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How to Handle Critical, Angry Parents when Teaching Online

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Complete Show Notes:

We all know how nervous we get during an observation at school. Well, now many teachers, and especially new teachers, are feeling the nerves pretty much every day because your online classrooms are full of parents watching you and listening in – and the worst part is that sometimes you can’t even see them, but you know that they’re "in the room."

I’ve had teachers inside our private Beginning Teacher Talk Facebook group tell me that some of their parents have even jumped into the comments and said very rude things about other kids, and have even criticized their teaching on social media.

I mean, really?

It’s so hard to transition to teaching online.

We are already questioning everything: am I talking too much? Do my students understand? It can be really hard to read facial expressions – there are just so many challenges when it comes to teaching online already, especially when we have this super uncomfortable added layer of feeling like parents are being less than supportive.

I get it. That anxiety of feeling like you are being constantly watched and monitored can cause so much stress for teachers, and it feels like you can’t just teach – you have to think about how parents are going to respond to everything that you’re doing and saying.

And, this is especially challenging because you’re new at teaching and there are already things that you’re likely feeling a little insecure about - like for me, and for most new teachers, it’s classroom management.

So often, as new teachers, we don’t have all of our systems and expectations and routines worked out. We don’t quite know the best ways to manage our classrooms in person, let alone online.

If you’ve been listening to this podcast for awhile, you’ve probably heard the story about when I was in my 2nd year of teaching, and I was feeling pretty insecure about the fact that I didn’t really have an effective way to get my kids’ attention whenever I needed it.

It seems so simple now that I have so many great tools at my disposal for quick attention-getters, which I teach in detail inside my R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, but back then, it felt like rocket science with everything else I had to learn.

And, I will never forget one particular moment, when one of the parents who was volunteering in my classroom said something that has stayed with me all these years.

I had just given my kids the direction that it was time to clean up, and nobody stopped what they were doing to follow my directions. I mean - not one kid listened.

I turned to that parent, kind of laughing but also embarrassed, and said, “Well that wasn’t very effective."

She turned to me and said the words that are forever seared into my mind:

“But they don’t ever listen to you, do they?”

I was horrified. So, believe when I tell you that I’ve been there. I know what it feels like when a parent criticizes you or even worse, gets angry at you, it can be really challenging to know how to handle it. And I can tell you that it will get easier.

So, what can you do when you do have a critical or angry parent on your hands – whether it’s online or in the classroom?

1. It’s okay to talk about it and admit to being a learner yourself:

  1. So here’s the thing. When that happened with that parent all of those years ago, I was horrified – but then I had to admit that actually, she was right. They didn’t listen to me very well at all, and that was something that I had to work on.

    We so often expect ourselves to be perfect, and we spend a lot of time worrying that we’re going to do something wrong or say something wrong. However, the reality is that mistakes have to happen in order for us to learn.

    I was a new teacher, just like you are. That’s what being new means. It means we aren’t experienced. We need opportunities to practice before we can become really good at it, right?

    Olympians don’t start that way. What we see when we see an Olympic athlete perform, what we are seeing is the result of decades of practice.

And yet for some reason, we think we should be perfect right off the bat when we’ve never even had a classroom of our own, or we’ve had one for only a year or two – and now, we are expecting ourselves not to fumble for a second when becoming online educators as well. That’s kind of crazy, right? To hold ourselves to that level of expectation from the beginning?

So, when that parent said to me, “But they don’t ever listen to you, do they?” my first reaction was horror. Horror that I had been “found out,” that the whole world must know that I don’t know what I’m doing and that I’m not a new teacher.

So, I just decided to own it. (I honestly didn't know what else to do, it had caught me so off guard!) I said, “Wow, that’s embarrassing. I hadn’t really thought about that, but that’s definitely something I need to work on.”

I was kind of stunned and in shock, but what happened next is the most amazing part of that story. She actually said to me, “Well, I saw one of the other teachers do something that worked really well with her students. She would say the first half of a phrase like, “peanut butter” and then her class would say, “jelly.” Her students knew that when they heard that, it meant they needed to listen to the next instructions they were given."

