…Especially if you need to say things they don’t want to hear!
If you are an educator, you have experienced the sleepless nights and sweaty palms that occur before a crucial parent meeting. You are meeting to say something that, quite frankly, your parents (or guardians) don’t want to hear. Perhaps you have to tell them you suspect their student has a learning disability. Maybe their student has made some bad choices in their behavior that has led to painful consequences. Or, (yikes) their child is flunking your class or you feel they need to repeat the entire grade level.
As educators, we love our students and pour our professional lives into helping them be successful in school and in life. Therefore, being the bearer of bad news is just not in our DNA. However, as education professionals, sharing difficult information is part of our job. The good news is: if handled correctly, the meeting can actually lead to an improvement in our student’s academic life and help forge a new, positive partnership with our parents. The key to having a positive outcome for a crucial meeting is found in the planning and execution of the meeting.
Step 1: Be clear on what you hope to accomplish in the meeting
I always begin my planning with the end in mind. When my parents are driving home, what do I want them to remember from the meeting? How do I want them to feel? Do I want them to feel supported, heard, optimistic, hopeful, and/or relieved? What decisions will need to be made during the meeting? What other information should I gather that might be useful as we consider various solutions? Do I have a specific plan or next step in mind or is the solution something we need to work out together?
Who else do I need to include in this meeting? Although it is a sad fact, we sometimes have to face parents who may get angry or verbally abusive. If you are concerned this might happen, don’t go it alone! Call in reinforcements. You may need to bring in a member of your school leadership team or have security standing by. In this scenario you will need to set clear behavioral boundaries before the meeting begins. For example, there will be no swearing, yelling or threatening. If any of these occur, the meeting is over.
Step 2: Be prepared for the meeting
Although this sounds obvious, it needs to be said. You must have complete and relevant information to present at your meeting. For example, if you suspect a learning disability, have several examples of the student’s work to present and, if possible, other educator’s observations as well. Have a suggested plan for how you’d like to go about having the student tested. If the meeting is about behavioral issues or academic issues, again, make sure you have examples and a comprehensive record that includes dates and times. If you can include observations from other professionals, that would be excellent. You may not need to present all of this information in your meeting, but it is great to have on hand just in case.
Gathering comprehensive information will help you present an airtight case. Present the information without using harsh or judgmental words. Just state the facts. One of the effective classroom management strategies I present in my professional development seminars for teachers utilizes a strategy that helps students develop self-discipline and problem solving skills. The student who has misbehaved writes out, in brief form, what s/he did that violated the rules (personal ownership) and what they will chose to do next time (problem solving). Having these specific, dated logs written in the student’s own handwriting provides an excellent piece of evidence to support your case.
Another way to be properly prepared is to make sure you are emotionally prepared for the meeting. If the parents are highly emotional and you are too, it’s going to be an explosive meeting. Be kind to yourself and know your own limits. You are a human being. If that student is on your last nerve, you need to take the time to calm down and be ready to have a professional conversation. Take a walk. Talk it through with your PLC team or school leadership. Do whatever you need to do to insure that you can remain calm and professional throughout the meeting.
As a person of faith, I always pray before crucial parent meetings. I ask God to prepare the hearts of those who need to receive the information and I pray for wisdom and the right words to use during the meeting. I ask God to bring His peace and His presence to our meeting. I cannot overstate how much prayer has changed my own heart and the hearts of some of my parents. Where I worried they might get angry or bitter when I told them the news, those same parents would say, “You know, I was already thinking about this. I’m glad you brought it up.” It didn’t always happen, but it happened often and I was grateful!
Step 3: Be on the same team
We never want to let our relationship degrade into “teacher vs. parents”. If we are adversaries, positive communication and creative problem solving is stifled. We want to make sure our parents understand that we want the very best for their student and that we are all on the same team with the same goal. The goal is that their student is successful in our classroom and in life. Therefore, I would often start the meeting by telling them that I cared about their child and wanted the very best for them. As soon as I made that statement, I would see parents’ body language immediately change; dad’s tense shoulders would relax, mom might get a tear in her eye. Parents want to know that their child’s teacher truly does care about them and hearing you say it can be a very powerful bonding experience.
To foster the sense that you, the parents (or guardians) and student, are all on the same team, be intentional about your environment. Don’t sit behind your big teacher desk and have the parents sitting in front of you because that is too authoritarian, thus not conducive to team building. Rather, sit at a round table or across from one another to foster a more open dialogue. Don’t have your parents sit where the sun is beating down on them or blinding them. If it’s late in the day, they may have rushed over from work and be hungry or thirsty. I had a mini fridge in my room so I would offer my parents a bottle of water at the beginning of the meeting. It’s amazing how a simple gesture like that can change the emotional temperature in the room. Have tissues nearby in case they are needed. Again, a small but kind gesture when you need to share painful news.
Position the conversation such that you and the parents and the student are all on the same team, and that, together you are looking at the problem. Don’t let the problem be the student. The problem may be behavioral or academic, but the focus is on solving that problem as a team. Take time to actively, sincerely listen to your parents. You may be the expert on the subject you are teaching but the parents are the expert on their child’s heart. They deserve to be heard and may very well provide some excellent insight into the child’s heart, mind or life experience that you have not been able to observe in the classroom.
Years ago, I had a colleague who was a master at being very successful in sharing difficult and painful information with parents. She was a special education teacher. No one wants to hear that their child has a learning disability; that news often brings up feelings of fear or sadness. This teacher anticipated how her parents might react to the information she needed to share about their child, so she came to the meeting with a positive attitude, a well-developed plan, and a compassionate heart. Parents occasionally cried in the meetings but, as they faced the situation and worked as a team, they saw their student go from frustration and failure to success and confidence. Her parents became her biggest supporters and would work tirelessly to help out with anything she or the classroom needed. Now that’s a great partnership!
If you follow these simple, yet effective steps, you will be well on your way to holding a successful parent meeting. You will help your student get back on the right track. You will help your parents solve a problem in their child’s life and that can lead to a more positive parent-teacher partnership. Now go have a great meeting!
What are some things that you do to make for a great parent meeting?