A teacher’s worse nightmare isn’t usually a problem student; it’s often a problem parent. Sooner or later, you’re likely to meet some version of the father who threatened to sue over a 99 percent score versus 100 percent. Or some version of the mother who insisted regarding her “very sensitive child,” “Never discipline him directly; he’d be traumatized for life. Just scold the kid in the next seat, and Joey will be frightened enough!”
Even aside from such extreme situations, most parents hear only the child’s side of the story and react accordingly. While the parent may do nothing more than actively commiserate with complaints, the kid will return to school all the more convinced it’s your fault.
A key rule for discouraging kids from complaining behind your back:
Even the youngest schoolchildren have their human dignity. If you tolerate no interruptions and no dissenting opinions, of course they’ll air those opinions—complete with details of your unreasonableness—to more sympathetic ears at home. Give students the chance to share insights, to interject different viewpoints, even to disagree with you. And take the trouble to hear what they say: you may well learn something yourself.
It would be nice if respecting the kids were all it took to head off problems with parents, but chances are you’ll still face the day when someone calls demanding to talk to you about a misunderstanding, a performance review, or your teaching methods. The key rule for parent–teacher meetings:
Let the parent(s) have their full say first, and hold off on correcting anything until it’s your turn to speak. Then, rather than just presenting your own side, lead the conversation with questions: “What do you want your child to get out of this class? What motivates her at home?” Encouraging parents to define their own feelings will not only defuse anger; it will open them up to seeing new aspects of the situation.
And if you find yourself dealing with a determined “helicopter” or “lawnmower” parent who will tolerate nothing short of being allowed to personally direct the child’s education?
Your supporters may include the children themselves, who often find their parents’ “help” more embarrassing than comforting. In any case, continue to treat the whole class with respect, stay open to requests from other parents, and be on good terms with school staff and administrators. If there’s danger of over-your-head complaints, record details of problem interactions and save communications, so objective facts will be documented. This isn’t to engage allies in open warfare against your “enemy,” but to protect your own reputation and provide a buffer to keep your other work from being disrupted.
In direct dealings with the problem parent, continue to show empathy and respect; they may very well come around to your side.
If not, the problem will likely cease once the child finishes your class.
However much a headache anyone may prove, avoid retaliating with counteraccusations. Put a defensive person further on the defensive, and the problem escalates. Respond with soft answers, and their defensiveness is defused—and you’ve both learned something about conflict resolution.