Difficult Conversations

Nov 4, 2017 | All Planes, For Teachers, Teacher Talk, Theory | 0 comments

Something is going awry. A parent has raised a concern about (enter any number of possibilities here: your teaching, your classroom, the children's behavior, more homework, more time outdoors… the possibilities are as diverse as the children you serve.) What now?

It's hard not to jump into defense mode when a parent raises a concern about the environment. You work so hard. You know your children well. You plan for them and love them, celebrate with them and suffer with them. It's hard not to take it personally when a parent's expectations for the classroom are different than yours.

Remember the humility that Montessori demands of us. When a parent raises an issue, even when that issue feels really close to home, even when that issue hurts our feelings, we need to step away from the insult and focus on the relationship. Parents may not always frame their concerns in ways that make teachers feel supported. Hear the concerns anyway. Parents may not always have good evidence for the concerns they raise. Hear the concerns anyway. Parents may, from fear or exhaustion or overprotection or love or anxiety or any of the myriad of other emotions that they, too, get to feel, say things about our practice that hurt. Hear them anyway.

Difficult conversations are a part of this work. We have chosen a complicated system of individual responsiveness, that depends on deep knowledge of each child we serve and is enacted in real time within our own limits as human beings. Things are going to go wrong. It's not helpful to try to avoid them (although you don't want to cause them intentionally!) Instead, consider how you can approach the difficult conversation as an opportunity instead of an obstacle.

Conflicts are resolved best when both sides trust the intentions of the other. If you don't believe the person you're sorting things through with can be trusted, if you don't think that his or her intentions are good, why would you ever believe the conflict could be solved? Build your trust with parents before you need it, when things are going well. Talk to parents early and often about how their children are doing, about how you're preparing the environment and about things that might be unusual or curious to an outsider to Montessori. When parents know already that you care for their children and are thoughtful about that care, they are more likely to be open and responsive to you in times of conflict.

Approach parent relationships as partnerships of informed and caring adults instead of transactions between authorities and clients. A client model for parent involvement is likely to lead to unrealistic expectations from parents, who have been inculturated to expect certain levels of "service" as clients. Likewise, an authority model is likely to disconnect parents from teachers, when teachers engage as though they hold secret and superior knowledge about children or development. The ideal relationships are in the middle of that spectrum, when teachers and parents both recognize each other's unique knowledge about children, and see each other as both resources and supporters in their care for those children. Neither parent nor teacher holds the exclusive knowledge of the child. Each knows the child in the context of their relationship, and children's relationships with their parents and their teachers are, and should be, different. In early interactions with parents, emphasize that you value and welcome their distinct knowledge as the child's first teacher, and offer your expertise in Montessori as another resource on which to rely.

When difficult conversations emerge, protect the intellectual and emotional space you need to have them in a healthy and productive way. Don't solve problems during carline. You should neither ambush parents with serious concerns nor allow yourself to be pulled away from the children by the demands of a parent. If you need to initiate the conversation, do so in a respectful, preparing way, through an email or other communication that welcomes engagement at a time when it's appropriate. "Dear ______, I hope you're well. It's been such a pleasure to see your child's growth this year. I have a concern I hoped we could speak about in person. When is good for a call or visit?" If a parent raises a concern with you at a time when you can't give that parent your undivided attention, ask them politely when you could speak about it further. "This is a really important conversation for us. When is good for you to come back or for me to call you to discuss this when the children aren't present?" The best way to navigate rocky waters is to know you're headed in to them.

Ask an appropriate colleague to sit in, and let parents know why. "I've asked _______ to join us today because I'm hoping she might be able to offer another set of eyes," or " I think _______ can provide some perspective here," or "It's important that we talk this through, and I've asked ______ to join us to help translate some of the more curious, Montessori-specific things I'd hoped to address." An objective observer to your conversation can help to notice when you may not notice parents' cues, to help keep the conversation positive and solution-focused, or to help you to frame concerns in ways parents can hear. But avoid asking for a colleague's support to "cover your tail." If you begin a difficult conversation expecting it to go poorly, it's far more likely to. Instead, think about how to frame your concerns or to hear the concerns of parents in ways that reflect that you believe you're both on the same team, both want good things for the child, and both value each other's contribution.

Be on the same team, trust that parents want good things for their children and treat parents with respect for their unique contribution. You can't just say it in your marketing materials; you have to really believe it. Parenting is a scary, lonely and high-demand practice. Just like teaching. Parenting pulls on every emotional thread, drains us and sometimes leaves us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Just like teaching. Parenting opens our hearts, humbles us and lets us experience joy for which there is simply no comparison. Just like teaching. When you approach parents from a place of respect and communion, that is, when you treat them as though they know their children, want good things for them and are just as willing to work for those things as you are, you create a space for collaboration where there might otherwise be competition.

You can't avoid difficult conversations. But you can create environments within which they remain focused on the service to the child instead of the egos of the adults. You can create space within which they help to inform teachers' teacher and to strengthen parents' parenting. You can have those conversations in a way that builds connections between the critical members of the child's village and, in the doing, helps to provide more responsive, respectful and propelling service to the child. Even if the children never observe the conversations, they will benefit from the mindful relationship-building and intentional conflict-response that you provide when you model in your practice the ways you hope they'll approach problems in their own.

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