Children, especially young ones, are masters of difficult conversations. Why? Because they don’t have to abide by the same set of “rules” adults do. Many adults struggle to say “the right thing.” We also tend to waffle, euphemize and skirt confrontations because we don’t want to hurt the other person. Kids…oh no, not them. When they don’t like something or find it dull, they have no qualms about telling us all about it. Adults don’t have it so easy.
Difficult conversations and teaching are a package deal and because of that, we’d like to offer a few tips to help you take the “difficult” out of difficult conversations.
Making Difficult Conversations Less Difficult: 5 Tips for Teachers
Figure out what you want—and be willing to bend when you don’t get it
Have you ever watched that History Channel show Pawn Stars? It’s a reality show that takes place in a family-owned, Las Vegas pawn shop. After about five minutes, you’ll have a sense for how pawning works: The first thing the pawn shop clerk asks the seller is “What do you want for it?” If the seller doesn’t name a price, the negotiation ends before it even begins.
Herein lies the lesson: You can’t have a conversation or negotiate unless you not only know what you want, but are also willing to bend a little.
Be emotionally present
It’s absolutely true that we should be calm and collected before we have a difficult conversation, but that doesn’t mean that we have to leave emotions at the front door. To the contrary, difficult conversations become less difficult when we are emotionally present—or in other words, when we are just as in tune with our own feelings and experiences as we are with those of the other person. It’s a tired cliché, but if we truly want to break down barriers, we have to walk in the other person’s shoes.
No more blaming
Conversations often become difficult because we focus our energy in the wrong place: assigning blame. Blame is a lot like truth with a capital “T”: everyone has his or her own version of it and talking in absolutes produces little more than disagreement, denial and frustration.
People don’t like to be blamed, especially when they are—or feel—wrongly accused. Instead of blaming, find a way to talk about how, where and when things went wrong. Then figure out how you might correct them in the future.
Don’t presume that you understand the intentions of others
When we start talking about intentions, we immediately enter murky territory. We can’t speak for you, but most of the folks we’ve met can’t read minds, which means that the intentions of others are usually unclear. Don’t presume that you know why people do what they do or say what they say. Intentions are complex and making unfounded assumptions about them is a surefire way to sour a healthy conversation.
Do not split your attention
Most of us have had a spellbinding conversation. Maybe it was with a spouse, partner or friend. What were you doing during this conversation? You probably weren’t fidgeting in your seat or glancing at your phone. Real conversations require both parties to be fully present, both mentally and physically.
Imagine: You’ve had a long and exhausting day at work; you fight traffic, pick up your spouse, and skip dinner so that you can make it to Back to School Night on time. Sure, you’d like to meet your son’s new teacher, but something tells you that you are in for a bad case of déjà vu. Will you review the glorious intricacies of state standards, review the syllabus? Groan. Snooze. Gack.
Indeed, many of these activities are a necessary part of Back to School Night, but we want to help you add a little flare, a little moxie, a little panache to your first encounter with parents. Thanks to Stella Erbes’s book, What Teachers Should Know but Textbooks Don’t Show, we’ve got six ways to help you take the groan out of back to school night.
6 ways to take the groan out of Back to School Night
- Food always makes everything a little bit better. Provide a small basket of mints or snacks for parents as they walk into your classroom. It’s a simple gesture that shows hospitality.
- Play music as parents enter and leave the classroom. This will help alleviate moments of awkward silence and create an inviting atmosphere.
- Provide several sign-in sheets—and rotate them throughout the room—so that parents don’t bottleneck at the door.
- Spending time on rules and procedures is a given. But don’t forget to include the students in your presentation. Provide visuals of the students working or showcase some of their work. This will help remind parents that everything you’re doing is for the students.
- Do you need parents to chip in with classroom supplies? Instead of passing around another sign-up sheet, try writing different items on Post-it notes and sticking them to wall so parents can take a note home with them.
- Do something visual. Do you have pictures of your students in action? Have you been updating your classroom blog? Show it off.
These gestures may seem small, but you’d be surprised how they’ll distinguish your presentation from so many others on Back to School Night.
Researchers continue to underscore what common sense has always told us: Parental involvement (or lack of) impacts student success. Since spring parent-teacher conferences are approaching—what better a time to build parent-teacher partnerships?—we thought we’d offer 5 parent-teacher conference tips to make your meetings as painless and productive as possible.
Building a Partnership: 5 Parent-Teacher Conference Tips
Discuss progress and growth
Always start by highlighting the student’s successes—and remember that they can succeed in ways that transcend books and GPA. How does the student interact with peers? Has the student demonstrated leadership qualities? What do you (and his or her peers) appreciate about the student? How has the student grown over the last eight months? Use specific examples when you can.
In addition to this, make sure that parents understand the learning goals and have access to data that identifies areas in which the student could improve.
We may have spent the last eight months with our students, but parents have spent far longer with them—which means they know more about them than we ever will. Use parent-teacher conferences as an opportunity to listen and learn.
- What is the student like at home?
- How does she learn best?
- Do the parents have specific hopes and dreams for her?
- Does the student have aspirations that you might not know about?
- What did the student like about her last teacher? What didn’t she like?
- What learning strategies did this teacher use that worked well for the student?
Collaborate to find solutions
Parents know who is in charge, even if they don’t always agree with the way you run your classroom. Avoid telling parents what “they” should do. Instead, emphasize how “we” can collaborate to help the student improve and remain open to their suggestions.
Design a plan of action
Spend the last few minutes of your parent-teacher conference designing a plan of action with clear objectives. Write it down so that both you and the parents have a copy.
Stay in touch
Once you’ve created a plan of action, use it as a point of reference in progress reports and future meetings. And once a student has met or exceeded goals, continue to refine the plan. You don’t necessarily need to meet face to face to do this: Instead, try using Voxie Pro, an app that allows you to record CD-quality voice recordings on your phone and email them directly to the parents. To learn more about this, check out one of our recent blogs, Going Paperless: Podcasting Your Students’ Progress Reports.