Guest post by Jayne Ellspermann
Every administrator has encountered an angry parent who calls the school or comes in demanding a conference. These difficult moments can be a struggle for many of us, and we question what is the best way to deal with these people and situations. In my experience as principal, I have learned that angry or upset parents are an opportunity to develop a partnership benefiting all stakeholders.
We have to remember that when parents are upset with “the school,” it stems from them wanting what is best for their child. That is a great place for us to start a conversation because I also want what is best for their child.
When we start from the position of wanting what is best for their child, it puts both administrators and parents on the same side of the conversation.
When forming this partnership, we first must listen to the parents’ concerns and learn their point of view about what is upsetting them. Sometimes, students provide their parents with information that may be absent of some details, or from a narrow perspective. Talk in the community may cause parents to have concerns about what is going on in our school. Once parents share their concern with me, I always agree with them by saying “if my child came home and told me that I would be upset” or “thank you for letting me know what you heard. I understand why you took the time to contact me.”
From this point, it is critical we identify the root cause of the concern. Whether it is a situation with another student, a teacher, a bus driver, the cafeteria, scheduling, or the location of water fountains, we have an opportunity to work together and identify areas for improvement. If the situation involves the parents’ child, it is best to have the student involved in the conversation.
My goal is always to create an ally in the parent and empower the student to work with their parents and the school in a positive manner. Moving forward, I want the student to feel comfortable working with the adults in our school, and I want the parents to know that, working together, we can create a positive learning environment for their child as well as all students at our school.
We work in an environment that requires trust—trust that we are working in the best interest of each student on our campus. That does not mean parents will leave our time together with what they thought they wanted when they arrived. What they will leave with is a more complete understanding of how our school operates and many times a better solution than what they proposed. Sometimes we are not aware of something happening in a classroom or in the school or community, but their concern will allow us to follow up.
With 2,650 students in my last school it was critical to empower students and staff members to be part of every solution. When working with parents it is important to let them know who else will be involved in the solution so they understand that it is not just the principal who will be working to create a positive learning environment for their child and the student body.
I close each conversation with an invitation to the parents to contact me in the next few days if the situation has not been resolved. I let them know if I don’t hear from them again, I will assume that we have taken care of their concern.
Engaging parents in this way benefits everyone. Parents leave our time together knowing that they and their child are valued at our school. What schools gain are parents who become active partners in helping to make our school a better place for their child and all of our students.
What solutions do you have for working with upset parents?
Jayne Ellspermann is the current president of NASSP and the 2015 National Principal of the Year. She has worked in education for 36 years, with 25 of those years serving as a building principal at the elementary, middle, and high school level working with extremely diverse, high-poverty student populations, transforming her schools from low-performing schools to high-performing schools.