The frequency with which educators are confronted with angry parents has increased over the past few years. The trend is not surprising given the uncertainty, fear, and disruption families have experienced during the pandemic. Meanwhile, political forces have, at times, conspired to create doubt and suspicion regarding instructional content and regarding the intentions and strategies employed by educators. These factors can be the source of considerable angst and emotional distress for parents. It follows that much of the emotion, including anger, gets directed at teachers.
The prospect of meeting with an angry parent can create significant anxiety. Teachers may not know the source of the anger. They may feel uncertain about how and whether they can respond adequately. Handling the situation successfully will most certainly require a plan. Fortunately, there is a process teachers can employ in these circumstances that can help them navigate emotions, respond to concerns, and move forward. Consider this seven-step approach:
First, look at the situation as an opportunity to solve a problem, not as a personal attack. This perspective allows you to avoid taking a defensive position and seeing the situation as “win-lose.” Approach the situation with more objectivity. In some cases, this approach can even enable you to enlist the parent as a partner in finding a solution.
Second, listen carefully for understanding, rather than defending or explaining an action. As much as possible, avoid interrupting other than to seek clarification. Allowing the parent to vent can be the first step in moving the situation toward resolution. Equally important, you’re likely to hear information and discover important clues that later can form the foundation of an effective response.
Third, focus on the emotions the parent is sharing, rather than responding with logic or additional information. Your understanding and respect for the emotions and empathizing with the distress the parent is feeling can be as crucial to resolving the situation as the ideas you share and commitments you may make. You don’t have to agree with the parent’s perspective to be accepting and respectful of their emotions.
Fourth, summarize what you’ve heard to confirm your understanding, rather than correcting or judging what has been said. Your goal is to assure the parent that you’ve been listening to understand, not to prepare a counter argument. Listening is one of the most respectful actions you can take and being listened to can be a powerful dissipater of anger.
Fifth, express confidence that you’ll find a solution, even if you don’t yet have a fully formed outcome in mind. This also is the point in the conversation where you might tactfully share additional information, including information that may be counter to the perceptions of the parent. You may point to additional information you need to collect and clarify. Doing so may mean suspending the conversation until you’re able to build a better understanding and develop options for moving forward. However, you need to be specific about the timing and focus of the next steps to avoid giving the impression that you’re stalling or avoiding the problem.
Sixth, offer multiple potential solutions, rather than choosing a single option to consider. Your choice to contemplate more than one course of action can open the door for the parent to provide input and create greater acceptance of and ownership for the next steps in the process. However, you need to clarify and confirm what will happen next to avoid confusion and avoid undermining the trust you’ve built.
Seventh, follow-up with the parent to provide an update on actions taken, share any additional relevant information, and confirm any other commitments you’ve made. This information typically is best communicated in person or via another form of live conversation to avoid any misunderstanding and to reinforce the relationship you’ve built.
Dealing with an angry parent may not be a comfortable prospect. But teachers can approach the situation with confidence and optimism if they have a plan to guide them through the emotional context—that communicates respect and responsiveness, and that leads to a thoughtful, responsive, and mutually acceptable outcome.