Former headteacher Edward Gildea explores the ways in which disagreements with parents can be resolved and used to improve the school’s partnership with them

I could hear the shouting coming up the corridor, rich with the effects of alcohol, and stupidly stuck my head out of my office. I was immediately spotted by the head of year who said, ‘I think you might like to see these parents, Edward,’ and promptly disappeared into the staffroom.

Twenty minutes later, the same voices were heard from the corridor. ‘Than’ you very mush, Mr Gillday, tha’s bin vay helpful. I see wha’ you mean… Goo’bye. Than’ you.’ I shook hands warmly with the parents at the school door then popped into the staffroom. What a reception! My reputation as a rookie deputy head was made!

So what had I done? Not a lot, really. I mostly just listened. I was calm, polite and welcoming. Years later, I can’t remember what it was all about. Schools have to manage thousands of cases like this, of bullying, allegations against teachers, refusals to attend detentions, claims of injustice and grievances, sometimes tactical, felt by children whose parents feel the best way to support their child is to attack their school.

But I had instinctively obeyed some of the golden rules of the first stages of conflict management:

  • listen sympathetically
  • allow plenty of time for them to let off steam
  • don’t get defensive.

Typical! You never listen
In those early stages, the parents just want to be listened to. They want to be heard out. They have been rehearsing all their arguments in their heads and you need to be their sympathetic audience. It’s not the time to disagree, although you can be non- committal in your responses: sympathetic body language, serious concentration and respect for their feelings and motivation is all that is required initially. Maybe just the odd question for clarification of their perceptions. If you think their version of events is a huge distortion of the truth, think ‘Maybe…’ and carry on listening, without challenging them at this stage.

It’s war!
If you seek to justify the school’s policy, position or the action of the colleague in question, you will be deemed to be not listening. Defence will simply provoke more attack, and we need to get out of the ‘conflict as war’ paradigm. They’ve dug a hole; we don’t need to get entrenched as well. The ‘fight or flight’ part of their brain is engaged, so now is not the time for reasoned argument.

Toward the end of this phase try to start establishing a sense of shared interests: you care about their child’s wellbeing and education too, and yes, you want to see justice done as much as they do. This is to prepare the ground so that you can work together from ‘shared interests’ rather than from ‘opposed positions’: home v school.

Once the steam pressure has eased off, and they have started to relax, you might start to ask more probing questions, which gently encourage them to see other points of view or to check out the validity of their perceptions. This needs to be done gently – it’s about awakening realisations and nothing to do with telling them they’re wrong.

This is probably as far as I got in that first meeting. I needed time to investigate the case properly, so I set a time by which I would report back to them and then made the act of ‘personal displacement’ of walking and chatting with them all the way to the school door: an act of good manners which doubles as good security too.

It’s an opportunity
Managing difficult parents is not different from managing any other type of conflict: you start with opposing points of view and the object of the game is to reach agreement and a resolution to work together. To do that, you have to see the conflict as an opportunity: the chance to improve relationships with parents, to get together as a partnership for the good of the child and to improve the school’s reputation in the community. You might even resolve some bad parenting on the way. A genuine ‘win-win’.

If your aim is to defend the school, to counter-attack the parents and to secure a ‘win-lose’ you might win the battle but will lose the war. Go for the long-term opportunity every time.

In tactical terms, you want collaboration. Avoidance will ensure things fester. Concession will make life impossible in the future, while control will breed resentment and compromise just leaves everyone disgruntled. But getting into the collaborative box is easier said than done, especially when you are under attack, feel stressed and your own ‘fight or flight’ emotions are kicking in. Somehow, you need to be ‘response-able’, that is, able to choose your own responses. It’s a thousand times easier to do when you are the senior teacher or outside consultant who is not a party to the conflict, than when you are one of the parties involved. That takes real maturity!

It is vital, however, to be strategic about your emotions. Focus on the point you want to get to – the goal of collaboration – and choose an emotional response to get you there, rather than an emotional response that will simply make that goal harder to reach. One way of doing this is to focus analytically on their anger. Find a sense of detachment in working out what the purpose of their anger might be. Is it intended to intimidate? Is it a symptom of some guilt they might be feeling? Is it because they have some deep-seated pain about their own experiences of school?

Angry? Of course I’m f…ing angry!
If you think their anger is out of proportion to the incident itself, then there is almost certainly some deeper agenda. If you can tap into this, then you might be able to solve far more than just the immediate problem.

