You know the old saying: safety first. The saying also applies to teachers and their dealings with parents. It’s always best to think of parents as our partners in their children’s education. Most of the time, I’m sure they think the same way about us. But every once in a while an incident occurs that can put teacher safety with parents in jeopardy.
Teachers who find themselves in situations of conflict need to be vigilant in protecting themselves. Here are seven tips to help.
1. Be proactive.
Document everything, just in case. If you think something that happened in class is important, write it down. I’ve done this since the 1990s and it’s come in handy on several occasions.
In one case, a parent was not happy that her son received an “I” on the social side of the report card. He had at least three minor infractions during the marking period. I thought that assigning an “improvement needed” was warranted.
Beyond my control was a school policy that stated no student could receive honors with even one “I” on the report card. The boy had the grades to make honors, but the “I” he received kept him off the list.
Of course, the student’s mom blamed me. And soon we were in a meeting with her attorney. I provided the dates and times that the incidents occurred, and made my case that the grade should stay as marked. It would not be honest to change the student’s grade just so he could make the honor roll and please his mother, so I didn’t.
I wasn’t actually sued, either, because I had enough documentation and a couple witnesses, to boot. The student squeaked by in the final quarter of the year, and the matter fizzled away as the summer began. Had the matter escalated to an actual suit, I would have had to consult the teacher’s union for help.
2. Try to handle things from a distance.
See how much of a parent’s concerns you can handle over the phone. If they seem upset, and are confronted with facts in a calm and helpful manner (read: not defensive), then the whole thing can be handled at a distance. Most often, parental complaints are based on a miscommunication or misunderstanding of some kind.
Regardless of whose fault that is, it’s best to set the record straight in as professional a manner as possible and remain as positive as you can that things can be worked out. Sometimes a matter can be cleared up in an e-mail, but when I taught in public school, we were discouraged from handling parent concerns in e-mails because tone is often misunderstood in a written message.
Parents may not always agree with you, but as long as they are content with your efforts, they most likely will leave you alone.
3. Have backup on hand.
If you have a meeting with a parent who seems particularly angry (which you can often discern from hearing his or her voice during a phone call), make sure you have someone with you at the face-to-face conference. An administrator would be preferred in this situation. But if one is not available, ask another teacher to join you, especially one who knows the student.
This type of “buddy system” is just as important as any other, as it could save you in more ways than one.
4. Don’t hesitate to call a time out.
If you find yourself in a meeting with a parent who is growing more irate by the second, calmly suggest that you continue at another time or in another location, with others present.
Something like this unfortunately happened to me last spring, where a parent with incomplete information went to the principal first, and then me. The principal informed me of the meeting request, and said the matter seemed inconsequential and that there was nothing to worry about. Boy, was he wrong!
By the time the parents and I met, the father was so worked up he flew into a rage only a minute into our meeting, without even hearing my side. He made threats of physical harm to me and claimed he was there to “bully” me. (He later admitted that he had PTSD and reacted that way often during times of personal crisis. That, of course, was out of my control and none of my business.)
After his prolonged outburst, my survival instincts kicked in. I calmly stood up and suggested that we head downstairs to the principal’s office and continue there. We did, and after about an hour of hashing it out, a very scary confrontation was diffused. We all shook hands and went home.
For personal and situational reasons, I did not report the incident to the police. But I could have.
5. Be careful about giving out personal information
Be very protective about sharing things like your address, phone number, where you go after school, etc. Someone who has a beef with you could find out the information, which could end up putting you in danger. It should go without saying that this type of information should not be posted on social media, where anyone can see it.
6. Safety policies at school should be followed.
They are there for a reason. The school needs to enforce all safety policies, and enact them when it appears there is a need. At one of my previous schools, a parent began standing outside of my room 20-to-30 minutes before dismissal. This posed not only a distraction but a potential safety hazard to both the teacher and the students.
Most schools, whether public or private, have a policy in place where parents need to wait outside or in a designated area until students are dismissed. Fortunately, the situation was noted and corrected, and a new procedure was adopted and enforced to correct the problem.
7. Let the front office do their job.
Let the office admit visitors into the building – not you, and certainly not a student. Sometimes as we are walking through the hall we see a visitor waiting at the door to get in. Our instinct is to be helpful and go over to open the door for them. Since we don’t know what business they have, what their intentions are, or what state of mind they’re in, it’s best to let the office let them in. You can always explain yourself later if confronted by the visitor. They likely will be pleased that precautions are being taken and policy followed regarding the most important job a school can have – to keep its occupants safe.