Conflict Resolution between Teacher and Parents
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From time to time, all teachers will be faced by a difficult and demanding parent. From challenging academic results to accusations of bullying, some parents can be very intimidating or even aggressive.
Until relatively recent times, the school was viewed as the realm of the professional, the educator, the teacher.
As Carol Vincent states:
‘No parents beyond this point' - such signs could have been seen in schools around the country, symbolizing the clear division between home and school.'
She goes on to describe schools as:
‘[I]slands of professional expertise, of calm, order and learning'.
How we all miss the good old days in the midst of a hectic, stressful Parents' Consultation Meeting, when we see the approach of Mr and Mrs Smith, looking as happy as we might have predicted with John's latest report!
Conservative government educational policy, from 1979, was underpinned by the notion of parents as the “consumers” of an education system, who would be empowered with considerable influence over the way in which the “producers” - the teachers - operated, not least by the use of “parental choice” as a factor in determining which schools would thrive and which close. More recent educational policy, during the Labour Party's terms of office, has stressed the importance of the home/school partnership in promoting the learning of young people.
Carol Vincent, quoting a 1986 study by Cowburn, summarises this shift in perception as follows:
“Parents were once kept out of schools so as to allow the professionals uninterrupted control: parents are now being encouraged to get involved, to come into school so that they can understand why the professional exercises control in the manner he/she does”.
Communicating clearly, therefore, what we do, what we have done, being prepared to justify our actions by reference to school policy, to educational theory and practice, to the statutory demands of the National Curriculum, for example, needs to be at the forefront of the teacher's agenda in any meetings with parents, whether arranged or a surprise encounter. We are no longer autonomous rulers in our own little world, but need, as professionals and experts, to be prepared to explain, or justify, our actions and decisions in language that is accessible to the parent.
H or S
In the table above, jot down in the first column possible situations which might generate an ‘interview' with parents. For example:
- report sent home
- detention issued
- o praise postcard sent home
* In the second column, indicate whether the ‘invitation' to meet is most likely to come from Home (H) or School (S)
* In the third column, rate the likelihood of the meeting becoming heated on a scale of 1-5, 1 being highly unlikely, and 5 highly likely.
Getting the basics right - conflict avoidance
The importance of the dialogue between school and home cannot be underestimated, and those schools which have taken steps to ensure that their relationship with their parents is a good one, based on mutual respect and concern for the young people whose care they share for at least five days each week will have fewer flashpoints on the level of personal interaction between parent and teacher. Everyone has an experience of school life, so, in that respect, all our parents feel that they are experts! For many, their own experiences of school and of teachers are not particularly good ones: some find entering school premises a daunting prospect, and this unease can quickly escalate into difficult or aggressive behaviour. Many associate their visits to school with negative emotions: they have responded to so many summons because of a child's poor behaviour, attitude or progress that any chance to “get one's own back” by criticising the school is pursued with relish.
Make a note below of skills which you use in the classroom:
· to defuse tension
· to manage behaviour
· to foster co-operation
· to ensure compliance
· to foster a good working relationship
A couple of examples are included to get you off to a good start!
Skills I use daily:
· Friendly greeting as pupils arrive.
· My ‘no nonsense' face.
· Standing up - full height to look imposing
Which of the above are also useful in dealing with parents?
Many difficult encounters can be avoided if the school:
· Has clear policies on a variety of relevant topics e.g. uniform, behaviour, information that is shared with parents on a regular basis. As a teacher, ensure that, in your dealings with pupils, you apply such policies with fairness, consistency and equity.
· Takes steps to involve parents in the life of the school whenever possible - the good old school play, or talent show, provides opportunities for parents to cross the school threshold in a non-confrontational context. As an individual, seek out opportunities to establish a dialogue with parents, even if it is only a nod of acknowledgment, if you meet them outside school in a supermarket or in the queue for a plane at the airport! Look for, and utilise, any opportunities to share an interest in something other than the child who is the focus of your relationship.
· Has clear and well established practices for communicating with parents e.g. on behaviour, attendance, progress. Such communication should be timely and prompt, not restricted to key points in the school year e.g. end of year report, and should also inform parents of a child's positive contributions to the life of the school, for example via “praise postcards”. As a teacher, try to ensure, wherever it is reasonable, that particular parents do not always associate your name with bad news.
· Provides a welcoming environment for parents - a cheerful reception area; a cheery greeting from reception staff; a light, warm room in which meetings can take place
In many ways, the parents who arrive at the school fired up in defence of their child, or who demand to see a teacher to find out why progress is not being maintained, is less of a threat to the life of the school than those parents who refuse all attempts to initiate a dialogue, to the point that their child is excluded. Parents who are moved to anger by something they believe has happened, normally because their child says so, can potentially become the teacher's greatest ally, once a more appropriate relationship has been established.
Communicating with parents
· In the table below, in the first column, list the means of communication which your school uses with its parents. There are 3 examples to get you started.
· In the second column, rate the effectiveness of each, on a scale of 1-5, 1 being of little use and 5 being highly effective.
Annual written report
Grade card - termly
How could any of the above be adapted to improve effectiveness?
What makes a person angry?
Anger is a natural part of the human condition, but it isn't always easy to handle. Some people mask their anger. Others explode with rage. Good parents invest a great deal of emotional energy in their offspring: which of us, as a parent, has not been moved to strong emotion by something that our child tells us, or something that they have done, or not done?
