My View

When Parent Relationships Go South
By KATIE NOVAK/School Administrator, December 2018

WE ALL KNOW parents want what is best for their kids, as do we as educators. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we don’t see eye to eye, and things get rocky. “Bus-gate,” as we called it in our school district, was one of those times.

Due to financial constraints and safety concerns, our district in north-central Massachusetts made significant changes recently to student transportation. We reduced our bus fleet by six buses, which significantly cut costs, but it also increased run times of bus routes and lengthened the distance between bus stops, requiring students to walk farther.

We also transformed our school arrival and dismissal procedures. Previously, school doors were propped open, and parents were welcome to come in and wait in the gym for their children to be dismissed. Our school resource officer and a newly hired principal recognized the inherent safety flaws and put in place tighter procedures that require parents to wait in a dropoff/pickup line.

An Angry Response
We knew these changes might be challenging for some, but we totally underestimated the level of frustration and anger this would cause for parents. Social media storms swirled, anger exploded, and front-page newspaper articles and threats of lawsuits drew added attention. Even though we had conducted public forums to explain changes in the new transportation protocol, there were parents who continued to be outraged by the changes.

Sound like a familiar scenario?

We encourage family and community partnerships, but relationships aren’t easy, especially when people’s babies are involved. School leaders must be proactive to communicate with families, yet an ounce of prevention does not make a panacea.

Proactive Acts
So what do we do when relationships go south? Treat parents exactly the way we would want to be treated. We try to model integrity and compassion while pursuing these three strategies.

» Never underestimate the power of coffee.
If the conversation is still civil but you continue to disagree, you can feel as if you’re on a hamster wheel. Instead of repeating the same conversation in your office or by phone, change the setting. Meet at a local coffee shop, sit across from the table from each other and just listen.

This meeting isn’t about changing a decision but about respecting the connection you share, which is the kids. You can listen and ask for feedback. Say “I stand by my decision, but is there anything I could have done better to communicate that decision?”

Time and patience go a long way. You may not completely repair the relationship, but you can take a high road and show your character. Sometimes conversations aren’t for public discussion, and when that’s the case, grab a latte machine for your office. I just bought one for mine!

» Agree to disagree.
If coffee doesn’t work its magic, my superintendent and colleague, Laura Chesson, has a great strategy. At the end of a conversation, she says, “I understand that you don’t agree with my decision. I have considered everything you have said and I
stand by the decision I made. It is always your right to approach the school committee if you’d like to discuss this further, and I encourage you to do that if you need to. But right now, we are going to have to disagree.”

If you offer this suggestion, proactively reach out to your school board chair and keep him or her in the loop (and maybe invite the board chair for a coffee!).

» Follow up.
After the conversation, put a note in your calendar to check in with the parent two weeks later. Send a personal e-mail or leave a voicemail when the reminder goes off and genuinely thank the parent for connecting. My note might read: “I know we didn’t agree, but your child is lucky to have you in his corner. I am always here if you want to follow up on our conversation.” The parent may never answer, but the door is open.

Our job is to support kids and their families, and although sometimes those relationships are hard to maintain, it’s always worth it for our students.

KATIE NOVAK is assistant superintendent in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District in Groton, Mass., and co-author of Universally Designed Leadership (CAST, 2016). Twitter: @KatieNovakUDL