We’ve all been there. Even the most organized, hardest-working, unbelievably kind teachers can end up with parent conferences on their calendar that make them groan and look around for the nearest cafeteria spork to stab into their eyeballs. I’m not talking about the conferences with parents who call or send civilized emails with questions or comments instead of firing off accusations, or the parents who genuinely want help on how to reinforce what’s being taught at school. Any teacher should be happy to communicate with them.
When I talk about scary conferences, I’m talking about Those Parents.
Those Parents know everything about teaching (because they have a vast knowledge of the educational system, having been a student from grades K through 12). Those Parents have this magic yardstick with which they measure the teacher, who, no matter how great he or she is, will always come up short. When they hear information from their child, Those Parents don’t just jump to conclusions, they board the express jet to the land of It’s the Teacher’s Fault and book an extended-stay vacation. Those Parents send emails so heated that you double-check the salutation to make sure they weren’t accidentally addressed to some widely hated public figure. Those Parents often believe that their son is so faultless and perfect that he has never even broken a blade of grass under his foot (or if he has, it certainly wasn’t intentional).
Those Parents make me wish there were a 2016 presidential candidate running on the platform that all citizens be required to complete two years of teaching before being allowed to have children.*
I’m lucky that I’ve had relatively little experience with Those Parents, but I don’t think it’s because of anything I do differently or better than other teachers. I think that the Teaching Gods look on me with pity because of how horribly my first two years were and have now offered me mercy and respite in the Those Parents department.
But that doesn’t mean I’ve never sat through a parent conference where I wasn’t sweating profusely and/or on the verge of crying. Going to a parent conference where you know the parents are aggressively unhappy with you can be one of the scariest teacher feelings, especially for new teachers.
So here are some survival tips from me but also from some veterans who are total pros at dealing with Those Parents.
The most important thing you can do to try to have a productive, positive conference is preparation ahead of time. Have any email correspondence printed, have student work ready and organized, any other documentation that might help you—tutorials offered, tutorials attended, reminders given, work from other students in the same class. This prevents the “Well, I know I called/emailed/faxed you, but I can’t remember when …” excuse or the “Johnny told me that everyone else did what he did and got an A” game.
Make an effort to be dressed professionally and show that you have taken care with your appearance.
You don’t need to buy or wear anything expensive or fancy necessarily (and if you are able to buy expensive things on your teacher’s paycheck, please let me know where you work so I can apply there immediately), but make sure this isn’t the day you’re wearing your most casual outfit either. You want your appearance to say, “I am a professional worthy of respect,” not “I have just come from the faculty volleyball game and my sweat has bled through my homemade blue-and-purple tie-dyed headband and leaked onto my forehead and eyes, which is why I appear to be somehow both sweaty and dead.” Not that I know this from experience.
Ask an administrator to be present.
You shouldn’t do this for every parent conference, but if you are genuinely nervous that things may get heated, ask for an administrator to sit in on it with you. Make sure you let parents know this ahead of time if you can so that it doesn’t look like you’re trying to be sneaky or catch them off-guard.
Rehearse for the worst, but hope for the best.
When you’re at home or in your car, have a pretend conversation with the parent or parents in which they say the most absurd things imaginable, like, “Well, Steven says that you admitted to being the leader of a cult in your spare time,” or “We believe Katie is actually Albert Einstein reincarnated, so we know that it is not possible she’s ever been wrong in your class.” Practice your responses to these questions, (“Oh, Steven has such an imagination! Unfortunately, I think there’s a bit of a breakdown between what happens at school and what is being communicated at home.” And “Yes, Katie is so bright, and I love that about her! But even Albert Einstein had a tough time in school, and I want to make sure Katie makes it through this tough time using the incredible work ethic she and Albert share.”) Rehearsing for the worst won’t just prepare you for keeping a handle on your emotions, but chances are it won’t go nearly as badly as the worst you can imagine, so you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised.
Think about your boundaries before the meeting starts.
Often we come in knowing what we won’t do (ask Nathan 2,491 times per day to write his homework down, give Monica an A on a project when she clearly deserves a C on the rubric, etc.). But equally important is knowing ahead of time what you are willing to do. Is there a tutorial schedule you could agree to? What if the parents ask for you to sign the student’s planner/homework folder? Would you be willing to send the parent a weekly email? Create a Twitter account and post the homework once a day? Figuring out in advance what you are willing and not willing to do helps because you will have a firm, confident answer ready, and you will demonstrate to parents that in addition to the work you’ve already done as a teacher, you’ve planned to offer extra help. If you’ve already done a lot of extra help and think you have done everything in your power (within reason) to help the child, make sure you have the documentation ready to support that.
Set a positive tone for the meeting by setting shared goals.
“I know we’re here because we all want Yvette to be successful in seventh-grade math and reach the potential we all know she has” is probably a more productive way of starting a meeting than, “Do you see this patch of gray hair on my head? That is from your emails!”
Remember that what is said at home is not always the same as what happens at school.
Many times when you encounter scary parents, this is what has happened: kid comes home crying because he/she is upset about something that may or not have been within their control. Mom/Dad’s protective instinct kicks in (rightfully). Kid omits/misrepresents details in order to avoid trouble/blame. Mom and Dad go to teacher. Teacher explains the truth. Parents either are embarrassed, which manifests as anger, and take it out on teacher or still don’t believe the teacher is telling the truth and are even more angry. Now this isn’t always the case, but it’s a case I’ve seen several times. I don’t have children, but I can imagine that if my child came home saying that a teacher called her stupid, my first reaction would be that of a crazy, rage-filled mama bear, and I would have to wait at least 24 hours before sending an email that’s not in all caps.
Keep your cool.
It will be a lot harder for Those Parents to be mean to you if you’re treating them with kindness and respect. In the same way that you hand over your power to students by yelling or saying something inflammatory, make sure that you don’t give parents the satisfaction of knowing they’ve unnerved you, whether it’s something you say out loud or it’s in your body language.
Look for opportunities to agree.
It can be hard, but try to find places in the conversation to let the parents know you agree, even if you’re just saying, “That’s a great question,” or “I’m so glad you asked that.” This indicates that 1) you are listening and 2) that you are cooperative, and hopefully the other participants in the conversation will follow your lead.
Now, here’s the thing with Those Parents. In the same way that Those Parents seem to forget that teachers are human, it’s easy to turn them into monsters in our heads and dismiss them as crazy. But we (and I include myself in this) need to remember that they are human too. A wise person once told me that underneath every mean or angry person is fear. The real driving factor for all of the anger and ugly stuff you’re seeing on the surface with parents who are unkind and unreasonable is love for their child and fear about his/her happiness and success. And that love, that fear, is something we can all understand and relate to.
Also, let me be clear that parents are not simply Those Parents if they disagree with you. Sometimes teachers are wrong. Sometimes teachers are at fault. Like one of my high school Spanish teachers who thought I maintained my 100 average by cheating off a student who asked multiple times throughout the year what the Spanish word for no was. (Clearly I am not over this.) As a teacher myself now, I know I mess up regularly, with small mistakes and big ones, and I will always recommend that it’s better to admit a mistake, apologize and move on than to let things get to the point where a conference is needed.
Oh, I almost forgot! My last tip:
Promise yourself a milkshake after school.
No matter how badly the meeting goes, you’ll know that at the end an Oreo milkshake is waiting for you with open arms.
What are your survival tips for scary parent conferences?
*Not really. I’ve read Brave New World, people.