For many teachers, this time of year involves facing an occasionally hostile population: parents. In preparation for parent-teacher conference season, we asked Suzanne Capek Tingley, a former teacher and author of the new book How to Handle Difficult Parents,to share her classification system and wrangling techniques for a few of the toughest breeds (all of which can be either mothers or fathers).
Characteristics: Often has a high-status career and sees you as a public servant, with the emphasis on “servant.” Tries to bully teachers. Balks when asked to help address problems: That’s your job.
Battle cry: “What are you going to do about this?”
How to handle: The first thing to remember is that you are a trained professional and this is your area of expertise. Outline the steps you’ve already taken to address the issue, and tell the Intimidator what you need from him. Be direct and assertive. If possible, give the Intimidator advance notice of low grades or behavior problems—the best defense is a good offense. If he calls you by your first name, do the same with him.
Characteristics: Believes her child never lies, and will side with him or her against teachers—for example, accusing you of losing an assignment the student actually never turned in.
Battle cry: “Are you calling my child a liar?”
How to handle: Avoid a back-and-forth argument over who’s lying. Instead, focus on what happened. Ask very specific questions (if possible, directly to the child): “When was the assignment turned in? What did it look like? How many pages was it?” But don’t push for a full confession from the child. As soon as you can come to a resolution, let it go.
THE UNCIVIL LIBERTARIAN
Characteristics: Thinks kids should be allowed to do pretty much whatever they want: wear inappropriate clothing, use the f-word, moon the custodian—you name it. Undermines your authority to enforce rules by taking the student’s side.
Battle cry: “Freedom of expression!”
How to handle: Explain why the rule exists. The Libertarian may not understand what chaos would ensue if 50 kids were to do what her kid did. If necessary, become a broken record: “I’m sorry we can’t agree on this, but the school rule is...” Know when the meeting is over; you’re not paid to take abuse. If necessary, suggest she talk to the principal.
MS. QUIT PICKING ON MY KID
Characteristics: Believes you treat her child unfairly because you don’t like him or her. Complains that her child is being punished for something that other students have done without getting caught.
Battle cry: “Other kids are doing it too.”
How to handle: Ask for specifics: “What do you mean by ‘picking on her’?” The parent may not have asked her child to explain; once her complaint is more concrete, you can address it. Emphasize that you try to enforce rules as fairly as possible. It’s OK to admit that there may have been infractions you didn’t catch—that doesn’t change the fact that her child did something wrong.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2006 edition of Teacher