It is something that I use to dread when I was a teacher. Heck, as an assistant principal I still get a little nervous when I know I’ve gotta make one. What am I talking about?
Making a stressful phone call to a parent.
Sometimes I put it off until the end of the day because I just don’t want to deal with it. This strategy only makes matters worse. The phone call hangs over my head all day. I can never completely block it out.
I don’t imagine I am alone.
Mandy Froehlich and I recently interviewed Todd Whitaker on Teachers’ Aid to get some advice on how to better handle and approach uncomfortable parent phone calls. What we got was a 10-minute masterclass.
Two Tips to Help Ease the Stress
First, Todd couldn’t emphasize enough how important it is to build the relationship before you need the relationship. In other words, the first call home that a teacher makes should not be to deliver bad news.
I am guilty of this.
The beginning of the year gets away from us. Everything is running smoothly. We put off making the positive phone calls home because we’re tired and quite frankly, nothing is wrong. And then it happens. We have to make that dreaded call home and we realize that it is going to be the first phone call home.
This is why it is so important to build a relationship with parents early. At the very beginning of the year. Better yet, call to introduce yourself before the year even starts. Then once the year gets going, make it a habit to make two positive phone calls a day. Again, I am not saying that I did this; but I should have. It would have made those difficult calls home easier and less stressful.
The second tip Todd gave was for administrators to teach teachers what to say to parents when it comes time to make a difficult call. He wasn’t implying that teachers don’t know how to make these calls. It’s just that administrators have much more practice. As Todd mentioned, a principal might have to make a dozen of these calls per week whereas a teacher might only make one per semester.
Administrators or even veteran teachers, often know what approaches work well and which ones bomb. Todd believes that we need to go so far as telling teachers exactly what to say when they get on the phone. It’s not that he thinks teachers are incapable of finding the right words, it’s just that he knows how difficult it can be in the heat of the moment.
Todd would often save up difficult calls and invite new teachers into his office to listen to him make the call. He knew that some of the calls might go poorly. And he wanted teachers to observe how he stayed calm and respectful throughout. When it came time for the teacher to make the call he would offer to sit next to them and provide support and even tell them exactly what to say, if need be.
How to Handle Sharing a Mistake
Todd started off with the obvious.
While apologizing might seem like the obvious thing to do, it oftentimes never occurs. In fact, Todd mentioned research indicating that an overwhelming majority of lawsuits against educators could have been avoided if an apology had been made.
He also talked about how to handle situations in which something bad happened but it wasn’t the educator’s fault. These are the types of calls that I often have to make. I hate them. Despite the fact that I haven’t done anything wrong, I feel bad and dread the call.
Todd said that the key to handling these calls lies in how we frame our language. When we make these types of calls we begin by saying, I am sorry that ____ happened. It doesn’t imply any guilt on our part but it does let parents know that we empathize. It shows we care and that we wish it never happened.
Okay, But He’s Todd Whitaker, I’m Not
Towards the end of the interview, I had to say what many of you might be thinking. Or maybe it was just me. I mean, all the advice we got was great and I know Todd was right. But he’s Todd Whitaker. He speaks in front of thousands of people. He’s done this for years. He has even written a book on this topic, Dealing With Difficult Parents & With Parents in Difficult Situations (which is awesome by the way).
I am not going to be able to handle these phone calls as well as Todd. I took notes. I’ve listened to the interview five times. But I still feel anxious. I am not looking forward to that first difficult call post Todd Whitaker’s advice.
What do I do?
Todd gave two great pieces of advice.
- Write out exactly what you are going to say ahead of time. This way you won’t be struggling for the right words in the heat of the moment.
- If the conversation goes left, focus on the future. In other words, you and the parent may not see eye-to-eye, but you can both agree that you want things to be better. Try to steer the conversation towards the common ground.
Interviewing Todd was definitely time well spent. Mandy and I came away with so many good tips. If you enjoyed this piece, I think you’ll like the interview even better. Todd was a wonderful guest and as always, he makes you feel like you’re right there in the room with him.
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