This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: How to deal with difficult parents as a teacher. Overbearing and micromanaging parents can be incredibly stressful to work with, so here are some mindset shifts that will help protect your energy.
Today’s episode is in response to a listener question I received. (Submit your question for the podcast here!) This listener wrote in on behalf of her colleagues:
I’m hoping that you can answer these questions: “How do I stop focusing on parents and worrying how they will affect my job security and my choices as an educator? How do I stop worrying about conferences with parents? How can I teach without constantly feeling like I’m being watched, analyzed, judged, and monitored by parents and/or how can I let go of the fact that they are and I can’t change it?”
The problem is trying to have a healthy mindset towards parents that are extremely critical and overbearing. My colleagues have said things like, “I can’t sleep until I have this conference with this parent. I can’t stop thinking about it. How am I supposed to let go of what they said? I’m so anxious about everything.” They will rehash every email and every conference multiple times to multiple people. It’s a very extreme reaction, and I’m honestly pretty worried about them.
At our school, we deal with intense parents A LOT. I think it’s the anxiety of feeling like you’re constantly being watched and constantly being monitored that is creating this intense anxiety in my colleagues. They never feel like they can just teach. They’re worried that they’re always being reported against. It’s also evident that the kids are expected to report about school at home.
Some examples of what parents have done, for background info:
- Attacked teachers for offering before-school help for kids because it “should be happening during the school day”
- Scrutinized the pacing guide implementation and said which skills “should be” being taught when (ex. you’re two weeks early in teaching this unit. It’s not supposed to be taught until the end of second quarter)
- Said that reading and writing conferences were not happening in the classroom and therefore best practices were not being followed (even though actually they were; the teacher neglected to use that language with the student)
- Compared their child to other students frequently and not wanting homogeneous grouping because they didn’t want their child in the “slow” group
I will say that my administration has been very supportive and has stood by teachers, so that’s really not the issue. I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if that were not the case.
Thanks for any future advice you have/give! I love your work. You’ve done so much to help my anxiety over school; I just wish it were that easy to fill someone else up with those mindset shifts.
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Let me say right up front that I’m glad admin is supportive in this situation. You should not have to defend yourself alone or figure out the response to difficult parents on your own. If the situation is really out of control to the point where you are being harassed or bullied, your administrators need to be involved in the situation and any interactions you have with the parent should be held with the administrator present. You do not have to put up with abuse and you shouldn’t be expected to manage these problems alone.
For the remainder of this post, I want to clarify I am not talking about abusive situations, but about the type of situation described by this listener where parents are constantly questioning your judgment as a teacher and gossiping about you with other parents, using their child as an informant, and going above your head with complaints.
I want to approach this by helping you understand the mindset and motivation of these parents. If you react on just the surface level, you’ll get stuck in a tit-for-tat situation and you can’t win that, because you (as the employee of the school) have to be professional. When they go low, you have to go high: you can’t play at their game. You’ll never get the result you want if you simply react or get defensive.
So we’re not going to talk about tactical strategies and witty comebacks. Instead, let’s try to shift into the parent’s mind and understand where they are coming from. Because when you do that, you will not only have compassion — yes, seriously, you can develop compassion for all human beings, including the parents who make your life miserable — and that compassion will help you figure out how to respond from the wisest part of yourself.
And, understanding the parent’s motivation will help you figure out what triggers the parent so you can be proactive, instead of being anxious all the time and waiting for the next attack.
Right now, both you and the parent are making fear-based responses, and since you can’t control other people’s behavior, the place to begin is by understanding that fear and choosing to respond from a higher place within yourself.
Remind yourself that this situation is not personal. Parents become micromanaging and hyper-critical of their kids’ teachers when they are fearful. This is a coping mechanism on the part of the parent to alleviate their worst fear: that their child will not get a good education or keep up with his or her peers, and will not grow up to be independent and successful.
I think every parent has these fears, and they manifest in different ways for different people. For many high-achieving parents, their response to these feelings is to try to influence as many things as possible. They want to feel like they have done everything they could possibly do to help their child. Because one of the worst feelings on earth is to feel like you have failed someone you loved, particularly a child — to feel like you didn’t protect them or advocate for them. Sometimes the feared outcome is big — like not getting into college — and sometimes it’s smaller, like not getting an A on a test. But if the parent doesn’t do everything they feel they could have and the child is not successful, they will feel at least partially responsible.
So while it may seem like the parent is placing all the blame or responsibility on you, know that they’re doing that because inside, they feel personally responsible and also very helpless. They are releasing their pride and joy into the care of the school system for six hours a day and entrusting them to strangers. That is scary, particularly when your child is struggling academically or socially, and particularly when you have very high aspirations for your child.
Even when it seems like the parent is out to get you and has a vendetta, the source of that vendetta is his or her own fears. It’s not about you: it’s about their insecurities and anxiety. You have to keep telling yourself this so their criticism doesn’t impact your self-esteem or cause you to doubt yourself too much as a teacher. If their child was in another class, they’d be questioning everything that teacher did as well.