I was shocked by how simple and effective this seemed, and I was suddenly so grateful to have shown a little vulnerability with this parent. I could have just gotten angry and defensive because I really was embarrassed, but because I remained a learner in that experience, it opened the door to learning from how other teachers handled a similar challenge.

So sometimes, when it feels like a parent is criticizing you, they actually might have a solution that you could use if you’re open to talking about it.

And, that’s actually a sentence I came to use quite a bit with parents when they had a complaint or a criticism. I would often thank them for letting me know, and then I would ask,

“Do you have a solution in mind that you think might work?”

That always shifts the conversation away from what they don’t like to feeling like they’ve been heard, and turns the conversation towards solution-oriented thinking rather than complaining and criticism. 

2. Remember that you are the professional – you set the tone for high standards, not the parents.

Here’s what I mean by that. Just because you are a new teacher and you are open to learning, that doesn’t mean that you let parents walk all over you.

So, if you are teaching online and a parent is critical about how much work you are assigning or that their child isn’t getting enough attention, or whatever it is, that doesn’t mean that you let parents off the hook.

Your job is to hold children accountable for their learning.

Which means that now, your job is to hold parents accountable for holding their children accountable. 

Heaven knows that children may have already fallen behind in many areas because of ending school early in the spring when we were all caught off guard due to this pandemic, so your job is to lovingly demand that children get their work completed and handed in on time as often as possible.

The work is rigorous, but many parents haven’t been this involved before. They might not realize exactly how much you get done in a day. 😊

Remember, for many parents, they have not had to be the ones to ensure that their children get their work done. That accountability was something that many parents loved to pass on to teachers and would complain if the teacher didn’t make sure their child did the work.

Now the roles have changed, and it’s your job to require of parents that their child get the work done. You are the leader, and it’s important that you remain strong in your requirements so that students don’t fall even further behind.

And, it’s helpful if you use that language when you’re communicating with parents.

For example, you can say,

“I know that it can be challenging to ensure that your child get her work done. However, I care deeply about your child, and I don’t want her to fall further behind in her skills. That’s why this work is required and is so important to complete, so we can ensure that she masters the skills she needs so she doesn’t fall behind. Here are some resources that will help you (attach links or resources).”

Often, first acknowledging how challenging all of this is, and then secondly, giving parents a REASON and the support they need to help their child complete the amount of work you are asking them to do will usually be enough to get them on your side.


3. Set clear boundaries (not just for parents, but for yourself).

One of the reasons that we can get into trouble with parents is because we really want to please them. Us teachers are, by nature, very often people-pleasers, and so of course we want the parents to like us and to be happy with us. 

However, again, this doesn’t mean that they get your attention 24 hours each day, 7 days each week. If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend that you send a schedule home to parents to let them know very clearly when your office hours are: which hours of the day will you be checking your email so they know when they will be getting a response from you, and which hours are off-limits and are your personal time, so they aren’t expecting you to answer your phone at 10:00 at night on a Tuesday.

Setting clear scheduling boundaries will help you to establish a sense of control during a very weird situation.

Maybe you will be checking and answering emails every morning from 8:00 – 9:00 am and again every afternoon from 4:00 – 5:00 pm., with a window for office hours when kids and parents can reach out to ask for help or ask questions, every afternoon from 2:00 – 4:00 pm.

Every schedule will be different, but having an office hours schedule is essential so you have some time to literally “unplug” and get away from your screen. I think we are all experiencing “digital fatique” – constantly being required to be plugged in and online, so having clear boundaries for being away from your computer is so important.


And when I say “set boundaries,” this doesn’t just go for your physical schedule for parents.

This also pertains to “emotional boundaries.”
 

Believe me, I know how hard it is to separate yourself from the hurt from an angry parent. You start questioning everything you’re doing, you start wondering if you should even be a teacher, and it’s really easy to go down the “maybe I should quit” rabbit hole.