You might find out, through gentle questioning, that their own painful experiences of school were due to a literacy problem which still exists and relates to their child’s own difficulties at school. This might just be the opportunity you need to get them involved in your family literacy programme. It might be that they feel they are losing control of their child at home. They are angrily holding the school responsible, but this is only really to mask the guilt they feel about their own failure as parents. When the time is right, you might get them involved in your school’s parenting or ‘Coping with Teenagers’ classes.

Analysing their anger like this not only helps you manage your own emotions, it will prevent you demonising them and could mean that you solve a deeper problem than you intended, of which the immediate issue was just the latest symptom, the tip of the iceberg.

As your discussion develops, you will need to separate what matters from what is in the way. Keep discussion of the past separate from discussion about the future, keep the process of choosing between options separate for the process of generating those options, and keep discussion about people separate from discussion about the problem itself. Try to move the debate on from ‘who is in the right and who is in the wrong’ to ‘what is the best solution given our shared interest in the welfare of your child’. Your aim is to build up a mutual understanding of the past – what actually happened – followed by a mutual understanding of the present – where we are now.

So far we have been calm, gentle and empathetic. And this could easily let us slip into making concessions, so we need to be able to be assertive at the same time. This is particularly true if there is a possibility of child abuse. Parents are bound to feel angry and resentful if the school has notified social services about their concerns of possible child abuse. The parents’ anger then may well be intended primarily to scare us off and to intimidate, as well as being an expression of their own fear and guilt, especially if there is some truth in the allegations. Staying calm is all the more important then, coupled with unshakeable professional assertiveness.

Getting assertive
A handy acronym about assertiveness is Every Fish Needs Batter (and Chips).

  • E = Explanation: explain the facts, the dates, the events, the evidence. Don’t express any opinions, emotions or disparaging remarks.
  • F = Feelings: explain how the other people involved are feeling, or how you are feeling yourself if you are involved in the problem, without blaming others or holding them responsible. ‘Miss Jones is feeling…’ rather than ‘You have made Miss Jones feel…’ The first is a fact. The second is an accusation which is likely to prompt the reaction ‘No, we didn’t!’…. ‘Oh yes you did!’ and we are back to digging holes again.
  • ]N = Needs: a statement of the specific and realistic actions which now need to be taken; the next steps which need to be taken in the interests of their child. Now’s the time you will be grateful for clear procedures and policies.
  • B = Benefits: these are the advantages which will flow as a result. How the child will benefit, how the allegations will be either substantiated or disproved, how the teacher will be able to resume teaching in a happy environment, how doing the detention will make the child feel responsible for his actions…
  • C = Consequences: this is the threatening one, only to be used if absolutely necessary, because it is a demonstration of your power, and is not one of the ingredients of partnership. These are the consequences which will result from the course the parents are determined to follow despite your advice. Outline those consequences, not as a threat, but as a clear explanation.

We demand an apology!
Sometimes, however, you do just have to say sorry. Maybe the school did get it wrong and you fell short of the standards you strive for. The secret with apologies is to be brief, to be sincere and to move on swiftly. Sometimes parents insist on an apology from a teacher as an act of public humiliation. But if you instruct a teacher to apologise, it won’t be genuine, so decline that one.

It is reasonable, however, to hold every member of staff accountable – we should all be happy to be accountable for our decisions – so you can agree to do that, leaving it up to the teacher to make a private apology as the first step in building a better relationship with the child.

What are you going to do about it then?
The best way to start building a partnership is to adopt a problem-solving approach together. Don’t let them put all the responsibility onto the school. It’s too easy to make the school find all the solutions and then just sit back and rubbish them. ‘That’s not going to work!’ ‘That’s typical of a crap school like this!’ Put the ball in their court. Keep using ‘we’. ‘What can we both do to improve things?’ ‘How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?’ Try to build up a set of alternatives together, based on what you’ve agreed is the underlying problem.

If Sally has been dropped out of the top set, it’s not for the school just to put her back up. A joint approach is needed to give Sally the best chance of success in the next assessments. Once you’ve built up your alternative options together, all of which are good for the child, good for the school and good for the parents (in the long run at least), then choose together.

It’s the real thing
Once you’ve dealt with the immediate issue, don’t forget those underlying issues in your relief. Remember that this is your chance to improve the partnership and maybe prevent the next dozen problems ever happening. If the parents need some extra help, broker it for them: put them in touch with the local parenting classes, family literacy group, anger management classes, and make a phone call so that they will be expected.

Finally, follow up with the pupil in the playground or with the parents at the next parents’ evening or school function, to show that your concern for their child was in fact the real thing all along.

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