Here’s the situation. You’re in the middle of the school year. You’re checking your email at 10 pm, because at this point you have a terrible, terrible habit. If we lined up all bad habits from biting your fingernails to free basing cocaine, randomly checking your work email would be a solid 7.5. It doesn’t matter if it’s 3 weeks into the year and you’re checking to see if your boss approved the purchase of some rulers or if it’s the middle of October. Spontaneously checking email is a sickness.
So you’re delighting in your vice. You notice emails from your HR rep, a few questions about homework, updates to your favorite websites about kittens… when you notice an email from a parent. You glance at it inquisitively. You scan the email to see what it might be about. You see that your supervisor is cc’d. You see snippets like “crush her confidence”, “discuss this immediately”, and “It sounds like you are setting her up to fail”.
Your reptile brain immediately slips into a few traps. One of two things immediately take over your mindset – “How quickly can I quit this job. Do I still have that emergency resignation letter?” or “How dare they question me. Don’t they know I have a teaching certification??”
Slow down. Look away for a moment. Take 5 good breaths. Count them.
I’m not here to solve your twitch-inducing email problem. But I am here to show you a quick how-to on handling your shit in a parent meeting. You might be saying, “Brandon, what do you know about running kick-ass parent meetings?”. Let me give you an analogy I call the General Mutant Pancake Theory (GMPT). Whenever you make pancakes, what happens to the first pancake? The heat on the pan is uneven, the oil is spread evenly, and the first few pancakes are terrible looking. After those first couple, you’re good to churn out some golden, syrup-sponging delights. I am great at parent meetings because I’ve burned so many pancakes and luckily wasn’t fired. My griddle’s hot and I’m here to help you out.
You’re quickly go through the 5 stages of grief.
Denial – this won’t last long. At first, you’ll think “There’s no way this is supposed to be sent to me. You’ll check who sent the email and it won’t take you long to conclude that it’s for you.
Anger – This is where first year teachers will stay before, during, and after the meeting. First year teachers work hard as hell because they basically have no idea what they’re doing. They have all the good intentions in the world. See GMPT.
Somehow, some way, you have to acknowledge you’re in this stage and move forward. There is no having a good meeting with parents if you are here. It is like an anchor that is made up of the opposite of pancakes weighing you down.
Bargaining – read: feeling helpless and vulnerable. No matter how awesome your friends/partners are, even if they are teachers, it’s hard for others how bad you feel when you are called out by a parent. For the lead up to the meeting, you will continually wonder what you could have done.
Depression – quick fix: happy hours.
Acceptance – friends, this is where you should be before the meeting starts. It’s not easy to get here, but it’s the only way you’re going to produce anything positive. You will char the life out of any pancakes you come across if you go into the meeting with anything but acceptance.
The first thing you must accept is that you and the parents have a common interest. Both parties deeply want to serve their child’s needs. There may be some disagreements on how to do so. However, if in your mind, parents are set up as adversaries rather than potential partners, you will fail to find any common ground.
Most of the time, parents want to be heard, deeply and sincerely. They want to share with you all kinds of details that may never surface again – what their kid’s previous education was like, what their social standing is, hell even what they’re allergic to. It is extremely important that you “Hear” what they are saying. I capitalize “Hear” because this must be reverent act, not just word recognition. When you Hear what they are saying, you are not reacting, not judging (because you’re already past the anger stage, right?).
It is extremely important that you Hear them first, before recommending, prescribing, educating or responding. Hearing does not mean waiting your turn to speak. When it is your turn to speak, you will take what you Heard and feed it back to them. If they begin by talking about their kid getting their confidence challenged, make that something you talk about explicitly. If they talk about their kid not being challenged enough, acknowledge it explicitly. Bring a notebook if your mind has a hard time remembering all their points, don’t be afraid to look vulnerable, especially when you are desperately vulnerable. Make sure you are always framing your responses as a partnership-in-progress rather than defending what you do. Not being defensive is easier said than done. Again, see GMPT.
A few other general points
- Call the parents by their first names, invite them to do the same for you
- Sit in a circle
- If they talk about your lack of experience (especially in front of admin) acknowledge it
- Let go of your defensiveness
- Finish with any agreed-upon, reasonable action items. (Note: do not tell parents you will call them every week, unless you are willing to call them every week. You will resent them for the rest of your year)
Look, first year folks. Your first pancake is going to look a little freaky. It can still taste delicious, it might be stackable, heck it might even be the right color. But it’s going to get better. You are a professional and you probably do a good job. Parents love their kids and are crazy and overprotective and over-questioning. It’s the job, but you are going to rock it eventually.
One last bonus tip: within a few days, send a quick follow-up meeting and cc your supervisor. Make it short and sweet – a quick recap of the meeting and any action items. This is professional as hell, and everyone will think you are totally boss.