We also acknowledge the importance of social and emotional intelligence for our young people in school, and many schools are delivering extensive programmes to support this aspect of their pupils' development. Since youngsters learn more from models than from lectures, it is reasonable to assume that many of those pupils who have difficulty expressing emotion, or controlling an outburst of anger, are not seeing positive role models at home in this respect. It may be, therefore, that a parent does not intend to show anger or aggression, but has never learned to express concern in a more appropriate way. There are a number of courses which schools can access and provide for their parents, to support them in developing their own emotional literacy, which will not only be of benefit in your encounters, but will also help them to reinforce, and model, the behaviours and responses that you are hoping to develop in the children.
The Millennium Cohort Study by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education, University of London, published in October 2008, shows that what parents are most concerned about in choosing a school in the first place is not only the school's performance, but other characteristics that, taken together, parents rate even more highly - the “good impression” created by the school, a strong anti-bullying policy, its ability to accommodate an ethnic mix, and its facilities amongst others. It therefore follows that these are the sorts of issues that parents are most likely to seek to approach the school with if they feel that it is “all going wrong” for their child.
Psychologists recognize that anger arises for different reasons in different types of people, which may need to be handled in different ways by the sensitive teacher. You may recognize parents that you have had, on occasion, to deal with in the profiles detailed below, although it is highly unlikely that any parent has ever reached the point of hatred towards their child's teacher - it just feels like it sometimes! Understanding what may be the underlying cause of parents' anger, over and above the particular incident that has provoked this meeting, may help you not to respond too quickly, with mounting irritation, to what appears to be an unreasonable display from across the desk.
Types of Anger
These individuals may not, at first, let others know how angry they are. Sometimes, they don't even know how angry they are. But the anger will come out! They look hurt and innocent. They gain a sense of control over their lives by frustrating others. The teacher needs to become practiced in interpreting body language, which may indicate anger bubbling below the surface, just waiting to explode when a trigger point in the conversation is reached.
This type of anger occurs when someone feels irrationally threatened by others. They seek aggression. They believe people are against them, don't understand their viewpoint or their concerns. They expect others to attack, verbally at least. Because of this, they jealously guard and defend what they think is theirs - these parents are often those who say things like: “My son wouldn't do that” “My daughter says she has done the work and you lost it - and I believe her”. People with paranoid anger give it away - it is self evident from their body language, both their verbal and non-verbal communication, that they are very, VERY annoyed. Such parents may often feel insecure, especially in the school environment, and unwilling to trust the school, or you as its representative.
People with sudden anger are like thunderstorms on a summer day. They zoom in from nowhere, blast everything in sight, and then vanish. Sometimes it's only lightning and thunder, a big show that soon blows away, but can cause damage, occasionally physical, but certainly in terms of the relationship between the teacher and the home, and to the home-school partnership, that will take a long time to repair. Sudden Anger people gain a surge of power. They release all their feelings, so they feel good or relieved: you, on the receiving end, feel battered and emotionally exhausted. These are the people in danger of losing control: they may get physically violent and, at the least, will say and do things they may later regret. Sometimes, all you can do is simply let the anger blow up, and blow over - do not attempt to interrupt or respond until the storm has passed, but keep calm, keep still and make it clear that you are listening. It may even be that the best solution is to simply let this parent have his, or her, say, then suggest a return appointment, in the hope that regret has tempered their anger, and allowed reason to surface.
People who need a lot of attention or are very sensitive to criticism often develop this style of anger. The slightest criticism sets off their own shame - and since they share such close emotional links with their children, any criticism of the child is felt to reflect badly on them. They feel worthless, not good enough - and, like any living creature, when they feel backed against a wall, they will come out fighting! When they feel the teacher is ignoring them, like not giving in to their demands to move their child to a different teaching set, they take it as proof that the other person dislikes them as much as they dislike themselves. That makes them really angry, so they lash out; "You made me feel awful, so I'm going to hurt you back." They get rid of their shame by blaming, criticizing, and ridiculing others. Their anger helps them get revenge against anybody they think shamed them. Such parents need reassurance; they are good people; they are doing their best for their child; their child has huge potential that is not yet being realised because of the issue at hand.
This anger is planned. People who use this anger usually know what they are doing. They aren't really overtly emotional, at least not at first. They like controlling others, and the best way they've discovered to do that is with anger and, sometimes, violence. Power and control are what people gain from deliberate anger. Their goal is to get what they want by threatening or overpowering others. Firmness and fairness are the best responses to this: such individuals have to learn that he who shouts loudest does not always get what he wants, that you as an individual, and the school as an organisation, does not respond to threats and bullying, but decides what is best in the interest of the pupils.
Some people want, or even need, the strong feelings that come with anger. They like the intensity, even if they don't like the trouble their anger causes them. Their anger is much more than a bad habit - it provides emotional excitement. It isn't fun, but it's powerful. These people look forward to the anger "rush," and the emotional "high." Anger addicts gain a sense of intensity and emotional power when they explode. They feel alive and full of energy. You, as an individual, are not going to break this addiction alone - but nor should you have to tolerate it repeatedly. If every encounter is the same, this problem needs dealing with at a higher level. It may even be that, in the interests of the health and safety of staff, it may not be possible to continue to accommodate such interviews.
Some people think they have a right to be angry when others have broken a rule. They view the offenders as bad, evil, wicked, sinful. They have to be scolded, maybe punished. People with this anger style feel outraged about what bad people are doing. They say they have a right to defend their "beliefs." They claim moral superiority. They justify their anger as being for the best, in a good cause. They don't feel guilty when they get angry because of this. They often feel superior to others, even in their anger. These people suffer from black-and-white thinking, which means they see the world too simply. They fail to understand people who are different from themselves. They often have rigid ways of thinking and doing things. Another problem with this anger style is crusading - attacking every problem or difference of opinion with moral anger when compromise or understanding might be better. For these people, you need to “prove” that you are operating “within the rules”: it is not your decision, but one dictated by a policy which you have to enforce. They may not like the rule, but should appreciate the evidence that you are applying it consistently!
