How to Handle A Bully Parent
I’ve written about angry parents, complaining parents, uncaring parents, and overly chatty parents—and how best to deal with each.
But never bully parents.
So I thought I’d stick with the theme of the past two weeks and take on what is an incredibly stressful experience for teachers.
A parent that demands, questions, browbeats, sabotages, and otherwise makes your life miserable can only be handled with a light but shrewd touch.
Lay it out ahead of time.
Before the school year even begins you must create your syllabus or parent information packet with the assumption that the child with the nightmare parent everyone dreads will be assigned to your class.
In other words, you’re going to gear your back-to-school communication toward them.
This entails laying out your highly specific grading and homework policies, classroom management plan, volunteer procedure, daily schedule, basic curriculum, and when and how to contact you.
You’ll also go over these at back to school night.
The idea is to be transparent from the get-go, get parents on record for understanding your program, and answer any and all potential complaints or reasons for dissatisfaction ahead of time.
Set up communication boundaries.
Never make yourself available every day after school.
I’ve heard dozens of teachers tell me over the years that they don’t have a choice. Yes, you do. Create strict office hours that work best for you but that allow some flexibility for parents.
You should also request parents make an appointment. No, this isn’t asking too much. They don’t have free access to you whenever they want it.
The idea that these protections will somehow make bully parents even angrier is untrue. In fact, the opposite happens. By setting up parameters, and being clear about your plans, policies, procedures, expectations, etc., they’ll have more respect for you.
Don’t be friends with parents.
Sorry, I know how many teachers become friends with parents. However, in the long run it’s a mistake. You should always keep a professional and emotional distance from parents.
The more they see you as a friend, the lower will be your status as an expert and master of your craft. Even if you don’t become friends with the bully, they’ll view you as less than other professionals that work with their child like doctors and therapists.
Furthermore, being friends with some parents looks suspicious to the others. Are you playing favorites? Do your friendships affect how you grade or treat their child?
Very likely, though subconsciously, the answer is yes.
Make your room a sanctuary.
If everyone who enters your classroom doesn’t walk in like they’re entering a museum, then you need to make it even more reverent in appearance.
Neatness and lack of clutter matters. It matters in your students’ focus, mood, satisfaction, perceived safety, and ultimately learning.
And it matters to parents, who must perceive you as a person of standing in the community. The difference in this regard between two teachers can be staggering, like the distance between rims of the Grand Canyon.
This also leads to a high level of politeness and discourse between you and parents, who will respectfully knock on your door and apologize before entering to drop of a lunch or missed homework assignment.
Done right, this alone will usually subvert any bully. After setting up a meeting—and even if they catch you out of your classroom—smile and be open to anything they have to say.
After all, you have your published and closely followed syllabus to back your policies.
Be extremely friendly, even gregarious. Humor, while maintaining your professionalism, is also very powerful. By simply being overtly kind and good-natured you can take the wind right out of their sails.
Ask how they are. Tell them how much you enjoy having Junior in your class and how well he’s doing. They want reassurance, first and foremost, that you have their child’s best interest at heart.
Prove to them you do in a gentle but friendly way, and they’ll almost always smile back and thank you—yes, even that parent who has been a vampire with every other teacher.
Listen, first and always.
If they have a legitimate concern—or one they consider legitimate—just listen. Take what they have to say seriously. Nod, hold your chin in your hand, and maintain eye contact.
Say nothing until they’re finished, even if they mischaracterize you or make an assumption about an incident with their child. Most often, people who are angry just want to be heard. So hear them out.
Let them vent.
When they finish, tell them you understand and then briefly explain A.) How you’re going to fix their problem or B.) how the problem has already been fixed. There is almost always a way to do this without bending you policies and rules, which you must never do.
If they do question a rule or policy, then explain how it’s in place for one reason only: to protect their child and their right to learn and enjoy being in your class.
Whatever the demand or complaint, be sure you follow up within a day or so to let the parent know what you did to correct the problem or massage it in such a way that it no longer exists.
Be brief and stick to the facts.
