Working With Difficult Parents

by Suzanne Tingley

At the 8th-grade picnic, on a dare from one of his friends, a student surreptitiously spits into a drink left on the picnic table by a classmate who is participating in a race. When the race is over, the runner jogs back to the table and takes a big swig of his drink. The perpetrators collapse in laughter and only then tell him what they have done — and what he drank.

Furious and humiliated, the boy complains to his parents when he gets home. They immediately call the principal. After investigating the incident, the principal calls the spitter’s father. Which of the following do you suppose is the father’s response?

A. “I am so sorry. Please feel free to impose any discipline you think is appropriate, and we will handle this when he gets home.”

B. “Oh, big deal. It’s a harmless prank. Nobody was hurt.”

C. “Well, where was the teacher? Why wasn’t she watching what went on?”

Career Departures
Wouldn’t it be great if the answer were A? Unfortunately, if you work in the public schools, you know that if the parent actually said that, the principal might think he’d drifted into a time warp. Answers B and C have become popular choices with parents who prefer either to defend the child’s behavior or blame the teacher.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. Some administrators remember parents who told their children, “If you get into trouble at school, it’s NOTHING compared to what will happen when you get home.” Parents like these are unusual today. In their place we have the dreaded “helicopter parents” hovering overhead, ready to swoop in at a moment’s notice with guns blazing if they think their child has been unfairly treated in any way.

Let me hasten to say that most parents I’ve worked with over the years have been great. They work in partnership with their child’s teachers for their child’s benefit. The minority, however, can make life miserable for a teacher or administrator.

A 2005 Harvard Graduate School of Education report indicates that about one-sixth of American teachers leave the profession every year. According to research by the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy in 2005, the stress of dealing with difficult parents is one of the top reasons teachers choose to depart. Among new teachers, communication with parents is the most frequently cited challenge and the area in which they feel least prepared, according to the 2005 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher.

Despite their years of training, new teachers and even new administrators are not ready to deal with parents like Rick’s dad, who thinks it’s the teacher’s fault Rick cheated on a test because she wasn’t watching him carefully enough. Nothing in their coursework prepared them for Jasmine’s mother, who insists her daughter copied another student’s homework “by accident.” They also haven’t encountered Pete’s step-dad, who thinks that underage drinking on the senior trip isn’t a disciplinary issue but a rite of passage. And they have no ready answer for Sarah’s mother, who doesn’t want her child to read the assigned book and doesn’t want anyone else’s child to read it either.

Teachers who leave the field often cite lack of administrative support when they have had conflicts with parents. So if we want to keep energetic, enthusiastic new (or even veteran) teachers on board, administrators need to be proactive rather than reactive in working with difficult parents — or any parents at all.

Enabling Cooperation
Clear policies that are consistently implemented will help reduce conflict. So will acknowledgement by staff that the parents and the school are partners in the child’s education. Although some parents never will be satisfied, the following guidelines will increase your chances of home-school cooperation:

• Begin with the premise that parents have the right and the responsibility to be involved in their child’s education. Not all difficult parents were born that way; some were created by teachers who were unresponsive to simple requests or hostile to parental involvement. Administrators set the tone in the building, so it’s important that parents perceive the school as inviting.

• Be sure school rules are designed for the safety and welfare of the students and not just for the convenience of the teacher. For example, if 2nd graders are dressed in snowsuits, boots and mittens 20 minutes before the bus comes so the teacher can leave on time, parents may have a right to be concerned.

• Insist parents follow the chain of command when they have a garden-variety complaint about a teacher. The principal’s first response should be, “Have you talked to your child’s teacher?”

• Make sure your school has a clear, written process for parental objections to instructional materials. Don’t wait until a book is challenged to figure out how to respond.

• Recognize that working successfully with parents is a legitimate focus for staff development.

Administrators can support teachers not only by intervening in a timely manner when parents are unreasonable, but also by helping teachers develop parent management strategies themselves. Teachers need to feel confident they can count on their administrator for support and guidance when the involved parent becomes the impossible parent.

Suzanne Tingley is superintendent of the Sackets Harbor Central Schools, P.O. Box 280, Sackets Harbor, NY 13685. She is the author of How to Handle Difficult Parents: A Teacher’s Survival Guide (Cottonwood Press 2006). E-mail: