Telling Without Tattling: How Teachers Can Share Bad News with Parents

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In our New Teachers Series, we share tricks and tips from Robyn Jackson, an expert on professional development for educators. All of these tips and more can be found in Jackson’s latest book, You Can Do This: Hope and Help for New Teachers.

In this excerpt from Chapter 5, Jackson offers advice on how to share bad news with parents: a student’s poor behavior, an awful test score, or a callous remark made to a classmate. Even the worst offense, Jackson explains, can be dealt with in a calm and sanguine manner—no need to catastrophize! 

Don’t Be a Tattletale

When you’re frustrated with a student, it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to tell on him to his mother, with the hopes that perhaps his mother can make him do what you can’t.

Don’t.

If parents think that you cannot control their child, they will not support you. I learned this lesson the hard way. I had a student once who was so disruptive, so disrespectful, that I dreaded seeing him each day and rejoiced on the days that he was absent. I was at my wit’s end as to how to make him behave, so I called his father. During the first phone call, I described his behavior and asked the father for help working with his son at home. The father was cooperative and agreed to speak with his son. His son’s behavior improved for a couple of days, but by week’s end, he was back to his old tricks. So I called the father again. Again, he agreed to talk to his son, and his son’s behavior improved. For a while.

When the son began to act up again, I called the father again. And again. And again. He soon tired of my “wait ’til you hear what Johnny did at school today” calls and exploded, “Look, Ms. Jackson. I can’t do my job and your job too. If you cannot figure out how to control my son, maybe you ought not be a teacher!” and then he hung up.

I sat there stunned. I’ll admit that I was furious too. I even began to blame him. It isn’t my fault that he raised such a brat, I railed. But beneath my indignation was the nagging feeling that there was some truth to what he said. I had stopped trying to manage that student’s behavior and instead would just run and tell his daddy every time he misbehaved. That couldn’t be my only classroom management technique.

The problem was that I didn’t know how to manage that student. I had a limited number of strategies, and none of them worked with him. I realized that if I had asked the father what he was doing at home that had worked with his son instead of tattling, I could have learned something. Since that line of communication was now closed, I went to the student’s other teachers and asked them what worked for them. I tried a few of their suggestions and had a little success. Then I called his father to report the progress his son was making. You could hear the relief in the father’s voice. Every parent wants to hear that his child is a good kid. The father thanked me profusely for the call, and that call reopened the lines of communication. His son didn’t miraculously become an angel after that. It was still a struggle managing him, but I learned an important lesson: Tattling on kids to their parents doesn’t work.

It was several years before I developed a formula for sharing bad news with parents that does work. Instead of calling parents to tattle, I call parents and use the following process:

1. Give them the news—along with your plan. I start by sharing with parents their child’s behavior and my plan for addressing and correcting that behavior in the classroom. I also give parents a chance to react to my plan.

2. Ask for input. Next I ask parents for any insight they may have about what works with their child at home. I want to know if there is a way to make my plan of action better. This gives parents a chance to talk about their process for dealing with their students and gives me rich information that can round out my approach with their child.

3. Enlist help, and be specific. Finally, I ask parents for specific things they can do to support my course of action and reinforce it at home. Perhaps I need them to enforce a homework hour at home or to check the student’s notebook each day. Giving parents specific ways to support what is happening in the classroom secures parents’ cooperation and makes us a united front.

4. End the call with something good. Before the call is over, I make sure to convey to the parent something positive about their child. I want parents to know that I like their child and that I am invested in their child’s success. Ending on a positive note makes it more likely that you will sustain parental support over time.

I have found that when I call this way, the conversations are always productive. Parents appreciate being made partners and usually support my plan.

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ABOUT THE BOOK:

You Can Do This: Hope and Help for New TeachersHope is on the way!

Buy NowIn this down-to-earth, inspirational book, bestselling author Robyn Jackson offers encouragement and real-world advice for navigating those difficult years as a beginning teacher. Sharing stories from her own humbling first years as a new teacher, Robyn helps you tackle challenges such as motivating students, planning effective lessons, building relationships with parents, bouncing back from embarrassing mistakes, and finding your own authority as a teacher. With candor and a good deal of wit, she gently guides you to develop your own teaching style and, ultimately, to find your own path toward mastery.

“This is the most powerful and valuable heart-to-heart talk any new teacher could get. Every chapter peels back more and more secrets to thriving that only master teacher Robyn Jackson could share.”

—Eric Jensen, author, Enriching the Brain, Turnaround Tools for the Teenage Brain, and Teaching with Poverty in Mind

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