Hate is a hardened anger. It is a nasty anger style that happens when someone decides that at least one other person is totally evil or bad. Forgiving the other person seems impossible. Instead, the hater vows to despise the offender. Hate starts as anger that doesn't get resolved. Then it becomes resentment, and then a true hatred that can go on indefinitely. Haters often think about the ways they can punish the offender and they sometimes act on those ideas. These people feel they are innocent victims. They create a world of enemies to fight, and they attack them with great vigour and enthusiasm. However, this hatred causes serious damage over time. Haters can't let go or get on with life. They become bitter and frustrated and their lives become mean, small and narrow.
NEVER trade anger with anger! You do not extinguish a fire by throwing more fuel on it.
Whatever anger type you recognise yourself to be, in the context of a meeting with parents; you are the professional - cool and collected. Breathe deeply, switch off your more sensitive self, don't take the insults personally and don't respond in kind, trading hurt for hurt, insult for insult.
Learning to read the signs â”€ a guide to non-verbal communication!
As teachers, we are generally adept at recognising the subtle signs that all is not well with the pupils in our care; we need to adapt and enhance these, often subconscious, abilities when assessing the degree of anger, or annoyance, or high emotion, in the parents before us.
When people are tense or nervous, there are clear visual signals, long before the volume, or pitch, of their voice increases! Their fists may be clenched, or their hands or feet tapping. Their hands may be interlocked, as if praying, and the apparent pressure between the hands gives an indication of just how tense they may be. Their arms are crossed, but they are gripping their biceps. Look at the parent's mouth: upward turns in the corner of the mouth are often positive signs, and downward turns, or flat lines, demonstrate negative behaviour. Are lips pressed together or relaxed and comfortable? When the parent speaks, emotion is betrayed by a high pitch, fast pace or stuttering, long before the voice becomes over-loud, or the language abusive. Parents may repeatedly clear their throats. Their eyes evade you.
Be aware of these signs of unease, and respond sympathetically; you may avoid the situation escalating into anger. Be welcoming and placatory: listen attentively to their concerns; nod in acknowledgment of what they are saying; feed back your understanding of what they are saying. Offer a comfortable environment and perhaps a drink and a biscuit. Do not approach over-assertively; if you put such parents on the defensive, they will move quickly from unease to anger.
One of the most valuable ways of discovering whether someone is being open and honest is to look for palm displays. When someone begins to open up or be truthful, he will expose all, or part, of his palms to another person. Like most body language, this is a completely unconscious gesture, one that gives you a hunch that the other person is telling the truth. When a child is lying or concealing something, his palms are hidden in his pockets or he adopts an “arms folded” position, for example, when he tries to explain where he was. One of the tricky things about body language is that we are often unaware of how we are reacting to it. We may, for example, form a negative judgment about someone because she slouches, won't look us in the eye or "talks with her hands." Because we are unaware of why we made the judgment, we are unable to filter out our biases about what body language means and what it tells us about an individual.
Be aware, also, of what you are communicating through your own body language. Be open, physically. Do not cross your arms across the chest or hold obstructive objects (such as your marks register) protectively between the two of you. Approach parents with a hand outstretched in greeting, make eye contact and smile as if pleased to see them - even, or perhaps especially, if you are not! Aggressive body language will only alienate, and probably exacerbate what may already be a tense or confrontational meeting.
You need to appear relaxed, with an upright posture, and maintain direct eye contact. Rounded shoulders tend to imply that you are afraid or subservient, although a rigidly upright posture can, by contrast, convey inflexibility - think of the regimental sergeant major! Drooping, hunched shoulders have the connotation of carrying a heavy burden, and will not create the impression of someone who is confident in the decisions they have made. Beware of using arms and legs unconsciously as a protective barrier. Be aware of overall position: put simply, we lean towards people we like and lean away from people we don't.
Avoid gazing at the floor, one of the cardinal sins of body language: if you avoid looking at people, you avoid connecting with them. It will make the parent feel you're not interested in them or anything they're saying - if you can't even be bothered raising your eyes to fake interest, what hope have they got? - or perhaps that you are arrogant - it's rude not to look at someone who is talking to you - or nervous and slightly dodgy - avoid looking someone in the eye and they automatically assume you're hiding something. Try not to resort to habitual actions which convey nervousness, such as fiddling with your collar or scratching your neck. You might as well have a neon sign hanging round it that reads 'My name's John/Jane and you're making me feel horribly insecure and/or as nervous as hell'.
Both gestures are signs of doubt and uncertainty. People pull their clothes away from their necks when they're in a 'hot spot', literal or otherwise; this may be how you are feeling, but do you really want to convey the fact so openly? And finally, propping up your face with your hand - putting your hand on the side of your face and leaning on it could be sending a clear message, either “I'm so bored and tired, I can hardly hold my head up” or “I'm feeling faintly superior and quite possibly judging you while I'm at it.” We simply would not sit like that in front of a boss or someone we respected.
Your facial expression needs to be responsive to what the parent is saying. Keep your hands relaxed and your voice confident, measured in volume and pitch. Bear in mind that, when holding a conversation, people use certain head movements to indicate that they have come to the end of a sentence and are waiting for the other person's answer. Lowering of the head may indicate the end of a statement or raising the head the end of a question, and a demand for your response.
Look for signs of growing “congruence”: when we are starting to see another person's point of view, we tend to imitate their body language. When a group is in congruence, the positions of their bodies mimic each other, in some cases like a mirror image: when one member of a congruent group changes his position, everyone does so with him. Congruence within a group usually indicates that all the members are in agreement. If the group has two points of view, the defenders of each opinion will adopt different positions; each subgroup will be congruent within itself, but not congruent with the other subgroup.
