How Teachers Can Work With 5 Difficult Types of Parents
Natalie Schwartz | Teaching
Erica Stevens* had a student in her ninth grade English class who excelled at creative writing but struggled with analytical writing. She avoided it by refusing to do her homework. Every time the student failed to submit a homework assignment, her parents pressured Ms. Stevens to give her a pass because they didn’t want the missed assignments to affect her grade. Ms. Stevens felt their behavior bordered on harassment. The student’s father even chased Ms. Stevens for two blocks one evening when he spotted her from a restaurant window walking to a book store. When he caught up with her, he badgered her about the homework issue again.
“Unfortunately, by the end of the year she was the worst in the room when it came to analytical writing,” Ms. Stevens said of the student.
I interviewed more than fifty teachers around the country for my book, The Teacher Chronicles: Confronting the Demands of Students, Parents, Administrators and Society, and I found one of the biggest challenges teachers face is working with parents. Parents can be a source of support for teachers, or they can create frustrating obstacles to success. Below are five common conflicts with parents that teachers face and strategies for handling each situation. The scenarios described are true stories from teachers profiled in The Teacher Chronicles.
1. The Over-involved Parent
Scenario: The mother of one of the students in Michael Duncan’s* third grade class left twenty-minute messages on his voice mail every day. Listening to them consumed his entire free period. She would also show up at school unexpectedly. He would walk into his classroom and find her waiting to speak with him.
Solution: Studies show parental involvement is critical to a child’s academic success. Parents should always feel welcome to contact you with questions and concerns. But if a parent’s phone calls, e-mails and conference requests become overwhelming, and you find you’re spending too much of your time on one student, it’s time to address the situation. If the parent’s concerns are unwarranted, reassure them that their child is well-adjusted socially, behaving properly, and progressing academically. Provide specific details to back up your assertion. Assure the parent you will contact them if a problem does arise. If the parent’s concerns are justified, work with them to proactively develop an action plan that will help the student overcome the issue they’re facing. Involve the parent in the plan. Suggest actions they can take at home to support what you’re doing in the classroom. Then take steps to manage the future level of contact. Suggest a communication schedule that you think is reasonable and that the parent is comfortable with. For instance, commit to checking in with the parent every two or three weeks to apprise them of their child’s progress. Tell them that if a problem arises sooner, you’ll contact them.
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2. The Absent Parent
Scenario: Laura Taylor *, a first grade teacher, said parent-teacher conference day was basically a day off for her. “If five parents showed up, it was a lot,” she said.
Solution: While over-involved parents can be exasperating, uninvolved parents can also be problematic. When you have a student in your class who is struggling with an issue, whether it’s social, behavioral or academic, it’s helpful if you have support and cooperation from the student’s parents. But if the parents are not responding to your calls or e-mails, what do you do? It’s rare that a parent truly doesn’t care about their child’s performance in school. When a parent is unresponsive, it’s usually because they are overwhelmed by their other responsibilities. Maybe they have two jobs, younger children or ailing parents, and they feel the need to leave school-related issues in your capable hands. But parents bear a certain amount of responsibility for their child’s education. As noted earlier, studies show parental involvement is a major factor in a student’s academic success. In your voice mail and e-mail messages, tell the parent that you understand they’re busy and you’ll try to accommodate their schedule. Offer to discuss the issue in a brief phone conversation if they don’t have the time to attend a conference. Remain positive. Tell the parent you’re confident their child can overcome the issue if you work together to provide support. If you suspect a language barrier is to blame, find someone on the school’s staff who can translate to make the parents feel more comfortable.