We don’t call parents to complain

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Student playing a board game at lunchtime.

Every year, there seems to be a class that gets a bad rap-“that class,” which teachers say is tough to teach. Recently a few teachers met with me about this year’s “tough class.”

The teacher’s solution: they wanted to invite the students’ parents into the classrooms to witness how the students were behaving.

I was surprised: why would the teachers want the parents to see the kids behaving badly? In fact, wouldn’t the kids just be good on that day? “Well,” said one teacher, “if the kids are good, then we can say, ‘See, you were good when your parents came in so why can’t you be this good everyday?’”

I remembered my first years of teaching middle school. When I struggled with a student, I would call parents about the problem. In hindsight, I see that I was asking—and actually wishing for– the parents to solve the problem. But in fact, the problem was mine.

My answer to the teachers’ request was no.

I explained that we would only invite parents once we had a clear set of steps and a role for the parents. Our message could not be, “Your child is acting up, fix it.” The message had to be, “Thanks so much for speaking with us. Here’s what we’re doing to support your child. Can you partner with us by saying or doing X at home?” Otherwise, inviting the parents would just be a way of complaining to them, without solving the problem. And in fact, it’s our job to solve, not theirs. Years ago when I was working as a mentor supporting first-year teachers, I read a book called Setting Limits In The Classroom by Robert Mackenzie, which talked about the misconception that teaching behavior in school is only the parents’ job.

As we spoke, the teachers started to hear me. One teacher said, “I get it. If I was suddenly called in to go to my son’s school and asked to attend his classes, I’d be really surprised and upset. And probably annoyed.”

“Right,” I replied. I told them of a scenario from Setting Limits: “Imagine you as a teacher, getting a call at home while you’re eating dinner with your family. A parent tells you, ‘Mr. X, Joshua won’t clean his room. Can you come over? I don’t know what to do with him.’ You’d think it was a little strange, right?” A few of the teachers smiled.

I’m sure some of the teachers were disappointed in my answer, but there is a bottom line: we don’t call parents to complain or solve our problems. We call parents to let them know about a problem, what we’re doing about it, and how they can support.

The other bottom line is this: if we get more skilled as educators, the students will do better. I always loved the phrase “your worst class is your best teacher”: for me as a teacher, the class which started the year more distracted, or more prone to argue, often ended up being my best class. I kept finding better ways to engage them, improving my own skill set, and in the end, I became a better teacher. I learned how to harness students’ seeming hyperactivity or defiance into great energy and leadership. My “tough class,” in turn, often became my favorite class.

Photo credit: Julie Nariman

6 thoughts on “We don’t call parents to complain

  1. Wow! What a surprising and inspiring post! I love how you are taking full responsibility for classroom behavior and inviting parents to partner you, not looking for someone else to blame or solve the problem. What a lesson for all of us. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A third option might be opening a discussion with the parents to partner in the creation of the “clear set of steps [for the school] and a role for the parents”. We parents do have access to information you lack, just as the opposite is true. It seems the perfect recipe for collaboration, rather than either taking it completely upon yourself or putting it completely upon parents to define a solution.

    Many (most?) of us are eager to partner with teachers, and we don’t require that you come to us with solutions already perfectly and completely defined. In fact, I expect that some parents will be even more willing to partner if they feel themselves a part of the solution’s synthesis.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome post! I’m inspired. This applies beyond the classroom. My boss doesn’t want to hear me complain, they too want to know what I’m doing to “fix it”. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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