When interviewing two parents, looking for congruent movements may help you to establish who is the dominant partner, and it may not necessarily be the one who first begins to speak: they may be holding the “big guns” in reserve, to catch out the unwary teacher, who is beginning to think that he, or she, is winning the argument. Manage the situation by trying to bring the “silent partner” into the discussion at a point that suits you - “What do you feel has happened, Mr Smith?” When those on the “other side” of the discussion begin to mirror your movements, you know that they are getting on side, and listening to what you have to say. To try to break the tension at the beginning of the interview, to increase a person's comfort when they are closed-off, utilize mirroring; observe the parent's behaviour and then, in a subtle way, act the same way they are acting. If their arms are crossed over, sit back, relax a little, and then begin to cross your arms.
The "Managed" Meeting
The majority of times we have an interview with parents, we are well aware that the meeting will take place. There is, of course, the annual Parents' Consultation Evening, or you may have sent a letter home about a disciplinary related incident, for example, that you can confidently predict will elicit a response from home and even, perhaps, that it is likely to be an emotional, or even heated, exchange. There are also social events, a “Celebration Assembly” perhaps to which parents have been invited, which might also prompt some to request a few words with you in private regarding a long running issue. And, sometimes, the meeting has been suggested by you, effectively a summons to the parents to attend a meeting of crucial importance to the youngster, for example, if there has been cause for a temporary exclusion or a permanent exclusion is on the horizon. Whenever you have the opportunity to “manage” such meetings, make the most of the opportunity to ensure a good outcome for all parties, and the minimum of stress for yourself.
It is, perhaps, worth emphasising that most encounters with parents are perfectly amicable, or may be emotional for them, although not in any way expressed in angry exchanges. It would be a mistake to always assume the worst; your own tension will be conveyed to parents and might be the “last straw” that tips them over the edge!
a) Fixing a Date
When a parent requests a meeting in advance, or if you are issuing the summons, think carefully about the timing. Allow enough time to prepare effectively - a few days at least. When confirming the time and date, if you are not really sure why the meeting is being requested, politely enquire as to the general topic. Pick a time which you can “manage” i.e. that will have a definite start time and a definite finish: meetings during the school day are often better from this point of view, since parents will anticipate that you will have classes to teach at some point! However, it is also often the time least favoured by parents, who may work during the day or have other commitments, for example younger children to make arrangements for.
If the meeting must be at the end of the school day, make sure that you have established with the parents how long the meeting will last, and inform a reliable colleague, whose job it will be to bring the meeting to an end by “interrupting”: this could be a teaching colleague, a member of non-teaching staff, even a cleaner or caretaker, reminding you that the room needs to be cleared. Emotionally charged meetings have a tendency to become circular, the tension rising and falling, and can, if you don't manage them, carry on for disproportionately long times, and they are no more effective than a short, sharp, focussed meeting in bringing about a satisfactory outcome.
When you have fixed the date and time, make sure that it has been entered into the school calendar. Book a suitable room, if available. Inform the appropriate line manager which parents you are meeting and why - curriculum leader, pastoral team leader, senior management. Informing the SEN coordinator would also be appropriate for certain pupils. Make sure that the reception staff know, and will be ready to greet the parents warmly.
Make it clear to all how long you are scheduling the meeting for, and make sure that there will be some support for you, should matters become heated or should the meeting drag on interminably - and have an “exit plan” agreed to address these possible scenarios.
Use the interim time wisely to gather as much information as you can. Check school records for any information from previous meetings, perhaps with other members of staff: ask colleagues for any tips or pieces of information, about family circumstances perhaps, that you might not previously have been privy to. Do not forget support staff and those in reception, for example, who may have had cause to speak to these parents before. Use “local knowledge”: many support staff live locally and may know these parents in an entirely different social setting, as neighbours perhaps, and may also have useful information to add. Don't forget the child who is the stimulus for the discussion - but beware of appearing to pump for information! Always remember that the child has his, or her, own agenda, and you never know what the little dear has been saying at home that may potentially have already inflamed an otherwise perfectly amicable meeting.
Gather together the “evidence” you may have relating to the meeting - examples of class work, attendance records, records of missed homeworks and some comparative information (no names of course) with other class members, photocopies of graffiti, photographs of damage - whatever supports the issues you need to put across. Have copies available of relevant policy documents, or previous written correspondence, and a clear note of when, and how, such communications have been conveyed. Make sure that you have carefully read records of any previous correspondence, whether on the matter in question or another: incidents which may appear to you to be unrelated, to parents desperate for a reason to excuse their child's behaviour may seem to provide evidence of a “conspiracy” - at least if they bring something up, you will know roughly what they are referring to!
The watchword for your preparation should be “Forewarned is forearmed!”
b) Managing the Environment
How we guard our personal space boundaries, and how we enter into the others' personal space, is integrally connected with the way we relate with other people. It is important for people to have their ‘own space', and how you manage the space in the meeting room will establish the relationship between you and the parent, and possibly the emotional tone that the meeting will take. Make sure that you have established a “space” for yourself that you are comfortable with, in terms of the distance between you and the parents, and your relative positions. If the meeting is taking place in your “teaching space”, this is, in one sense, a kind of temporary home territory for you, perhaps marked by personal belongings, and one in which you may feel comfortable. Conversely, you may see this as a potential battleground, or a territory you want to protect, and feel happier in a more formal meeting room. Each school will, in addition, have its own established practices which may dictate the venue.