I know, because every now and then, I go through this myself. I talked about this on the podcast several weeks ago, when I received some anonymous one-star reviews for my podcast and it devastated me. Like you, I work really hard to make sure that I give my best to my students every single week, and like you, it hurts deeply when someone lashes out and makes me feel like I’m not good enough.

Here’s the thing: I’ve been in this education game for more than 25 years, and there are two really important things that I’m learning:

The first thing I’m learning is that there will always be haters. Whether it’s an unhappy parent, a colleague, or an administrator who for some reason seems to have it out for you. There will always be people who, for some reason, need to lash out and criticize.

And secondly, I’m also learning that it usually has nothing to do with you.

 

4. This is usually not about you:

Especially when it comes to angry, critical parents, it’s really helpful to remember that many of these parents are under tremendous stress.

This virus has caused so much disruption on so many different levels in everyone’s lives, and it’s really easy to isolate a parent’s anger or criticism and think it’s about your lesson, when in reality – they may have just lost their job.

They may have just come back from waiting in line at the food bank for three hours for the first time in their lives and it’s completely rocked their world and their sense of security.

They may be doubting themselves and their ability to parent and put food on the table, let alone now being required to learn to teach their child when they are not at all comfortable with technology. Or, they may have had a relative just pass away from COVID.

Most often, when people lash out, it’s because of fear. And, more people are feeling fearful than I’ve ever experienced in my life, especially when it comes to fear about their children and their children’s future.

And the answer, when you’re dealing with someone who is feeling fear, is always compassion.

It’s important that we remember that we are all in this together, so whenever you’re speaking with or dealing with an angry parent, this is your opportunity to lead, to grow, to lean into your higher self.

So, when you’re interacting with an angry or critical parent, use the word “we” often. Listen. Make sure that they feel heard.

Let them know how much you love and care about their child. Let them know that we are in this together, and that you are here to help.


5. Also, be patient with yourself.

With the high level of stress that so many people are experiencing, self-care is more important than ever. Please don’t just gloss over this.

In order for you to be there for your students in the way you want to be, you need rest and to take genuine breaks away from all things school.

Just recently, my husband and I rented a gorgeous little cabin and spent a few days in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We sanitized the entire place when we got there, we ordered in from local restaurants, we hiked some incredible trails, and we binge-watched Netflix. It was amazing, and for a few days, COVID felt very far away.

So, whatever it is for you, I really encourage you to take some time away from work, even when you know how long your to-do list is. 

 

6. Invite parents to actually get involved:


Another fun way to get parents who are a little too involved on your side is to invite them to literally be a part of your class.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, one of the teachers inside my private Beginning Teacher Talk Private Facebook group talked about a parent getting a little too involved in the online lesson, so I suggested that she invite that parent to do a guest presentation.

Maybe they have a hobby or a cool job that the class would love to learn about. I did this with my class and they absolutely loved learning from one the parents of one of my students – and this is just one idea out of 20 Awesome Class Reward Ideas you can use with your students online or in the classroom (even if it has to be a guest presentation on Zoom) and I have them all packaged for you for free as part of a super fun new freebie for you. Just click below if you’d like to download it to use with your students!

 


7. And finally, remember that you don’t have to figure all of this out on your own.

I really encourage you to reach out to other teachers at your grade level – check in on them, and build a community with your peers because nobody really knows what it’s like to teach online like other teaches do.

I did a podcast all about how to build community when you’re teaching online a couple of weeks ago, so you might want to check it out in case you want to learn more about simple and easy ways you can start doing that. Teaching online is a new opportunity to collaborate & support each other in a different way.

Remember that this won’t last forever. The world is racing to discover a vaccine, and we will have one, eventually. In the arc of your lifetime, this is only temporary. 

So there you have it. I hope you have a wonderful week, and remember: Just because you're a beginning elementary teacher, there's no need for you to struggle like one!

πŸ’› Lori

Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor

Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.

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