Guest Post: How to Deal With Angry Parents

Elaine McEwan-Adkins

By Elaine McEwan-Adkins

I met an angry parent for the first time during a fall parent-teacher conference. I was teaching 5th grade and no one had prepared me for the possibility of encountering someone who immediately confronted me in a highly agitated state of mind about his son’s grades. Even though decades have flown by, I still remember the name of the student and his parents.

Perhaps I’m having post-traumatic stress symptoms. They were lovely people—Bob and Betty. They had extremely high expectations for their son and my expectations were even higher.

I had given him a couple of Cs (one in math and one in science) and his father went ballistic. He intimated that these grades were going to follow his son forever and ruin his chances for a successful future. I tried to explain that his son’s poor work habits and total disdain for completing homework were more likely to ruin his chances and that if we worked together, we could not only ensure that he would have all As on his next report card, but we could pave the way for a bright and shining career.

Betty was embarrassed by her husband’s meltdown. Bob was incensed that I wouldn’t change his son’s grades and I broke out in a case of blotchy hives. This story did have a happy ending, however. Russ went on to become a dentist. I’d like to take some credit for his success in mastering the disciplines needed to enter a medical field.

As I reflect today on that experience, I can quickly identify some reasons that Bob and Betty were angry. They had no clue that their son was getting bad grades in math and science. I had failed to let them know about their son’s problems midway through the grading period so that we could work together to solve this problem before the end of the grading period. As a brand-new teacher I made too many assumptions about the maturity and responsibility of the ten year-olds.

When I later became a principal, we instituted a policy of mid-term notes to parents letting them know of any serious problems that needed to be addressed. The number one reason that parents get angry is our failure to communicate.

Another mistake I made with Betty and Bob was getting defensive about the situation. Getting defensive whenever a parent questions our actions or motives is a natural, but unwise, reaction. Our behavior will surely escalate what could have been a calm discussion into an angry exchange on both sides. When we get defensive, we appear guilty, ill-informed, or even dishonest. All of these postures only serve to inflame a parent who only wanted answers or explanations.

As the professional educator in the conference, it was my responsibility to apologize and suggest some ways to work together to solve the problem, not to simply lay the problem on them and their child. Check out my Quick Reference Guide for ways to make your parent-teacher meetings go more smoothly.

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