Arrange the chairs in the interview room before the parents arrive, giving thought to the atmosphere you want to establish, as well as more practical issues. A desk between you and them may feel “safe” and protective, but also conveys that you feel in need of protection, and creates a barrier between you, enforcing an “us and them” mentality. The room layout should reflect the home - school partnership in action. If you want to have the comfort of a desk, or simply need one on which to gather your evidence, consider having the parents sitting at right angles to you, rather than directly across the desk.
Think about the position of chairs, and who will sit where, relative to the doorway - in the worst possible scenario, you want to be sure that YOU are the one closest to the door and can leave before they do! This may be to seek help or support from elsewhere, to remove yourself from a highly charged atmosphere and allow “calm down” time, or to bring a meeting to an end when it has gone way beyond sensible limits, despite your best efforts. In these circumstances, always make sure that you have informed someone, preferably more senior, that parents have been left in a room unattended and need to be escorted from the premises - at all times, the health and safety of all members of the school community has to be a paramount consideration.
Distance plays a role in signalling the beginning and the end of a conversation; you may begin physically drawing away slightly, before rising to signal the end of the meeting. The amount of personal space we appreciate is also strongly influenced by our culture, so you need to inform yourself of cultural differences, to avoid giving offence and getting the meeting off to a poor start. If somebody comes closer to us than we are used to, invading our personal space, it gives us a feeling of unease. We feel inclined to take a step backward to re-establish the original personal space with which we are comfortable. Be aware if you are inadvertently causing tension and move slightly away if you are!
If the interview room has a clock, set up the room so you are the one viewing it. Make clear from the outset the maximum time allowable for the meeting, and keep your eye on the clock to make sure that you are communicating, with a degree of subtlety, how much time is left to reach an agreement or a decision. Keep the temperature at a comfortable range for you. Indicate clearly to the parent, or parents, where you would like them to sit.
All these are subtle means of defining your territory, without appearing aggressive or domineering.
Trying to help parents feel welcome and relaxed from the moment they step in the door may pay dividends in diffusing stored up tension. Try to avoid keeping them waiting - and make sure there is a comfortable place for them to wait. Ensure that reception staff are expecting them, and will check periodically on their welfare, updating them of your estimated arrival time if you are UNAVOIDABLY detained. If you are late, without breaking confidentialities, make your excuses, exactly as you would for lack of punctuality in any formal situation. Go out to wherever the parent is waiting and greet him or her. Smile, make eye contact and shake hands. Extend your hand first and shake firmly - a weak handshake commands no respect. Try to establish a rapport; engage them in small talk as you guide them, confidently and comfortably, to the room you have booked and arranged for the meeting. Arrange for the availability of suitable refreshments, and water, especially if none has already been provided.
Allow parents to settle into their seats before beginning the business of the interview proper. Provide opportunities for them to express their emotions, but make it clear from your demeanour that you are not here to simply be abused.
When the interview is over, stand, and shake hands again. See them to the door. Then go to a private corner, pat yourself on the back for a job well done, and breathe deeply!
c) Managing the Agenda
Be crystal clear what the desired outcome is in terms of the PUPIL - how will this meeting impact positively on this youngster's learning and progress? Keep this at the forefront of your thinking both before and during the meeting - and keep referring to it during the time you are with the parents. The aim should be that you reach an agreement by the end of the meeting, an action plan if you will, about what the “next steps” will be - what is expected of you, what is expected of the parents, what the impact will be on the pupil.
The meeting should be a DIALOGUE - you need to give the parents the opportunity to express their concerns, and try to ascertain from them any background information that is creating a barrier to the learning and progress.
There are effectively three phases:
1. Establishing the baseline - summarising where we are, from each participant's viewpoint, clarifying issues and dealing with misapprehensions. This could be, potentially, the most volatile phase, especially if the two sides are far from sharing an understanding of events.
2. Discussing options - the “what ifs”? What are the possible ways forward from the current point? An opportunity for both sides to contribute - the more options for consideration, the better!
3. Agreement - the “action plan”. Effectively, you will doubtless have very clear views on this in advance, although you should always be prepared to modify your plan in the light of issues that the parents raise. No one likes to be faced with a fait accompli! When you are negotiating towards agreement, constantly refer to why this decision will be in the best interest of the YOUNG PERSON, not the school, or the rest of the class. In the case of an exclusion, you could talk in terms of “fresh starts” “new opportunities” etc and emphasise the support the school is willing to provide to help the youngster to settle elsewhere
NEVER agree to something that you cannot carry out, or have little intention of carrying out. NEVER agree to something on someone else's behalf (“I will tell teacher X that she must sit him at the front of the class and she will, starting from tomorrow”). Be careful of your phrasing and the time span for implementation. Record any agreements, and ensure that they are shared with the parents, both by feeding them back at the end of the meeting, and by follow up communication.
As you are reaching the final third of the meeting time, (10 minutes from the end of a 30 minute interview, for example), bring the discussion into this final phase. “I appreciate all the concern that you have, and I can see that this is a difficult situation, but we need to decide what we are going to do, all of us, to make sure that the future is going to be better for John. Let's think about what is going to happen next…”
Use the pupil's name repeatedly during the conversation - keep bringing the conversation back to this focus. Listen to what the parents are saying - feed it back in summary to show that you have heard accurately what they are saying, empathise (“I can see just how annoyed you are ... your concern is coming over really strongly…”) but keep a firm focus on the outcome you need to achieve.
If you simply cannot come to an agreement, or issues have been raised which you simply do not have the information to respond to, or the power to do what the parents want, and time is running out, explain that you need to bring the meeting to an end. Remember, you have pointed out the time span for the meeting at the outset, Suggest another time to continue the meeting - this could be relatively quickly, unless there is more information that you need to access, or people you need to consult. If it is clear that you are never going to reach agreement, inform parents clearly what their next option might be - who else in the chain of command they can speak to, for example. In this instance, always make sure that you inform this person as soon as is practical that you have made the suggestion - and give them as much information as you have regarding the issue.
