There’s a bunch of things you don’t go into teaching for: the barrage of emails that bark for replies, grading and entering grades, hallway or bus loop duty, chaperoning a school function in the evening, and of course--one of the worst: proctoring. But there’s one thing that is considered worst of the worst for most teachers because it hits you where it hurts: the angry-parent-nasty-gram--the email or voicemail message that says, “Teacher, you suck,” and then goes on to tell you exactly what you suck at and how badly, in their opinion.
I got one of those last week, after a relatively quiet spell on the parent front. And even though I’ve been teaching since 2001, it shook me a little.
I’ve been on the receiving end of a few nasty-grams since I started teaching (and there’s a few I deserved that never landed, thank goodness--phew, got away with that one!). Here are some of the more memorable occasions:
And then, I got an email this week--I had just closed up my office hours and was getting back into the knee-deep swamp of my online grading queue, when a nasty-gram popped up. A parent had taken my feedback from her daughter’s rough draft essay and gone line by line, writing a paragraph per phrase, deriding my feedback from top-to-bottom. She accused me of being careless, hurtful, and causing great emotional distress for her daughter. She cc’d my boss.
I was shocked--why was I being attacked? What was this all about? I took a deep breath, trying not to let the “you suck” message sink in, but there I went, slowly being swallowed up by a swirl of her disparaging words and my own reactionary emotions: sadness, anger, hurt, and self-doubt.
As teachers, we all have these moments. Conflict is, unfortunately, part of the job. Mostly, it remains minor--tiny classroom skirmishes and redirections that end before they even begin. But sometimes, these little conflicts flare up, sometimes catching fire to the forest.
So, what can a teacher do to get through the unpleasantness of the conflict and move on in a productive way? I decided to ask my teacher-friends. Here is what they had to say:
Several teachers say, wait--don’t respond just yet. “24 hour rule. Wait 24 hours before you respond,” one teacher says.
Another says, “4 hour rule and I have a colleague not directly involved with the activity/reason read the email. This way I ensure I’m not replying out of anger.” Sharing with a colleague in addition to giving a bit of time can be helpful, to gain not only perspective, but empathy from a friend. We’ve all been there, right?
2. Treat Yourself Afterwards or Go to Your Happy Place
Other teachers look for a way to cool off after an attack: “I received a nasty message last week. The things I was accused of really hurt and were completely unfair. I just told myself that today this parent needed a punching bag and today I was that punching bag. She doesn’t know me and most likely it wasn’t even me that made her so angry, I was just the place where that anger landed. When this happened, I focused on being as professional and polite as possible and fortunately my administration was there to support me. I then had a nice cocktail and let it go. It truly does suck though.”
For some it’s a cocktail, for others it’s something stronger: “Keep your response focused on facts: student behavior, curriculum, and objectives. Thank them for any other feedback. Go home. Pour a tumbler of bourbon. Think about anything else.”
And other teachers keep a pick-me-up file for days and situations that aren’t going so well. One teacher suggests, “Keep letters and emails from parents who love you (I know you have a lot) and read those when the negative parents get on your nerves.” It can’t hurt to read through some praise after taking a hard knock.
3. Keep it Short
Thank goodness for the mainstream spread of mindfulness. One teacher’s advice is this: “Take a deep breath. When I was younger I used to get worked up and anxious. My first principal was awesome and told me to never respond to an email if I couldn’t reply in 6 sentences or less, or if it was emotionally charged…” and others agree: “1) Always wait at least a few hours and respond only after I have control of my emotions.
2) Keep the response brief. Overly explaining looks defensive. Plus, I don’t have time for that.
3) offer a phone call if they aren’t satisfied or want more information.” There’s a lot of wisdom, especially in point #2--a teacher’s time is already so short. Don’t give it away so easily to your emotions or innate need to defend yourself.
4. Some Say: Call, Instead
“When responding to these messages I tend to try to do it via phone/in person rather than email since so much of tone is inferred in email…” This is very true--much can be said in an email when we read between the lines, not so much in our words themselves, but with the tone that oozes from them. Another teacher agrees, saying “Sometimes talking over the phone or in person can diffuse the situation better than emailing back.”
