There are so many steps that you can take to develop strong relationships with parents, such as staying in regular contact, contacting them at the first sign of trouble or inviting them to be a part of their child’s learning. For most parents, developing a trusting relationship with their child’s teacher can be achieved when they feel informed and are part of the decisions made about their child’s progress.
However, since we work with the public, we also teach the children of some parents who are impaired in their ability to work with others due to a variety of reasons. These reasons may include mental health concerns, addiction or emotional or physical abuse. Over the past ten years, I have interacted with parents who have been physically aggressive in parent teacher interviews, disparaging to their child in public settings and have been so intoxicated that we had to call the authorities to ensure that the child had a safe way to get to their home. These parents make up such a small part of the large group of amazing parents that I have worked with over the past ten years. These parents are also the ones that have caused me the most stress and challenges when trying to establish a positive relationship.
I feel like I have learned some things from my mistakes in the beginning of my teaching career when dealing with volatile parents.
Be transparent and document, document, document everything. At the first sign of trouble, start documenting all interactions in a parent log, in detail. If a volatile parent makes outlandish accusations or complaints, the easiest way to defuse the situation is to have proof to the contrary. E-mail or speak to your admin about the parent as soon as you suspect trouble, so that they are aware of a potential need for assistance.
You are not there to be abused. I tried desperately to deal with everything by myself earlier in my career. I wanted to show my principal that I could handle the tough situations. However, in the process, profanities were being shouted at me regularly and I was becoming quite fearful of going to work. No one should ever feel afraid to go to work. Do not try to deal with this alone.
Depersonalize. This is the hardest rule to follow for most teachers because teaching is so very personal. We spend countless hours worried about the well being of our students and planning the perfect modifications to ensure our students’ success, so looking at the situation analytically is tough. However, I can logically realize that I am not the reason that an adult has a substance abuse problem and I am not the reason that they have mental health challenges. I have not abused this person, fired them, divorced them, evicted them or stolen their money. All of these things can lead to a general aggression that sometimes is misguided and is wrongly directed at teachers. All of these things also have nothing to do with me.
Stay calm. When someone is yelling at you, it is very hard to stay calm, however, it is very important. You have an obligation to follow the professional standards outlined by the OCT. Also, if your student is there, it is imperative that they have an example of an adult interacting with respect and integrity. They only get this example if you stay calm, professional and respectful. Calmly call for assistance if there is a parent acting in a way that is volatile. Allow the administration to intervene and remove the parent.
If your administration is unsupportive, call your local union office. They will be able to help you in dealing with unsupportive principals and give you guidance about how to proceed.
Finally, try to have compassion. Again, this is very hard when you are fearful or getting little support from administration. However, everyone can agree that living with mental health issues is very difficult. At the end of the day, though, the person who needs the most compassion is your student. This stressful, volatile and aggressive adult is who your student goes home to every day.