How to manage difficult parents as a teacher

Let me start by clarifying; I don't think parents are intentionally "difficult" and I don't think they necessarily need "managing," however, inevitably throughout the school year, you will receive at least one email from a parent. Not the usual "how is my child doing in your class" but the kind of email that immediately makes your heart race and skin burn. You know the kind I'm talking about.


It will likely begin with a curt greeting, leaving the "Hi" out of the introduction, and jumping straight into some sort of accusation. It will then be followed with a list of your shortcomings, all the ways you've failed both their child, countless others, and how you are likely a disgrace to the teaching profession altogether. There may even be some reference to how you're failing in comparison to your colleagues. This parent may even take the patronizing approach of being "disappointed" in you - which often feels worse... Finally, the parent signs the email, expecting some form of communication back, either from you, or from your administration (which, chances are, in their mind is a victory, because you've "outed" your poor performance to admin for them...)


Now comes your response. You have a few options, depending on the content and context of this email.


First, you can fire it straight to your administrators and request they handle it. If you have supportive admin, this is a reasonable option and may actually ease your worries! (Though I've learned that not all admin will have your back and support you in these cases).


Second, you can craft your own response. This post is for those of you that want to reply to parents yourself. Yes, it can be terrifying! But there are some ways I've found to do this that serve to de-escalate and can actually build relationships with the parents. (Building relationship with them might be a unicorn situation, but we can teach parents how to better communicate with us in the future!)


  1. Don't reply right away. Your instinct will surely be to reply quickly and defend yourself, your professionalism and anything else being questioned by the parent. However, take some time. Think it through before you reply and allow yourself to approach the email in a calmer frame of mind.

  2. Start with a friendly greeting, even if the parent didn't. Then follow it up with a "Thank you for your email!" (I notoriously over exclamation mark - I just find it sets a different tone in this instance).

  3. Remind yourself that this parent is emailing because they love their child and they're coming from a place of concern. In high school, many parents are unceremoniously left out of their child's social life, extracurriculars, and academics, and the sudden loss of control can be terrifying and jolting. Their emailing, however aggressive, is an attempt to regain some control over their child's newfound independence. Parents often don't know how much they don't know...

  4. After your greeting, begin to slowly and thoughtfully address the concerns, but do your best to remove yourself from them. Remember, this email is rarely actually about you!

For example, if a parent says "I don't know how my child is failing your English class when they've done so well in the past. Clearly you're doing something wrong. I looked at my child's homework, and the expectations are outrageous. I am disappointed in teacher's like you, who set students up for failure."


(Anyone else have a parent email like this in the past... Yeeaaahhhh....)


When you respond, carefully tease out the actual concerns. The concerns are their child's failing grade (which you know is a result of their child struggling, for whatever reason). They're also concerned that their child cannot keep up with the demand (which may or may not be the case here). They are also concerned that their child will not have an opportunity to catch up. Begin by addressing *these* concerns, rather than the ones that the parent projected onto you.


An example of this might be:


"Hi *name*!" Thank you so much for your email! I completely understand your worries about your child's success in English this year. I have those same concerns! It's interesting to hear that they've done so well in the past, and I'd be interested to know more about what methods former teachers used to help engage them. Do you have some insights into what strategies best worked to support their English learning? So far I've tried *insert strategies here,* but I'm always open to other suggestions! I understand the work load definitely seems to progress from year to year, and expectations certainly seem to shift as students advance. It can feel overwhelming for students, but I'm happy to help *student* in whatever way I can! Would they benefit from some additional help in the learning resources center or peer tutoring? If they need more time to complete *insert assignment here* I'm happy to offer extensions as needed. I know the end of the year is fast approaching, and you're both probably wanting some assurance that *student* will pass the class. At this point, with *student* attending daily, using their class-time wisely, and accessing the supports above, it's absolutely possible for them to find success in English this year! I am looking forward to you and I continuing to collaborate on ways to help *student* find success!"


In this example you have successfully addressed the root concerns while not getting defensive. Remember, a parent's academic worries are less likely about you, and more likely about the overall feeling of not knowing, and not understanding. It's our job to provide the knowing and understanding in a calm, rational, and supportive way to assure parents that their child is well looked after, considered, and given all opportunities to find success at school!


Conclusion


Aggressive parent emails are stressful and feel personal! Remember that they aren't! Parents often project onto us, and though frustrating, it helps to remind ourselves that we both have the same goal - to support their kid! (How many of us try unsuccessfully to reach some parents and never hear back, when we're desperate for home support?? I'd take the aggressive parent any day - it means they're at least trying and may not have the tools to communicate effectively with you yet!)


Finally, Sometimes you cannot please a parent. In these instances, regardless of calm, thoughtful, rational approaches, you have no choice but to involve admin. Abuse from parents does not need to be tolerated.


Want more sample responses or help crafting some? Just send me an email and I'm happy to talk it through with you! Good luck!