But if the phone call doesn’t go well?
Some teachers are armed with good sentence-starters that can work for just about any conflict: “I’m sorry you feel that way given the information from your perspective. My perspective is....”
Another offers this advice: “Always sandwich critique between a positive of their kid. Say that you hear their concern. Most just want an audience.”
And then if it gets really ugly? “I have hung up on plenty of phone calls where I have stated “we need to stay in the realm of facts and truth,” and the parent has wanted to make attacks, excuses or accusations,” one teacher says.
I second that, another teacher says: “I know a lot of people are saying to make a phone call, but if it's particularly nasty, I prefer to keep everything in writing. I'm always polite and encourage the parent to ask any further questions. Stick to the facts. Don't type when angry. And if the child is older, check in with them about the problem. If the parent continues to be nasty, I forward all of the email correspondence to my admin and let them deal with it.”
5. CYA, As they Say
Document, document, document, many teachers say. One teacher’s approach, after a conflict-based phone call is to “send a follow-up reply to their email, ‘It was so nice speaking to you on the phone today! To recap, we discussed XYZ and will make these changes for the future (or whatever is pertinent). Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any further questions or concerns. Have a great evening!’ CC admin if needed.”
6. And Some Don’t Reply At All...
If you choose not to respond, it doesn’t mean you don’t care--a reply just may not be warranted at that time. “The best advice I ever received from a principal was to only respond if there is a question present. Then only respond with the pertinent information. This of course does not include rhetorical questions like "how dare you?" one teacher says.
7. ...Because Sometimes, There’s It’s Not About You
It’s not easy to not take it personally when a conflict arises and things get heated. But one teacher takes a different tack: “I get curious. Follow up with questions. I find it becomes less personal when I approach it as a 'problem' we can solve together. There was a moment of clarity in year twelve where a student lashed out at me and I immediately went to the pain this kid must be in. It was as if I had leaped forward in my capacity for empathy. Maybe all those years built to it.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year.” That’s not to say that every irate parent you encounter is experiencing a bout, but it does warrant a teacher taking a moment to step outside of herself, and perhaps, even consider what it’s like to walk in the parent’s shoes. One former preschool teacher says, “...[O]n dealing with difficult people in general - read anything by Brene Brown and realize... it's not about you. Also keep in mind that nasty people only affect you for a short time - they have to live with themselves and their crappy attitude 24/7.” And we also have to stop and think: if a parent is willing to launch a tirade or epithet of nastiness on a teacher they hardly know...what are they like at home? Sometimes standing down or working to smooth things over will make a child’s already-difficult home life a little bit easier. To put the student first, one teacher says, “I try to rise above and kill ‘em with kindness. Just remember the student and do what's necessary to keep things civil.”
And just because someone’s angry doesn’t necessarily mean they are mentally unstable. One teacher says, “They are in “mama bear” state of mind and often fire off an email before they think about it.” Adding to that thought, another teacher says, “Take a deep breath; remember the parent’s comments are usually motivated by loving that child more than everything else; be kind and professional; don’t reply if no reply is sought (like if their aim appears to be to complain and they don’t actually ask a question).”
8. But That Doesn’t Mean You Should Just Take It, Either
“I also never let someone pressure me into an apology unless I’ve made an actual mistake that would warrant that,” one teacher says. “I often will just keep it factual and restate a specific policy or an account of events. Don’t even acknowledge personal attacks.” Another concurrs: “[S]tand your ground and stick up for yourself. Of course, not in a nasty sort of way, but more often than not, we teachers don’t deserve those accusatory emails and a parent should not think it’s right to send them.”
9. But What If You Are Wrong?
In the case of my most recent nasty-gram, I was in the wrong. Of course, the mistake was made without malice: I was scoring a student’s electronic essay revision worksheet, and I just didn’t scroll far enough to realize that she had made some of the corrections I was seeking.
When it’s an honest mistake, here’s what one teacher has a short response that fits the bill: “Thank you so much for bringing that to my attention, I have just fixed it! Have a wonderful day and I appreciate your support!"
