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Responding to parents' criticism of their own children

There is an excellent collection of discussions on parent involvement by many of my CTQ colleagues over at Ed Week Teacher's Teaching Ahead Roundtable: Is parent involvement the missing link in school reform? The bloggers respond to results of the 2011 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, which include perspectives of parents as well as teachers on a range of issues. Renee Moore has also joined in with a repost of her favorite blog on parent involvement. 

As I read Jose Vilson's account of striking a collaborative tone with parents who enter the conference with aggression toward the teacher, I was reminded of another type of tough-talk I sometimes hear from parents—and what I've learned about it. 

More than a few times, I have encountered parents who begin a conference with criticisms of their children:

"I know my child is lazy; you don't have to tell me," for example.

Or, "I know she's rude and disrespectful. Just give me the straight truth about her. Don't sugar-coat it."

As a beginning teacher, I had trouble knowing how best to respond to this, especially when there was some truth in the comment. What I've learned to understand about this interaction is that parents can make the choice to offer up critical statements about their children if they want. But this, in no way, invites us to forget our professional role and purpose in the conference.  

Sometimes a parent may be genuinely frustrated with the child. If you teach 13-year olds like I do, every parent experiences these moments at some point in the year. They may see the teacher as an ally and a support. At the same time, the teacher-parent relationship is complex and the teacher is not automatically a trusted figure for the parent. Trust must be built by both sides over time.

As Sara Lawrence Lightfoot (a Bank Street alum) explains in her great book, The essential conversation: What parents and teachers can learn from each other,

For parents, there is nothing more precious or more important than their child. They come to the meeting eager, often desperate, to hear good news about their child’s life in school.... Beneath the polite surface of parent-teacher conferences burns a cauldron of fiery feelings made particularly difficult because everyone carefully masks them and they seem inappropriate for the occasion.... Parents come to school bearing the haunts of their early experiences.... Teachers need to recognize the complex, layered conversation and anticipate the parents’ internal, often unspoken confusion.

She explains that there is a natural power struggle between the teacher and paren—the two biggest adult influences over the child—and that it's far more nuanced than we give it credit. Check out this PBS interview with her for more of her insight into the nature of the dialogue.

In this light, the conference that begins with a parent declaring that her child has always been lazy is an opportunity to build trust and understanding, like any other conference. Unknowingly, the parent may make this statement to test the teacher's professional character (even if the parent really does feel that way about the child at that moment). It's important that we pass this test of professionalism.

The teacher's role then is not to lie about the student, but to listen and guide the conversation in a productive direction. We can do this by making clear that: (a) we know something about the student's unique gifts and interests, and (b) we have some professional insight into how the child can progress in the areas about which both of you are concerned.

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