigour and enthusiasm. However, this hatred causes serious damage over time. Haters can’t let go or get on with life. They become bitter and frustrated and their lives become mean, small and narrow.
NEVER trade anger with anger! You do not extinguish a fire by throwing more fuel on it.
Whatever anger type you recognise yourself to be, in the context of a meeting with parents; you are the professional – cool and collected. Breathe deeply, switch off your more sensitive self, don’t take the insults personally and don’t respond in kind, trading hurt for hurt, insult for insult.
Learning to read the signs â”€ a guide to non-verbal communication!
As teachers, we are generally adept at recognising the subtle signs that all is not well with the pupils in our care; we need to adapt and enhance these, often subconscious, abilities when assessing the degree of anger, or annoyance, or high emotion, in the parents before us.
When people are tense or nervous, there are clear visual signals, long before the volume, or pitch, of their voice increases! Their fists may be clenched, or their hands or feet tapping. Their hands may be interlocked, as if praying, and the apparent pressure between the hands gives an indication of just how tense they may be. Their arms are crossed, but they are gripping their biceps. Look at the parent’s mouth: upward turns in the corner of the mouth are often positive signs, and downward turns, or flat lines, demonstrate negative behaviour. Are lips pressed together or relaxed and comfortable? When the parent speaks, emotion is betrayed by a high pitch, fast pace or stuttering, long before the voice becomes over-loud, or the language abusive. Parents may repeatedly clear their throats. Their eyes evade you.
Be aware of these signs of unease, and respond sympathetically; you may avoid the situation escalating into anger. Be welcoming and placatory: listen attentively to their concerns; nod in acknowledgment of what they are saying; feed back your understanding of what they are saying. Offer a comfortable environment and perhaps a drink and a biscuit. Do not approach over-assertively; if you put such parents on the defensive, they will move quickly from unease to anger.
One of the most valuable ways of discovering whether someone is being open and honest is to look for palm displays. When someone begins to open up or be truthful, he will expose all, or part, of his palms to another person. Like most body language, this is a completely unconscious gesture, one that gives you a hunch that the other person is telling the truth. When a child is lying or concealing something, his palms are hidden in his pockets or he adopts an “arms folded” position, for example, when he tries to explain where he was. One of the tricky things about body language is that we are often unaware of how we are reacting to it. We may, for example, form a negative judgment about someone because she slouches, won’t look us in the eye or “talks with her hands.” Because we are unaware of why we made the judgment, we are unable to filter out our biases about what body language means and what it tells us about an individual.
Be aware, also, of what you are communicating through your own body language. Be open, physically. Do not cross your arms across the chest or hold obstructive objects (such as your marks register) protectively between the two of you. Approach parents with a hand outstretched in greeting, make eye contact and smile as if pleased to see them – even, or perhaps especially, if you are not! Aggressive body language will only alienate, and probably exacerbate what may already be a tense or confrontational meeting.
You need to appear relaxed, with an upright posture, and maintain direct eye contact. Rounded shoulders tend to imply that you are afraid or subservient, although a rigidly upright posture can, by contrast, convey inflexibility – think of the regimental sergeant major! Drooping, hunched shoulders have the connotation of carrying a heavy burden, and will not create the impression of someone who is confident in the decisions they have made. Beware of using arms and legs unconsciously as a protective barrier. Be aware of overall position: put simply, we lean towards people we like and lean away from people we don’t.
Avoid gazing at the floor, one of the cardinal sins of body language: if you avoid looking at people, you avoid connecting with them. It will make the parent feel you’re not interested in them or anything they’re saying – if you can’t even be bothered raising your eyes to fake interest, what hope have they got? – or perhaps that you are arrogant – it’s rude not to look at someone who is talking to you – or nervous and slightly dodgy – avoid looking someone in the eye and they automatically assume you’re hiding something. Try not to resort to habitual actions which convey nervousness, such as fiddling with your collar or scratching your neck. You might as well have a neon sign hanging round it that reads ‘My name’s John/Jane and you’re making me feel horribly insecure and/or as nervous as hell’.