But, when you are attacked verbally, it can leave a scar: “I’m gonna apologize for the mistake and think less of them as a parent for their response.” It’s hard to get over that hurt sometimes, even if you’re a super teacher.
10. A Useful Acronym
As teachers, we get bombarded with acronyms to the point where it should almost be a drinking game. But here’s one that’s actually useful, if you find yourself in a conflict with a parent: “I always remember QTIP. Quit taking it personally. I don't let comments, complaints get to me. Parents generally know very little about what you do in the classroom, so their anger is not a condemnation of your ability.” Amen to that--most parents are merely running to the defense of their child, usually from a place of love. And your hurt likely comes from this: you love the student, too--not in the same way, of course, but as teachers, we care. We care a lot more than we’d like to admit. And that’s why it hurts so much when someone attacks us about the job we put so much love, effort, and time into.
This Saturday morning, as my husband and I were clearing out the shed in our backyard, our daughter called our attention to our five month-old Sharpei, Lucy, who was lying on her side in the grass, one eye swollen shut. We went into panic mode trying to figure out what was going on--could she see? Had she poked herself with that stick she’d been carrying around? Had she been stung? Was her eye going to be okay? I picked up the phone and called the vet’s office, which happens to be open from 9-2 on Saturdays. “Please,” I said, “Is there any way I could bring her by for someone to take a look at her eye?” The receptionist told me, no, they were fully booked. “But her eye!” I said, my voice getting shrill. “What should we do about her eye?” The receptionist handed me off to a vet tech who suggested I apply warm compresses. I asked again, “But can’t I just bring her in for a minute for you to take a look?” No, the tech said, we are booked. So I muttered something unintelligible and hung up. A few minutes later, after trying a compress, I called back. “Can I please just bring her by for a minute? She’s hurt!” No, the receptionist told me, but there is an emergency vet’s office 20 minutes away. I hung up and threw the phone down and went back to my dog. Minutes later, Lucy was zipped off to the emergency vet.
Later that evening, with an ointment prescription in hand and Lucy trotting around like a bull with a Queen Elizabeth collar ringed around her head, I had a thought: in a moment of passion, seeking to protect and care for my dog, I had become the angry parent. I smiled to myself.
Sometimes we need a little criticism to bring our failings or shortcomings to our attention. While not every angry parent email is legit, there are some that contain some truth--and those warrant some self-examination on our part.
In response to my recent parent situation, one teacher’s response made me stop in my tracks: “By your own admission, you made a mistake. Why the impulse to make this situation about the parent's reaction? We teachers are not perfect, and parents are entitled to their emotions. Maybe apologize sincerely and without qualification, and move on?” And she is right--I did make a mistake. But what about having some manners?
Sometimes it’s hard to be the bigger person. And being a teacher, so much more is expected of you.
During a conflict, it’s worth it to consider:
Am I in any way at fault here?
What is their perspective in this situation?
How might I have handled the situation that caused this problem differently, if I could?
How can I make this right?
And, the biggest one of all: What can I learn from this?
For me, I’m working on giving parents a little more grace.
Conflict arises because someone cares. I don’t despise the receptionist or the vet tech; I was in a panic trying to help my dog, whom I love dearly. The same goes for the vast majority of parents: they growl and snarl and bare their teeth not because they hate you, but because they love their child.
Conflict is hard, but it’s part of life and teaching. And as one teacher says, “As a mom AND a teacher, I like to think that we are all on the same side, and that we all want what is best for kids.”
A few side notes: Several teachers reached out to me to check on me and see if I was okay--and that shows it all right there--teachers have gigantic hearts and are incredibly caring--about their students and others, too.
One teacher also recommends a book for further reading, should you be interested in further exploration of this topic. It’s called BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Hostile Emails, Personal Attacks and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy, available on Amazon for Kindle.
Cindy Shapiro is long-time teacher living in Colorado. She is the founder of Teacher Says, a budding podcast and website designed with the idea in mind of listening to and raising up teachers' voices. She has two school-aged children. Her book, For the Love of (Remote) Teaching is available on Amazon for Kindle.