Bring the meeting to an end formally but warmly - offer a handshake, thank them again for making the time to come and see you, repeat an assurance that you, like them, have the best interests of John at heart, and look forward to continuing the dialogue between you. Perhaps you could mention an upcoming event, e.g. a Parents' Evening when you will meet again.
Defusing a Tense Situation
Managing your own anger can be difficult, but coping with other people's anger can seem frustrating and even frightening. Although it may be difficult, try very hard not to take the
other person's anger personally. Understand that the anger may be directed at what you represent or the situation, not at you as a person. If you view the anger as a personal attack, you will run the risk of letting your own emotions get in the way of working towards a solution to the problem. Acknowledge the anger and let the other person know that you realize he/she is angry. If you disregard, or try to ignore the anger, the other person may well become even more enraged.
A simple fact - it is easier for people to calm down, or to remain calm, when they are seated. Always request that parents sit down to continue a conversation with you: do not allow them to harangue you from a standing position, but equally don't get involved in a posturing contest!
Greet parents with a smile; as far as is sensible, and sensitive, continue to smile sincerely and frequently. But be aware of the need to recognise, and reflect back someone's concern. In his article The Six Commandments of Body Language, Allen Thompson wrote that smiling is the simplest, most obvious, and most powerful of the body language commandments. Smiling demonstrates confidence, friendliness, a positive attitude, a good mood, and it gives the impression that you, too, are only human!
Maintain eye contact. The eyes are the most expressive parts of your body. Maintaining eye contact conveys sincerity, but beware the intensity of your gaze turning into a glare or the “teacher's look”. Eye contact also establishes a link between two individuals. Reinforce this feeling of “partnership” by nodding your head; in this way, you signify that you are encouraging the other party to continue talking, and show that you are listening.
Listen carefully to what the other person has to say. Even though you may be feeling personally attacked verbally, allow the person to express his anger before responding. You may find that you have made incorrect assumptions about what the anger is all about, or that you have missed important details of the situation that provoked the anger. Good listening skills are essential for effective conflict management. However, no one has to remain with a person who is being excessively abusive. If the other person is being verbally abusive, you should communicate that this behaviour is not acceptable.
For example, you might say:
‘If you continue to call me names, I cannot continue this conversation with you.'
Try to maintain an open outlook, even though you might feel that you are in possession of more “facts” than the parent is: you might need to investigate a problem even more fully when they have given you additional background information. Don't jump to conclusions or let your prior knowledge and feelings about the person involved influence your understanding of the situation.
Help people to "save face" if/when they realize that they have behaved badly. There are people who lose control and express anger, but later experience feelings of guilt and embarrassment. Whatever you can do to help the person to acknowledge their feelings will assist both of you in moving towards your desired goal of a win-win resolution.
Keep your tone of voice calm and your pitch low. A low voice and calm tone will help to reduce the intensity of the other person's anger. If you were to respond "in kind," i.e. to match the intensity of the other person's response, you tend to maintain the strength of the rage rather than diminishing it.
Do not express personal judgments about what should or should not make someone angry. Such statements will make you appear to be patronizing and increase the parent's feelings of being misunderstood. Each of us is unique in our responses to events; what may make one of us angry or sad may have little or no effect on another person. Remember that each person's perception of a situation is his or her reality of what has occurred. It is important to try to understand the anger through the parent's eyes. This doesn't mean that you agree with them, simply that you can emphasize.
Support the parent as their anger slows down, still without necessarily agreeing with them. The time to intervene is when the person's anger has peaked and begins to diminish. When you notice that the anger is slowing, that is a good time to provide emotional support by acknowledging how angry the person is. Support does not equal agreement; your aim is to assist the person to work through the anger and to calm down - not to give your opinion of the validity of his or her complaint.
If necessary, ask for outside help. If the person is unable to contain the anger and you fear that he or she could be a threat to you, to him/herself or to others, it's time to call for outside assistance. Always ensure that there is a colleague, preferably more senior, available close by, certainly within earshot of raised voices - and make sure that your exit route is clear, should it be necessary to remove yourself from the interview.
If you need to, find someone with whom you can discuss what happened after the incident. Dealing with another person's anger can be a stressful experience for you and you may need some support. Often, you will just want to have someone with whom you can discuss the situation and work out your own feelings about the incident. You will need to find someone you can trust who will not only keep your feelings confidential but also will protect the confidentiality of the person who has expressed the anger.
Parents' Consultation Evening
The annual Parents' Evening is an interview for which you may have minimal chance to exercise your management skills!
Every school has its own system for conducting these interviews, and the layout of chairs and tables, for example, may be outside your sphere of control. Many schools utilise the “everyone in the hall” approach, which is designed to protect staff as people are less likely, in theory at least, to explode with anger in a public forum. It also means that, whatever does happen, whatever is said, there are always going to be numerous witnesses!
No matter how experienced, every teacher should prepare carefully for Parents' Evenings. Make sure that you have written brief notes on every child whose parents you expect to see - those with appointments and those who always “just turn up on the night”. A sensible approach is also to prepare “reserve” notes on those who are not expected, just in case they do arrive.
Select examples of work for every child, exercise books for example, to take to the interview with you. It gives a focus to discussion - it is hard, as a parent, to continue to deny that your John's work is careless, for example, when the page before you is covered in blots, blotches and crossings out.
Have somewhere handy where you can jot down notes based on what parents tell you - it is a clear indication that you are listening to what they are saying. It is easy to forget, when you see so many parents in quick succession, that you promised to send a copy of the last report that has been “lost in transit” - and if you have promised to do something and fail to carry it out, you not only lose face and respect, but also will provoke a more angry response in future.