Also, and again, be kind and thank them for bringing it to your attention. Turn the tables and appreciate them. Surprise them with your kindness and professional thoroughness.
Do what no other teacher has done before.
It’s a common psychological desire to feel appreciated and hard to resist the person it comes from. It triggers the Law of Reciprocity, which will turn them into marmalade and infuse the desire to pay back the goodness you’ve done them.
Not literally, of course. However, if a parent complains about or is angry over an administrative or school-wide policy, never try to defend it. Don’t bash it. Just never explain or answer for it.
Discussing it at all is above your pay grade. You just work there. You have enough policies to defend all on your own.
Thus, if a parent approaches you, just smile and say “I wish I could help, but it’s not up to me. You might want to check with the office.”
And here’s the thing: Principals appreciate this.
It prevents them from having to get involved after the fact. Plus, they know how to defend their own policies far better than you. Just make sure you give the boss a heads up so they can be ready.
Follow your plan like a referee.
This is a common refrain here at SCM because it’s so important, for many reasons. Not the least of which is because it protects you from the charge that you treat students differently based on how you feel about them personally.
It also protects you from your personal biases, implicit or otherwise.
Once the word gets out that you’re inconsistent or that you berate or lecture students, then you open yourself up to justifiably angry parents. Furthermore, you provide even more reason to be bullied and vilified.
The truth is, this is a charge that is difficult to answer other than to embarrassingly and humiliatingly admit your failure and promise to do better. So always, always, always follow your classroom management plan as written and enforce it like an impartial referee.
Stand your ground.
After following the guidelines above, you won’t have any more parents bullying you. You just won’t. However, if a rare albino tiger sneaks into your camp, then stand your ground.
Don’t become defensive or fight back in kind, but don’t run either.
Be polite. Maintain your friendly disposition. But be tough enough to believe in and stick to your rules, policies, and procedures as a highly skilled professional who knows what is best for your students.
They come first, not the parent.
One of the keys to great classroom management and teaching in general is to embrace the fact that you are the leader of the classroom – le dirigeant. If you don’t take on this role, then someone else will—a student, your boss, or a bully parent.
It pays to have one or more colleagues—preferably a next-door neighbor—you can trust. And it’s smart to continually cultivate those relationships, even if just to allow yourself an emergency restroom run.
But more importantly, you can motion them over to listen to your conversation with an angry or bully parent. You can ask them to work in the back of your room during sensitive conferences.
When concerned at all about an interaction, always have a witness.
If you don’t, then don’t speak until you do, even if it means walking with the parent out into the hallway and near your colleague.
And if it does get to the point where you’re indeed being bullied by a parent, ask the principal to sit in your meetings. Not only will this help change the bully’s behavior, but you’ll be protecting yourself from slander and false accusations.
Never let them see you sweat.
By just showing that they can’t get under your skin, bullies will tend to leave you alone.
So always stay positive and lighthearted in nature and disposition. Be honest and straightforward, but do so without stress and negative emotion.
Keep your body loose and open. Invite complainers and questioners. Ask them to speak their mind. Make yourself a target. Hide nothing. Show that you’re impenetrable, a true pro who is above pettiness and childish behavior.
This gives you gravitas and makes bullies feel self-conscious. It exposes them and makes them feel foolish and out of their element.
When their weapons don’t work on you, they stop using them. They give up. They may pout, but they’ll no longer bother you.
Because you’re among those who can’t be bullied.
By following the guidelines above, you’ll avoid bully parents entirely. You really will. There is just too much resistance and strength in your approach to overcome, which very effectively strips them of their power over you.
But what if you’re in the midst of it?
What if the black widow has already bitten once, has you again in their sights, and is starting to descend? Then start now. Yes, you may be subject to some unpleasantness in the near term, but even the worst of the worst bully can be converted.
Through your transparency and confidence, boundaries and friendliness, consistency and shrewdness, they can be defeated and then transformed.
From foe to supporter. Aggressor to admirer. Bully to just another parent who sings your praises.
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