All of their fears are being projected onto you because you are responsible for a significant portion of their child’s education. There are few things that cause people to get upset more quickly than feeling like their children or family members are not being treated well or are getting less than they deserve. Micromanaging parents, at their core, want only the best for their children.
That motivation and desire are justified. Keep that in mind, too — all parents want what’s best for their children, and they can (and should) advocate for their kids. We want to avoid the defense mechanism of “parents should just let me do my job.”
Because if it was your child who you felt wasn’t getting everything needed to be successful, you would likely feel frustrated as well. And you know just as well as the parents that the squeaky wheel gets the oil, particularly within bureaucracies like a school system.
We don’t need to place ourselves in a seat of judgment against parents and determine for them what they should and shouldn’t care about. It’s just not helpful anytime we focus our time and energy complaining about how we think other people behave or how they should parent their children.
You might not like hearing this part, but I”m going to say it anyway, because I think it’s an important key to having better relationships with students’ parents.
It is not up to educators to determine when and how parents should be involved with their kids’ education. Somehow in our minds, we have this ideal way that we believe parents should act. It’s a perfect balance, and if they cross that balance, we accuse them of being overly involved or not involved enough.
And in some ways, these expectations we place on parents are pretty unreasonable. I’ll speak for myself here because I fell into that trap all the time. I felt like parents should support everything I do, send in supplies, volunteer, return every signed paper right away, read with their kids, work with their kids at home on the skills they’re falling behind in.
If they weren’t tuned in to what was happening at school, I complained. But when they were tuned in, I expected them to do so mindlessly. Don’t think about it, don’t question me, don’t suggest ways I can teach your child or tell me how I can improve. I’d like to think that I responded to parents in a constructive way when they did those things, but I was very defensive inside and it bothered me that they dared to try to offer input on their own children. In other words, I can make a judgment about how you do your job, but you can’t make judgments about how I do mine.
The reality is that involved parents are often critical thinkers — they’re paying attention to what their child is learning (as they should), and reflecting on their child’s progress and feelings. These kinds of parents will frequently have questions about what’s happening at school, and some of the things they learn about, they may not agree with.
When they don’t agree with you on what is best, or don’t agree that you are in fact providing what is best, they can react in irrational and unfair ways.
But at the core, you both want the same thing: what’s best for the child. You’re in agreement about that. The only disagreement is about what that “best” actually looks like.
Many times, parents will make you the scapegoat for the aspects of the school system which aren’t meeting their child’s needs. I’m sure many of the things you’re doing that they don’t like aren’t actually your choice: they’re the result of limited time or resources, or restraints created by school and district policy. So again, the source of the frustration isn’t really about you.
There is no magic solution to fix this. The best thing you can do for yourself is to ensure you’re working at a school where your administrators have your back and will support you when you are criticized. You also want to be reflective of your practice without constantly second-guessing yourself. Be open to the grain of truth in whatever the parent is saying, even if it’s not said in a polite way, to ensure you’re always growing and being the best you can be, but don’t allow that process of growth to cause you to get down on yourself about your abilities.
Beyond that, I encourage you to be proactive rather than defensive. Remind yourself that this is not about you, and there’s nothing you could do to make every single parent happy 100% of the time. This is about parents becoming controlling in an attempt to ensure the best possible education and future for their children. Remind yourself that you are not enemies and you both have the same goal — you both want what’s best for the child. Working together for the good of the child is your goal.
None of this is easy, but it is essential to your wellbeing as a teacher. Create some boundaries and protect your free time: let parents know they can email you whenever they want, but you’ll only read and respond to their messages from 7 am – 5 pm Monday to Friday. Protect your evenings and weekends so that you are not constantly being reminded about problems with parents. Don’t allow yourself to ruminate on the problems constantly and spend all your free time complaining about it to everyone who will listen.
You are in control of your thoughts and can choose what to think about. You can practice not replaying conversations in your head or letting your mind rush ahead to all the possibly confrontations that could happen in the future. Your thoughts create your feelings, and the way you think and feel determines how you experience your life.
You cannot allow a handful of parents to steal your joy and enthusiasm. For one thing, teaching is your job, it’s not your whole life. You must decide that what happens on Friday at 2 PM is not going to ruin your evening and weekend. Take charge of your thoughts and notice what you are giving attention to.
Finally, remind yourself that you can do anything for 10 months. If you’re listening to this when the episode was first released, there are only a few months left in the school year, and then you get a break, and you can start fresh with a new group of families in the fall. You can handle anything for a couple more months. Make the determination that you will choose compassion for the parents and compassion for yourself, instead of reacting in judgment. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.
This episode is sponsored by Brains On. Ever listen to podcasts with your students? It’s a great way to engage their minds and spark their imagination without relying on screens.
The kids’ history show Forever Ago dives into the fascinating backstory of everyday things like clocks, shoes, and skateboards to teach kids to think critically about the past. Forever Ago use games, skits, and real kids to keep kids engaged while teaching important lessons along the way.
You can listen for free to Forever Ago as well as a kids science podcast called Brains On at brainson.org or wherever you get your podcasts.