Before parents arrive, make yourself aware of who will be sitting around you: be clear who your line manager is, and where he is sitting. Arrange a subtle (and mutual) signal with colleagues sitting close by to indicate that a problem is developing and that you may need help or support.
Everyone is aware that there is very little time to speak on these occasions, and spending a long time with one parent often means taking time from all the others who are waiting to see you. These are “touching base” activities, and may simply provide an opportunity to establish the need for a more detailed and lengthy meeting at a future date. It is perfectly acceptable to point out that you have x other parents to see - you will no doubt have a list in front of you - or that there is quite a queue developing. Ask “static” parents to contact you, through the school, to arrange a mutually convenient future date when the appropriate time can be devoted to their concerns. If you have your diary with you, you could suggest dates, but make it clear that you will need to confirm these, since there could be clashes that you are not yet aware of (checking availability of meeting room, for example, if it is your school's policy to always use a particular venue).
If a parent approaches without an appointment, you have a judgement call to make, but never be less than honest! If you say you have so many other parents to see that you can't squeeze this newcomer in, you can guarantee that he or she will be watching you with hawk-like eyes all evening, counting how any times the chair opposite you is empty! If you have a "gap” offer it, but make it clear that, if you are running late, you will have to take those with a prior appointment. Always make it clear that you will make yourself available at another time, if they would like to make an appointment through the normal channels.
You cannot simply refuse to talk to a parent, especially if their approach relates to statutory issues, such as the delivery of the curriculum, or accusations of bullying, for example. If there is past history between you, and you feel that there is a personal safety issue, you can firmly request the support, in the meeting, of the appropriate member of the management team.
Parents as Consumers
There are many parents who are vey well “educated” in terms of their rights as the “consumers” of the education system. Unfortunately, they are not as aware as we would like that the current relationship between home and school is not defined in terms of provider and consumer, but in terms of a partnership for the benefit of the child. Both partners, the parent and the school, along with other agencies, such as social services or health, as appropriate, should contribute towards the “Every Child Matters” agenda. All research, as well as common sense, indicates that, when home and school work in a spirit of partnership, mutual respect and support, the child is much more likely to achieve his, or her, potential and to maintain a good rate of progress, not only in terms of educational attainment but also in terms of personal, social and emotional development.
At the risk of resorting to stereotypical judgements, such “consumer focussed” parents are often middle class, well educated, well informed, well connected, and vocal: they know their way around the system. Such parents are likely to put the school under pressure; they begin in what they perceive to be in the best interests of their child, but move on to make demands of the school which might be wholly unreasonable. The school, in responding quickly to a reasonable request, can set a precedent for increasing demands: the parent sees the encounter in terms of a power struggle - and makes the judgement that they are in the ascendancy! The management skills of the teacher are exercised in responding positively to reasonable demands, but remaining firm in respect of actions which would be unreasonable. Sometimes, if a teacher takes immediate action as a result of a “complaint”, manipulative parents see this as “evidence” of a deeper malaise within the school, a weakness that will undoubtedly be exploited at a later date.
· In the table below, in column 1, consider some of the demands that such parents might make. There are, as always, some suggestions to get you started!
· Next, in column 2, consider some of the implications to giving in to these demands.
· In column 3, jot down ideas for how such requests might be answered.
School has no basis for its judgement; school does not cater for all abilities; some teachers are better than others We have used NC results to determine sets; all our sets are taught by experienced teachers and cover NC appropriately
The Surprise Encounter
‘The woman swore and shrieked …. Never before was such a noise heard!'
No, not a surprise encounter of the 21st millennium, but a brief extract from the comments of a teacher from a Ragged School in 1850 - just to indicate that perhaps the “golden age” was not always quite so golden!
If possible, steer the angry person to a private place where there will be less outside interference. Privacy will help prevent other people from getting drawn into the conflict and will make it easier for you to intervene when appropriate. Moving away from a more public area will also remove some of the discomfort from the situation for not only you and the angry person and bystanders. It also robs some parents of the public stage that they were seeking in choosing this venue for an explosion of rage! Bear in mind that one of your prime responsibilities as a teacher is the welfare of your pupils - they should not be put in a situation where they may be at risk of real or threatened violence, be that physical or verbal, and, in addition, should not be expected to witness a display of temper expressed in unsuitably colourful language. Whilst some may have “heard it all before” not least at home, we need to be aware that there are still others, perhaps for cultural or religious reasons, who may not be quite so accustomed to public displays of strong emotion.
Find a quiet room nearby: ask someone, another teacher or a member of the support staff, to get a cup of tea or coffee (thereby ensuring that someone will be coming to the room soon and you will not be left alone for a prolonged period). Ask everyone involved to sit down rather than stand up. It is easier for people to calm down when they are seated.
At this point, all you can really do is listen! You are not in possession of “the facts”: you have not prepared, so do not have information to hand; snap judgements are rarely the most effective. Listen; use body language to try to defuse the tension and high emotion; make notes; feed back what they are saying to clarify; express empathy. You need to let the parent know that you are listening, but also that you are not going to do something immediately. Only promise what you can easily deliver - “I will look into this” “I will telephone you tomorrow to confirm when we can meet again” “I will defer the detention until we have discussed this matter again, but please be aware that the school may still feel that detention is the appropriate response to what John has done” “If John serves the detention, and you are willing to allow it to happen, I will personally ensure that he catches the 4.30 pm bus”. They will need to make a proper appointment in the vast majority of cases when this issue can be addressed more effectively on both sides.
Try to keep it brief; make it clear that you do not have unlimited time - but make the reason for your lack of instant availability professional rather than personal.
