A father I had never met accosted me as I approached the front door of the school. “What the $^%*@$% are you doing threatening my daughter?” he asked.
“Nice to meet you, too,” I thought. Seeing her nearby, I surmised that he was the father of a color guard member I had talked to about an hour earlier when she said her father was checking her out to get her learner’s permit down at the DMV. She was our weakest color guard member, and we had a performance that night. Apparently, she (or her father, who never came to performances) was not too concerned about spinning a big flag around in a different time zone than the rest of the line. I told her she could go (very nice of me, I thought) but stated that if she missed another rehearsal she would probably be pulled from the next performance simply because she would not be ready. I guess this was what he was calling a threat, a word I have always associated with more violent connotations.
As it happened, the principal walked up and invited us to his office. After explaining the situation and the importance of her presence at practice, he kept repeating, “You shouldn’t threaten my daughter!” and “You cannot tell me when I can or can’t check my daughter out of school!” The principal explained that while that may be true, there were consequences for missing practices. I also explained that I had not threatened his daughter but simply explained to her what would happen if she missed again, so she would know ahead of time. All explanations were going nowhere, until I figured out that maybe all he needed was an apology for “threatening” his daughter. So I finally said, “I’m sorry if I spoke in such a way that she felt threatened. Sometimes I come across harsh when I don’t mean to. My wife says I have a vein that sticks out in my neck when I get mad.” Like magic, that seemed to pacify him. We talked a little more, and he even offered an apology of sorts by saying that he can be a “#%^@#&$” at times. I made sure not to nod in agreement.
Within just a few weeks of that incident, I had a sit down with another parent who was irate that her son was not getting a letter jacket. (This despite that fact that he had clearly not met several of the posted requirements.) Unable to dispute this any longer, she spewed forth a whole new spate of accusations having nothing to do with the issue at hand. “Two years ago you bullied my son!” she proclaimed, jabbing her finger in my direction. Now she was not only getting hysterical, but historical. “You made him keep playing mellophone for marching band even though he was almost in tears and wanted to quit.” (A converted clarinet player, I had encouraged him to keep at it, and within two weeks he played it very well, clearly enjoying it.) “And every time he has a lesson with you, he comes out very upset.” (That was news to me. He always practiced so much and played so well in lessons, there was no tension at all.) With each ridiculous accusation, I defended myself, but that that only lengthened the episode. After an arduous hour, I finally smartened up and instead of explaining and defending myself any longer, I decided to use the same tactic I employed a few weeks earlier. I apologized for some, but not all, of her complaints (a man can only apologize so much) and proposed some ways to move forward and improve matters.
After both meetings, I had the same depressing thought while I reflected and stewed over the situation–I had fallen on my sword. It was an appropriate, but surprising thought. Somewhere in my subconscious lurked the Bible story of the Israelite King Saul who in 1 Samuel 31:4-5 fell on his sword when the battle was all but lost. As it turns out, this phrase has been tossed about here and there for years, often in business circles when referring to the taking of responsibility for things gone wrong.
If you are a college student or young teacher, it is not my intention to scare you about your interaction with parents. The two scenarios I presented are the exception and not the rule. You may go years without encountering such parental vehemence. It will depend somewhat on where you are teaching. As you may have surmised, some of the parents I deal with in our district are best described as rough around the edges and prone to heated verbal exchanges. Despite this, they do have concerns that need to be addressed even if they are not presented in the most genteel way. Here are my suggestions for dealing with an irate parent:
Listen carefully to parents and acknowledge their frustrations; let them vent. Then they will be more likely to listen to what you have to say.
If you feel the need to defend yourself, do so calmly and only after they have had their say. Then comes the tricky part—quickly figuring out if defending yourself is a dead-end proposition. If no explanation seems good enough for them and they repeatedly say the same thing or just take another line of attack it is probably time to get things over with and fall on your sword.
Make the fall as painless as possible: Even if you feel that you are faultless in a situation, apologize for something. Even if the situation seems kind of ridiculous, there is probably something you can find that you could have done differently.
Suggest ways to move forward and things that you will do to improve the situation.
In the following days and weeks, take specific actions to move forward and get back on track. Some problems are simply a matter of perception, and you have to take specific steps to change that perception. Even though the student mentioned above never left my lessons in frustration, I figured out that despite his talent, he was rather insecure and would need more encouragement than the average student.
And while falling on your sword might seem embarrassing, degrading and undignified, it can go along way toward improving a relationship and resolving a problem which is ultimately more important than winning an argument. Unlike King Saul, you’ll live to see another day.