Every so often, teachers hear complaints from parents: "That homework assignment was just busy work." "My child told me you raised your voice with her. Why?" "This book is way too hard for my kid." "My child has no homework at home and isn't challenged at all. Will she be ready for the next grade?"
Luckily, parent-teacher conflict management isn't needed too often. For the most part, relationships between the two parties are smooth and help them accomplish their goal: the best possible education and experience for the child in question. But like any human interaction, communication is complicated and conflict can arise. So what can you do to diffuse a tense situation?
Always Listen to the Parent
Even if you don't agree with what the parent is saying, your first step is always to listen. Let them have their say. Empathy can often resolve a problem. For instance, I once had a student who was struggling with spelling and her mother felt like I wasn't doing enough to help her. I listened as her mom talked about what she felt was missing in the classroom and what she wanted her daughter to be able to achieve. Before offering a solution, I told her I understood her concern and I could see her face relax. Instead of escalating into a conflict, the remainder of the meeting was focused on what we could do together to address the issue.
Lead with a simple acknowledgment that you understand the parental concern. More often than not, this will take care of the conflict itself, and if it doesn't, it will clearly state the problem that the parent perceives. Then you can unite to find a solution. When given the chance to voice their concerns, parents will often have suggestions for how to fix the problem, and they can be an incredible resource.
Get Advice from Other Teachers
Once, I was teaching the youngest of five siblings when their mother complained that my student wasn't getting enough attention. I was perplexed because I worked one-on-one with the student every day. While waiting for a staff meeting to begin, I mentioned the student's mother to a colleague and she immediately said, "Has she accused you of not paying attention to her child yet?" I was shocked! How did she know? "Yeah, she does it to every teacher at the beginning of the year. It's simply her way of saying she wants you to be sure you're doing what you can for her kid. Look at it as attentive parenting, even though it's a little scary. Offer a meeting to talk to her about it and she will be happy."
If a problem arises where you feel attacked, anxious, or even blindsided, talk to other staff members. What would they do? Have they dealt with anything like this before? If you're unsure about your ability to resolve a conflict, there's no rule that says you should deal with it alone. Ask another teacher to sit in on a phone call or meeting. A second opinion may be all you need to get a clear picture of what the problem is and how to solve it.
Involve Your Administration When Necessary
You've communicated with the parent. You were as empathetic as possible. You talked to a peer. Nothing's worked. It's time to involve your administration in the parent-teacher conflict management process. Describe the issue, what you've tried, what's worked, and what hasn't worked. They may give you advice or take over the issue so you can focus on teaching.
I'm a firm believer that the more open and honest my relationship with a parent is, the better we can serve their child. So when a parent makes me angry, I remind myself that they're doing their absolute best in the moment, and I try to decipher what it is they really need or want—just like I do with my students. As with all relationships, there can be bumps in the road of parent-teacher conflict management. It's crucial to know how to fix those potholes and move forward, while always keeping in mind what's most important: the students.