I think it’s safe to say that no one makes it through life without encountering some conflict along the way. Relationships of all kinds – personal, professional, parental – have their trying moments. It’s how we deal with these moments that defines our character and determines how well we’ll sleep at night.
People are emotional – and
sometimes often times, irrational beings. When others don’t see situations through the same lens as we do, conflict can result. Trust me, I know – I’m an elementary school teacher.
I’m not saying teachers have the monopoly on professional conflict. I think any job that involves working with people comes with a much higher likelihood of encountering it. My husband works for a large company in a role that has him managing conflict on a daily basis. The difference between his job’s brand of conflict and the kind teachers typically face is the extent to which the conflict is made personal.
My job description should read something like this: ‘Plan and deliver engaging and relevant lessons that align with curriculum standards; ensure students’ safety at all times while at school; assess and evaluate students’ performance using a variety of methods; communicate regularly with parents about students’ progress; be prepared at all times to defend every decision, grade, comment, assignment, activity, font, and hairstyle to a thankfully small but loud subsection of parents who would sooner attack your judgement without first knowing all the facts rather than respect your professional integrity and speak to you like a human being.‘
With 15 years in the profession under my belt, I’ve been fortunate to not have personally encountered too many of those parents. There might be one or two each year. In speaking with friends who teach and colleagues at my school, I know some teachers contend with combative parents much more frequently, especially in the lower grades where our youngest learners are still pretty new to the whole school thang.
In my fourth year of teaching, I could do nothing right in the eyes of one student’s mother. Everything about her when talking with me – her tone, stance, lack of eye contact – communicated that she did. not. like. me. It affected me. I worked hard – what was her deal? One morning, her daughter – who was adopted as an infant and was of a different ethnic background than her mother – handed me a note from her mom. I can still feel the nastiness it conveyed when I think about it. The gist of the note was that I had no business asking her daughter in what country she had been born. At my first opportunity, I sat down at my computer and pounded out a reply to her message. It was a page long. Single-spaced. This mother was scolding me without knowing the facts and I wasn’t having it -she needed to be set straight. I hadn’t asked her daughter anything – I had lead the class in a curriculum-linked discussion about world cultures and her little girl had raised her hand and offered up the information about her country of birth. I marched my letter down to my vice principal’s office for his approval, and after glancing briefly at the page, he told me I couldn’t send it home to that…that…parent. Gobsmacked, I asked why. His answer continues to guide my responses to conflicts that arise today in my life: I had let my emotions take over. Without even reading my words, he could tell that a letter that lengthy had been driven by angry energy (oh how correct he was!), and it was more likely to make the situation with this parent worse than achieve any resolution. He also advised me to ‘sleep on it’ before sending home any other response. I was still too close to the anger – I needed to cool off and gain some perspective.
Teachers contend with situations like this all the time – even more so now that we’re so available to parents via email and other social media apps used for classroom communication purposes.
Let me say this: It’s ok that some of my decisions as a teacher frustrate, confuse, annoy, or anger you. Not only are you human – and likely a busy one at that, but we’re dealing with your child – the one thing that can cause even the most rational person to lose their shit if they are worried that said child is not receiving the support and attention they need to be successful and happy. Your anger is being driven by fear that your child is not getting everything they need and deserve. That’s enough to make any Mama or Papa Bear wake up from hibernation and come to Baby Bear’s defense.
I get it.
It’s not ok to be an asshole. Hello? Golden Rule? A lot of the time when a parent is upset with a teacher, they immediately make it personal. It becomes an attack on the teacher’s intelligence or integrity. Your tax dollars might pay my salary, but that doesn’t make me
your bitch your punching bag.
Your child’s teacher is human too. And whether you believe it or not, that human also cares about your child. (In rare situations that may not be the case, but we’re not talking about those teachers here.)
Whatever the reason behind that inflammatory email or note you’re about to send to the teacher, I can almost guarantee you of 3 things:
- You are not operating with all of the facts, and the facts you are missing are likely important to the big picture of the situation. If the information you are working with has come entirely from your child, you are almost definitely missing some key facts. Your kid may be your most amazing accomplishment and the person you love most in the world, but that doesn’t mean s/he always presents situations accurately. Sometimes your child is part of the problem (yep, it’s true) – maybe they never gave you the project outline the teacher had prepared to ensure parents were informed of it, or maybe your kid didn’t tell you how she belched loudly in class -four times – before being sent into the hall to complete her work. Or maybe the reason you don’t have all the facts is because you didn’t bother to read the information that was sent home. Nowadays, teachers know to cover their own asses. We make sure parents have information about assignments long before the assignment is due – often we’ll even provide a sample of an exemplary piece from a previous year so that everyone has a good sense of what they should be striving for. We send home weekly – sometimes daily – updates and reminders and recaps via apps like Remind and Bloomz. Some teachers maintain a class website to ensure parents have all the information they could possibly need about their child’s class. Admittedly, it can be information overload. You have a lot of other things to do with your time aside from read updates from the teacher (just as the teacher has a lot of other things to do with her time than compose endless updates). However, if you’re about to go postal on your child’s teacher because you weren’t informed of something, make sure that’s really the case. It could be very embarrassing for you otherwise.
- Your child’s teacher wants a good relationship with you. The only thing you should email that teacher for is to set up a meeting so you can discuss your concerns face-to-face. It takes more time, effort, and courage, but it is very unlikely that you will be left with any regrets. According to Brene Brown, “people are harder to hate up close. Move in.” You will feel better for handling the situation with tact and grace, rather than raging out in an email that you can’t take back and that will surely result in a damaged relationship with the teacher.
- This situation – whatever it may involve – will most likely feel a lot different to you after you sleep on it. Give your mind some time to process the facts you do know, to recognize what you don’t yet know, and to calm down.
Now that I’m a more, uh-hem, seasoned teacher, my first instinct upon receiving a narky email or note from a parent is no longer to hammer out a lengthy letter in my defense. No, now my process goes more like this:
- Take a deep breath.
- Seek out a colleague who will remind me of my awesomeness because, as previously mentioned, I am human and nasty emails hurt.
- Compose an email or note in reply that reads:
Please let me know when you are able to meet in person to discuss this matter.
Short, polite, and without emotion. I may be thinking other things in my head (still human over here!), but I will maintain my professionalism. And I won’t lose any sleep over the way I chose to handle things.