Both gestures are signs of doubt and uncertainty. People pull their clothes away from their necks when they’re in a ‘hot spot’, literal or otherwise; this may be how you are feeling, but do you really want to convey the fact so openly? And finally, propping up your face with your hand – putting your hand on the side of your face and leaning on it could be sending a clear message, either “I’m so bored and tired, I can hardly hold my head up” or “I’m feeling faintly superior and quite possibly judging you while I’m at it.” We simply would not sit like that in front of a boss or someone we respected.
Your facial expression needs to be responsive to what the parent is saying. Keep your hands relaxed and your voice confident, measured in volume and pitch. Bear in mind that, when holding a conversation, people use certain head movements to indicate that they have come to the end of a sentence and are waiting for the other person’s answer. Lowering of the head may indicate the end of a statement or raising the head the end of a question, and a demand for your response.
Look for signs of growing “congruence”: when we are starting to see another person’s point of view, we tend to imitate their body language. When a group is in congruence, the positions of their bodies mimic each other, in some cases like a mirror image: when one member of a congruent group changes his position, everyone does so with him. Congruence within a group usually indicates that all the members are in agreement. If the group has two points of view, the defenders of each opinion will adopt different positions; each subgroup will be congruent within itself, but not congruent with the other subgroup.
When interviewing two parents, looking for congruent movements may help you to establish who is the dominant partner, and it may not necessarily be the one who first begins to speak: they may be holding the “big guns” in reserve, to catch out the unwary teacher, who is beginning to think that he, or she, is winning the argument. Manage the situation by trying to bring the “silent partner” into the discussion at a point that suits you – “What do you feel has happened, Mr Smith?” When those on the “other side” of the discussion begin to mirror your movements, you know that they are getting on side, and listening to what you have to say. To try to break the tension at the beginning of the interview, to increase a person’s comfort when they are closed-off, utilize mirroring; observe the parent’s behaviour and then, in a subtle way, act the same way they are acting. If their arms are crossed over, sit back, relax a little, and then begin to cross your arms.
The “Managed” Meeting
The majority of times we have an interview with parents, we are well aware that the meeting will take place. There is, of course, the annual Parents’ Consultation Evening, or you may have sent a letter home about a disciplinary related incident, for example, that you can confidently predict will elicit a response from home and even, perhaps, that it is likely to be an emotional, or even heated, exchange. There are also social events, a “Celebration Assembly” perhaps to which parents have been invited, which might also prompt some to request a few words with you in private regarding a long running issue. And, sometimes, the meeting has been suggested by you, effectively a summons to the parents to attend a meeting of crucial importance to the youngster, for example, if there has been cause for a temporary exclusion or a permanent exclusion is on the horizon. Whenever you have the opportunity to “manage” such meetings, make the most of the opportunity to ensure a good outcome for all parties, and the minimum of stress for yourself.
It is, perhaps, worth emphasising that most encounters with parents are perfectly amicable, or may be emotional for them, although not in any way expressed in angry exchanges. It would be a mistake to always assume the worst; your own tension will be conveyed to parents and might be the “last straw” that tips them over the edge!
a) Fixing a Date
When a parent requests a meeting in advance, or if you are issuing the summons, think carefully about the timing. Allow enough time to prepare effectively – a few days at least. When confirming the time and date, if you are not really sure why the meeting is being requested, politely enquire as to the general topic. Pick a time which you can “manage” i.e. that will have a definite start time and a definite finish: meetings during the school day are often better from this point of view, since parents will anticipate that you will have classes to teach at some point! However, it is also often the time least favoured by parents, who may work during the day or have other commitments, for example younger children to make arrangements for.
