David B. Cohen
It's a feeling most teachers know, which churns in your gut when you see a particular email or letter, or hear a voice mail, and realize that a tense, difficult parent contact awaits you. Take a deep breath, slow things down, and take a clinical approach to the problem. If it's really going to take a while to compose your thoughts or address concerns, let parents know promptly that you've heard their concerns and you're working on a response. Tell them when they should expect to hear from you again, and follow through!
Keep in mind that as professional educators, our job is to understand all sides, work with parents and students as partners, and resolve challenging situations in ways that support students' learning and well-being. Parents and teachers generally have the same long-term interests in helping children thrive personally and academically; in the short term, misunderstandings, tensions and family situations can all lead to different interpretations of how to handle a given situation in a way that addresses those long-term interests.
If you are confronting a situation where students feel the short-term sting of an unpleasant outcome, be it academic or disciplinary, articulate exactly why your actions are consistent with your goals of supporting the student's overall long-term needs, and how your position squares with applicable policies. Offer flexibility when you can, and don't be afraid to change your mind as new information comes to light; holding your ground is only a virtue in the face of unreasonable demands. And when you do make a mistake (yes, we do that sometimes), apologize, thank the parent for bringing it to your attention, and make amends.
Sometimes, despite your sympathy and professionalism, a conflict persists. A wise administrator once advised me that the longer a contentious situation lasts, the shorter and less detailed your contacts should become. At some point you may need to disengage from a situation rather than repeat a cycle of counterproductive bickering. Try not to let a situation sap you of your time, energy and spirit. If that's happening, you should expect administrative support so that you can resume doing your best work for all your students. Absent that support, a conversation with trusted colleagues or your association representatives would be in order.
David B. Cohen, a National Board Certified teacher and Palo Alto Educators Association member, answered this question based on his 18 years teaching high school. He is a member of CTA’s Think Tank, which is composed of passionate professionals who are examining the best practices of teaching and learning.
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