Most teachers become teachers because they want to make a difference in the lives of students. But when those students have caregivers who create challenges with complaints, hostility, or disengagement, it becomes more difficult and can even dampen the joy of teaching. We asked some Extraordinary Educators™ how they navigate these challenges. Here’s their advice.
Start with a Positive
No one likes to hear bad news, especially about their own child, so make your first contact with your students’ caregivers a positive one. Megan Geise, a second grade math teacher in Pennsylvania, suggests using your classroom communication app to send photos of students working or having fun at school. “It’s important to establish a relationship with each family,” she says. “I make time to share something positive about a student first, like how they helped a friend pick up toys without being asked. The first phone call or email home should never be negative. Parents are more receptive to issues if you start with a positive.”
Caring teachers can become emotionally involved, so setting boundaries with caregivers is important. Jennifer Seitz, a first through third grade special education teacher in New Jersey, has the same students over several years. Because of that, she gets to know the families well and provides her cell phone number up front. She knows intuitively when a matter is urgent, and she’s learned that she doesn’t always have to respond immediately, especially at night or over the weekend. “I have to set boundaries for myself and my family,” she says. Jennifer always tries to listen first, without interrupting. But she’s realized that if someone is screaming at her, she doesn’t have to tolerate it. “I will politely say, ‘let’s carry on this conversation another time.’”
Don’t Go into a Tough Situation Alone
Jennifer Pastor, a fourth grade math teacher in Louisiana, teaches three different classes. She shares her 50 students with an English language arts and science teacher. When she’s meeting with caregivers who can be challenging, she asks her teaching peers to join. “If you know you’re going into a difficult situation, do not meet a parent by yourself,” she says. “If you don’t have co-teachers who can join the meeting, you can always ask an administrator to sit in for moral support and as a witness.”
Have Empathy for Disengaged Caregivers
Not all caregivers are able to be involved in their children’s school life. They may be a single parent, have multiple jobs, or have other kids at home. They might have an aging parent or a physical or emotional ailment. You may not know what’s going on, but there’s usually a reason that caregivers are disengaged. Brianna Lugibihl, a fifth grade language arts and social studies teacher in Ohio, says, “Normally, parents can support their kids with school but sometimes they can’t in the ways they’d like to. I have some struggling readers and have scheduled some after-school tutoring time with them to receive the extra support they need.” By helping these students, Brianna is taking some of the burden off their caregivers.
Remind Caregivers You All Want What’s Best for Their Child
“Sometimes you have to work hard to make parents realize you’re on the same side,” says Jennifer Pastor. “You both want what’s best for the child.” She addresses one concern at a time and then listens. “Sometimes it’s those students with the most needs whose parents are the most difficult . . . because they just want their child to be okay.” She does have to bite her tongue sometimes. “As a professional, you don’t have the freedom to say anything you want. We’re only responsible for our own actions.”
Megan suggests inviting caregivers to come in for a meeting. “Try to avoid sending emails because the tone can often be misread,” she says. “Instead of sitting across from them, sit next to them, which is less confrontational. You want them to know you’re on the same team. Then come up with a plan and goals together and whenever possible, celebrate the positives.”
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
Students who are challenging in the classroom are often challenging at home, and that can put a lot of pressure on their caregivers. Teachers can get blamed for poor grades and low test scores and become a target for stressed out parents. It’s unfair and draining, but it also comes with the job. “Parents are doing the best they can, and sometimes they’re overwhelmed,” Brianna says. “I try to think about what the root cause is. Sometimes they come to us with bad school system experiences. As teachers, we can change that experience and show how we’re there to support them.” Megan added, “Always remember that those students who might drive us crazy mean the world to their family.”
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