If the meeting must be at the end of the school day, make sure that you have established with the parents how long the meeting will last, and inform a reliable colleague, whose job it will be to bring the meeting to an end by “interrupting”: this could be a teaching colleague, a member of non-teaching staff, even a cleaner or caretaker, reminding you that the room needs to be cleared. Emotionally charged meetings have a tendency to become circular, the tension rising and falling, and can, if you don’t manage them, carry on for disproportionately long times, and they are no more effective than a short, sharp, focussed meeting in bringing about a satisfactory outcome.
When you have fixed the date and time, make sure that it has been entered into the school calendar. Book a suitable room, if available. Inform the appropriate line manager which parents you are meeting and why – curriculum leader, pastoral team leader, senior management. Informing the SEN coordinator would also be appropriate for certain pupils. Make sure that the reception staff know, and will be ready to greet the parents warmly.
Make it clear to all how long you are scheduling the meeting for, and make sure that there will be some support for you, should matters become heated or should the meeting drag on interminably – and have an “exit plan” agreed to address these possible scenarios.
Use the interim time wisely to gather as much information as you can. Check school records for any information from previous meetings, perhaps with other members of staff: ask colleagues for any tips or pieces of information, about family circumstances perhaps, that you might not previously have been privy to. Do not forget support staff and those in reception, for example, who may have had cause to speak to these parents before. Use “local knowledge”: many support staff live locally and may know these parents in an entirely different social setting, as neighbours perhaps, and may also have useful information to add. Don’t forget the child who is the stimulus for the discussion – but beware of appearing to pump for information! Always remember that the child has his, or her, own agenda, and you never know what the little dear has been saying at home that may potentially have already inflamed an otherwise perfectly amicable meeting.
Gather together the “evidence” you may have relating to the meeting – examples of class work, attendance records, records of missed homeworks and some comparative information (no names of course) with other class members, photocopies of graffiti, photographs of damage – whatever supports the issues you need to put across. Have copies available of relevant policy documents, or previous written correspondence, and a clear note of when, and how, such communications have been conveyed. Make sure that you have carefully read records of any previous correspondence, whether on the matter in question or another: incidents which may appear to you to be unrelated, to parents desperate for a reason to excuse their child’s behaviour may seem to provide evidence of a “conspiracy” – at least if they bring something up, you will know roughly what they are referring to!
The watchword for your preparation should be “Forewarned is forearmed!”
b) Managing the Environment
How we guard our personal space boundaries, and how we enter into the others’ personal space, is integrally connected with the way we relate with other people. It is important for people to have their ‘own space’, and how you manage the space in the meeting room will establish the relationship between you and the parent, and possibly the emotional tone that the meeting will take. Make sure that you have established a “space” for yourself that you are comfortable with, in terms of the distance between you and the parents, and your relative positions. If the meeting is taking place in your “teaching space”, this is, in one sense, a kind of temporary home territory for you, perhaps marked by personal belongings, and one in which you may feel comfortable. Conversely, you may see this as a potential battleground, or a territory you want to protect, and feel happier in a more formal meeting room. Each school will, in addition, have its own established practices which may dictate the venue.
Arrange the chairs in the interview room before the parents arrive, giving thought to the atmosphere you want to establish, as well as more practical issues. A desk between you and them may feel “safe” and protective, but also conveys that you feel in need of protection, and creates a barrier between you, enforcing an “us and them” mentality. The room layout should reflect the home – school partnership in action. If you want to have the comfort of a desk, or simply need one on which to gather your evidence, consider having the parents sitting at right angles to you, rather than directly across the desk.
Think about the position of chairs, and who will sit where, relative to the doorway – in the worst possible scenario, you want to be sure that YOU are the one closest to the door and can leave before they do! This may be to seek help or support from elsewhere, to remove yourself from a highly charged atmosphere and allow “calm down” time, or to bring a meeting to an end when it has gone way beyond sensible limits, despite your best efforts. In these circumstances, always make sure that you h