Saturday, 8 March 2014

Reflections on dealing with parents

Dealing with parents is one of the most significant and challenging parts of my job.  So it should be.  I am in charge of what happens to their children every day.  They trust me with those most precious to them every day.  I can be nothing but honoured that they have chosen to trust me and my school.  This blog post is a reflection on some times I've got it wrong, some top tips that have helped me and how you get away from taking it personally, whilst learning and changing what you need to.

Back in 2004 I had just been promoted to Deputy Head of a challenging school.  I was 28.  I knew pretty much nothing, so little that I didn't even know that I didn't know.  The head was out and I had been put in charge for the day.  A phone call came from a father of one of our challenging pupils who was very angry about his son having been chastised the previous day.  I asked the secretary to deal with it in the hope it would get put on hold as the head was out.  I bottled it.  The secretary tried her best to negotiate calm but it ended with him saying he was on the way down to school to thump the head.  She said that the head was out and Mrs Taylor (that was my name then) was in charge.  'Well I'll thump her then!' was the reply.  Ten minutes later he was stomping down the path to the entrance.  I looked out of the window and thought 'well, this will go one of two ways!'  The next thing I did was really stupid.  I was sure I could calm him down and took him into the office.  It worked out ok, he didn't thump me.  I should have spoken to him myself on the phone I let it go too far.  My avoidance of the tough conversation and delegation to the secretary of that created a situation where I got away without being thumped by the skin of my teeth.

Two years later I was Deputy Head in a different, just as challenging school.  I had made a CP referral that led to children being taken into care immediately.  Which was the right decision. I had managed the whole thing as the head was out. There's a theme here eh?! The single mum was distraught and jumpy and said she wished she had a cigarette.  I took her out the back and gave her one of mine and had one with her.  Whatever she had done my human heart couldn't leave her floundering as she lost everything.  I knew it was wrong and fessed up to my head the next day.  She said I had compromised my safety and integrity and she was right.  This volatile parent could have thumped me and it gave the wrong message about us as a school.

Three years later and I was head of the village primary school where I still work.  A member of my teaching staff had spoken to a child about her writing.  The nature of that was absolutely reflective of our ethos of challenge and expectation. The parent complained by email.  I bottled it and answered the email.  Error.  This is a face to face conversation always.  Email always sounds wrong.  It's difficult to sound like you care about the child over email when you are also trying to defend a member of staff.  It's too difficult to manage that balancing act by email.  The child left the school shortly afterwards.  I knew I'd got it wrong and that this parent, who had been through quite a lot already, felt disappointed in me.  That was a tough pill to take but I needed to take it.  It was important to give a clear message that I supported what the member of staff had done and would condone that happening again.  However through the medium of email I had come across officious, disingenuous and given the impression that my member of staff was more important than her only child.  Of course not to her.

I recognised at that point that I had some learning to do so I went on a brilliant course that was run by Southern Educational Leadership Trust.  It was on handling that type of challenging interaction.  It covered parent and staff interaction.  It's no exaggeration that it changed my life!  I am a great believer in recognising your skill gaps and there are some things need to be taught to you.

Here are my top tips:

Never respond in writing- talk, if possible face to face.
Don't talk first, it's their child.  Let them say everything they need to.
Know the children, show you do and say that you care.  It's the most disarming thing you can do.
Don't leap to the defensive position, say you will need to go away and fact find and meet again.
Don't leap to the deference either, 'I'm sorry you feel like that' is very different to 'I'm sorry.'

Two years later a parent came to see me with some concerns about behaviour in the playground.  I listened properly, I acted on the concerns.  The way we worked together improved things and my acceptance that she had a good point improved the school. I felt happy that it had been resolved. A week or so later she had booked to see me again.  The night before was sleepless, I was convinced I'd messed up somehow.  It turned out that she had come to see me to tell me about her cancer diagnosis. She is an inspiring lady and has beaten cancer, she's cycling from Lands End to John O Groats in summer for Cancer Research. If you can spare a few pounds please do.

I'm running with her to train for the London Marathon and feel very lucky to consider her one of my friends.  We also now train with the parent who I mentioned earlier in this blog that I emailed.  It has been a privilege to be able to at least begin to put right what I got wrong and make that acquaintance again.

The notion that we are all human and mess up sits less easily when we are in charge of the futures of a lot of small humans.  They only get the one chance at school and the adults mistakes are costly.  That doesn't mean we don't make them of course, it just means we have to try to find ways to make less.