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Parents and Teachers: Turning Conflicts Into Partnerships

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It was back to school night. I was teaching American History. A parent asked me, somewhat accusingly, "Given your liberal bias, how do you plan to teach the New Deal?" My assumption was that this was a Republican parent. My response was, "Well, as to being a liberal, guilty as charged! But as a history teacher, I have a responsibility to help students look critically at the varied perspectives of historical events. I give equal and fair time to Wilkie and other good Republicans." After the session ended, we chatted about how FDR tried to stack the Supreme Court, and I told him I was aware that FDR didn't walk on water.

There were two key variables operating for me. First, I knew my subject very well and knew that I placed my emphasis on students' critical thinking and effectively drawing conclusions, never on indoctrination. Second, I always responded to parents non-defensively and tried to imagine what they were feeling as I communicated with them. After all, I was also a parent!

I want to share a few ways in which parents and teachers can build bridges when they have differences of opinion related to the student and/or the course. I'm purposely omitting an examination of teacher interactions with highly destructive parents and parent dealings with clearly bad teachers. These are not normative and, while important, need exploration as separate topics.

Roles and Expectations

While I believe strongly in a close relationship between parents and teachers, natural allies in educating and supporting the development of children, parent-teacher conflict is also a common phenomenon. The question is: how can conflicts be resolved and, if possible, lead to positive outcomes?

An exercise I did with my teacher interns may be instructive. I gave them a fictitious letter from two immigrant Filipino parents who felt that their sons were not getting the full support they needed. A Filipino colleague who knew many immigrant parents created the letter. The interns were asked to write a response. Then I engaged them in an in-class role-play where they took turns representing their own position and the parents' position.

All too often, the interns explained to the parents the rationale for their teaching approach and tried to assure them that they were not discriminating. But some understood that they needed to focus their attention on truly listening to the parents, putting themselves in the place of the parents. They assured the parents that they would do a better job of attending to their two sons.

When there are parent-teacher conflicts, the factors most frequently at work are (a) control issues, and/or (b) differences in values, and/or (c) different perceptions of the student. And the three are often closely related.

It's important that parents understand they can't control what happens in class and that the classroom is the domain of the teacher. Similarly, teachers have to let go of any notion that they can control what happens in the student's home. What each can do, however, is listen carefully to see if they can learn something from the other about what could improve things for the student in either of those settings.

Communication and Compromise

It was important for me as a parent to immediately let my son's and daughter's teachers know if there was any crisis at home that might affect my kids in school. It was also important for me to let them know when my kids felt excessive school-related pressure that was causing them to lose their appetites or lose sleep. Almost every teacher I encountered was responsive to that feedback.

Similarly, as a teacher I spent a lot of time carefully informing concerned parents about what my approach was to teaching and what kind of classroom environment I established. And whenever a parent contacted me with some concern or criticism, I tried not to be defensive.

It is inevitable that there will be value differences, but still there is often frustration when someone doesn't share our values. Both teachers and parents need to remind themselves that differences in values can be bridged only by respect for each other's values and a willingness to compromise.

In addition, parents and teachers may have very different perceptions of a student, and both are usually correct. It's not surprising that students behave differently in different contexts. By sharing their perceptions, parents and teachers each develop a greater understanding of the student.

Perceptions and Realities

This blog barely scratches the surface of a very fertile topic, so I recommend that you check out these additional sources.

My colleague Rick Curwin’s Edutopia blog, Parents and Teachers: The Possibility of a Dream Team, is at the top of my list. Rick often has excellent ideas for both teachers and parents. Pay particular attention to his comments about "dumping." Both blaming and defending are counterproductive to effective teacher-parent relationships.

Although I’m not crazy about the titles, two books by Todd Whitaker come highly recommended, Dealing with Difficult Parents: And Parents in Difficult Situations and Dealing with Difficult Teachers. I think if we remember that each of us can be perceived as difficult when we have differences with each other, care and communication can make us a lot easier!

Another excellent source is Allen Mendler's Handling Parents. It's available from the Teacher Learning Center.

The bottom line for me is that teachers should feel secure in their knowledge of their subject and their philosophy, should welcome parents' perspectives and even their critical feedback, should never be defensive and, to truly take the role of the parent, should put themselves in the parent's shoes.

For parents, it's important to meet with the teacher as soon as possible when any concerns develop, to share these concerns, and to listen carefully to the teacher’s perspective so that every parent really understands what happens in his or her child's classroom.

And to the degree that both parent and teacher can let go of any notion that they are "right" and instead focus on mutually helping the student, conflicts can truly become partnerships.

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Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Carrie-Anne Cyre's picture
Carrie-Anne Cyre
Social Media Lead at

Great article. I think a lot of teachers underestimate the importance of involving parents when it comes to education. When parents are active in their children's education it really encourages learning as well as new forms of understanding. Parents like to learn too, and being open to new and different viewpoints in a safe and respectful atmosphere is great for students to allow them to develop and form their own opinions as well.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

Thanks Carrie-Anne.

I think your point about parents liking to learn is an important one.

I also think that teachers who use a public school classroom as a bully pulpit for their political and social values should be challenged. The trick is to be able to be authentic in sharing one's views on political and social issues while also rewarding students who share very different points of view. And as a history teacher you have an absolute obligation to explore alternative interpretations.

Again, thanks for engaging in dialogue about this column.


Jessica's picture
Building Confidence in Students, One Child at a Time

Thanks a lot for sharing this interesting post! I believe it is very important for teachers and parents to work together for the betterment of the children. Parents and teachers should actively participate and help their children with learning.

Teresa Bradfield's picture
Teresa Bradfield
High School math teacher from Colorado

I completely agree with all of the information that you have presented here. I just wish that I had been exposed to these ideas before I started teaching. My knowledge of parent/teacher relationships comes from experience in the field and it has not always been positive. After a lot of failure. I have learned to compromise with parents in a way that is respectful of their values and mine. In my college days, I didn't give much thought to parents being a difficult part of teaching. I wish every degree program across the country would incorporate this type of class into their requirements. Thanks for sharing.

Tami Hopper's picture
Tami Hopper
First Grade Teacher from Kingman, Arizona

Being a teacher for six years, I have been to a few parent-teacher conferences. Parents are enthusiastic and/or worried as they come to school to discuss their child's progress with their teacher, especially if they did not do well in school themselves. As an ice breaker to ensure the rest of the conference can go well, I pull out all of the great work that their child has completed this year. Even if it is not a lot, it is a great starting point.

Now, when the conferences get to the uncomfortable point because the teacher has to describe their concerns for that student. This is where it gets tricky. During this period of the conference I explain the concerns I have to the parents, hopefully without any interruptions. Then, I go into great detail on what I am doing within school hours to help the student improve, and how I can see the parents assisting with their students education at home. Again, they could get defensive because they do not want anyone looking at the child or themselves poorly.

Next, I ask the parents if they have questions, comments, or concerns. I listen to them and answer all the questions. Finally, I reiterate the good points from the beginning and how we can work together to ensure the education and growth of their child. By this time the parent is excited about the plan WE created to help their child succeed that they thank me and head out on their way.

My advice is to enter the conferences with confidence and a plan for their child. If you let the parents feel like they are a part of the process, usually they take the information better than if you are just telling them what to do. Parents are the best ally you can have for that child's education. You do not want to make enemies with the parents because the only person you are hurting is the child because they will not take your class seriously if the parents are not taking you seriously.

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