Always take notes during meetings with parents. They will be useful both for you in future meetings, and for colleagues, who may have interviews with these parents, or issues with this child, at some future date. In the worst case scenario, the notes may form part of the
evidence base for further action, perhaps even an exclusion; the school needs evidence of its many unsuccessful attempts to engage both child and parents in finding a way forward other than taking the ultimate step.
The main purposes of notes are to:
· Establish and share facts - a two way process
· Establish and share any “mitigating circumstances” or background information. It may be, for example, that there are particular home circumstances that preclude after school detention.
· Establish a clear plan of action - what is each party going to contribute, by when e.g. you will send a weekly report to parents on progress, attitude etc for the next month; parents will check planner every day, and ensure that an appropriate place for homework to be done is provided; agree date and time for follow up meeting.
Read back to parents from the notes you have made at appropriate points during the meeting “Can I just check with you that ….”, “The main problem here is …”, “You were not aware that…” They may wish to see the actual notes for themselves and, under freedom of information legislation, it is incumbent on you to allow this: there should not be anything which is not about them, and their child, and the notes should be facts or agreed opinions.
Always follow up a meeting with a letter to confirm the agreements that you have reached, detailing concisely the agreed plan of action. Confirm the date of the next meeting, if appropriate.
If the meeting has left you with a feeling of unease, if you have felt intimidated and threatened, it is wise to commit further details to paper in a secure, personal place, as soon as possible after the parents have left. Should the situation escalate, or should you need at some point to seek the support of the management team, you will need some “evidence” of what has gone on, over and above the official “agreed” record. Should you fail to obtain the support you require from the management team, and need recourse to the relevant teaching union, for example, such records will give an important background, at least, to any negotiations. It is also wise to sign and date these notes, and, if possible, have them countersigned by a colleague to confirm when they were written, i.e. immediately after the meeting, and not concocted at a later date. In the vast majority of cases, all such notes will eventually find their way into a shredder, never having seen further light of day - but it is too late to look back with regret when matters are not resolved to your satisfaction.
Parental rights in education
Parents have a number of rights enshrined in law, as well as concomitant responsibilities. To meet these rights:
· All state-maintained schools must use the National Curriculum which sets out what most children should be taught.
· A school can 'exclude' (remove) a child from some or all of the National Curriculum for a short time if it can provide evidence that this is best for the child.
· The parent has the right to remove a child from certain lessons e.g. of a religious nature.
· If a child cannot go to school because they have been excluded, are injured or are ill, the education department of the local council must provide an appropriate alternative education. This could be at a hospital school, a pupil-referral unit, further education college, or work-experience placement.
· Children must receive education from the start of the term after their fifth birthday up until the third Friday in June in the school year in which they turn 16.
· Education must be free at all state-maintained schools and in other educational organisations that the education department of the local council pays for (for example, pupil-referral units and nursery schools).
· Parents have the right to say which state school they want their child to go to, but not necessarily to receive a place at that school.
· Parents may decide to teach their children at home: they must make sure that such children are educated suitably for their age and ability and cater for any special educational needs they may have.
· A parent must be given 24 hours' notice in writing if the school wants to keep a child in detention out of school hours.
· Schools must give to parents a written report on their child at least once a year. This must include:
o progress on all the National Curriculum subjects they have studied
o progress in other subjects and activities
o general progress and attendance
o results in any National Curriculum tests and assessments.
· Legally, should a parent demand a copy of his/her child's school record, it must be supplied within 15 school days of receiving a written request.
· A school must provide appropriate help for children with special educational needs i.e. significantly more difficulty learning than other children of the same age or have a disability which affects how they can use educational facilities that are usually provided for children of the same age in the same area.
· A school must have a discipline policy which includes what it does to stop bullying. The parent has the right that this policy will be consistently applied and that the school will do all that it reasonably can to protect children from bullying, should they report any instances.
· The school's discipline policy and any school rules must be based on the governors' statement on how children should behave (which all schools must have). Under the Human Rights Act 1998, any punishment or treatment must not be 'inhuman or degrading'. It must be suitable taking into account what the child has done.
· Physical punishment such as smacking, caning or shaking a child is illegal in all schools. School staff may use 'reasonable force' to stop a child:
o committing a crime
o hurting someone
o damaging something
· Parents are legally entitled to make a formal complaint, utilizing the complaints procedure, which all maintainedschools must have.
· Parents should complain straight away to the police or the localauthority's social services department should they believe that their child has been seriously harmed or sexually assaulted.
Schools must also comply with any court orders in respect of individual pupils, for example relating to parental responsibility or place of residence order. Teachers must check such records carefully to ascertain when a discussion with, or decision taken with, one parent MUST be also be shared with the other, and that the parent requesting an interview is legally entitled to discuss that child's progress. In some situations, there may be a court order forbidding one parent from knowing where his (or her) child lives or is educated, for example, so be wary if approached by a parent with whom you are not familiar. In rare circumstances, it may be that a parent is trying to make contact with a child he is legally barred from meeting, and confirmation from you that the child is a pupil is all that he is actually seeking to narrow down his search!
The Legal Rights of the Teacher
Every employee has a right to protection from work related violence. Health and Safety law applies to risks from violence, just as it does to other risks from work. The main pieces of relevant legislation are…
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSW Act)
Employers have a legal duty under this Act to ensure, so far as it reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
Employers must consider the risks to employees (including the risk of reasonably foreseeable violence); decide how significant these risks are; decide what to do to prevent or control the risks; and develop a clear management plan to achieve this.
The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR)
Employers must notify their enforcing authority in the event of an accident at work to any employee resulting in death, major injury, on incapacity for normal work for three or more days. This includes any act of non-consensual physical violence done to a person at work.
In addition, stress is recognised as a work related c
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