Like many of you reading this, I’m both a parent and a teacher. Wearing these hats has given me a unique perspective while also a disadvantage – I just might think I know more than my daughter’s teachers.
Admittedly, this sounds terrible, but every parent/teacher is guilty of this. You look at the work they take home, how their assessments are graded, the validity of assignments, etc. In the back of your mind, you’re judging the effectiveness of your child’s teacher based on how you see their curriculum through the lens of your own teaching.
When faced with an angry email or phone call from a parent, we have the potential to see the situation from both sides – as the teacher receiving the communication, and as a parent possibly empathizing with their concerns.
Think about it:
- On the one hand, you can probably understand that parents will go to great lengths to provide the best for their child. You might even appreciate their concern and support for that student.
- On the other, you’re confident you did no wrong, but are now stuck with this problem.
The epic angry parent email
It was only a few years ago when I received the worst angry teacher/parent email ever. Here are the highlights:
As it is I am currently emailing YOU trying to figure out YOUR class instead of teaching and dealing with MY classes.
You are his teacher. Please assign him homework Achieve 3000 DAILY homework that YOU lesson plan out- that YOU set daily due dates for so I don’t have to teach your class for you. So that he knows what he has to complete each day. If he has to turn in thought questions assign him a goddamn thought question. If you want an achieve 3000 completed- assign it that day. Anything else is negligent, lazy and expecting me to monitor your class for you.
If you would like to have a face to face so we can sit down with his planner and figure all this out -let me know when you are available after 5 pm for me to meet with you. And bring an AP and his case carrier.
I do not want a contentious relationship but we are going to have one if I have to micromanage your class and schedule my son’s due dates.
Just to give you some background on this, my department requires students to complete 40 Achieve 3000 activities a semester. In an effort to help my students stay on track, I split up and assigned the articles so that a certain amount was due every couple of weeks.
Obviously, this email upset me because 1) the parent was accusing me of not doing my job, 2) they were swearing at me, and 3) they were on the border of being threatening.
How do you deal with this?
I’d never had to deal with an email of this level before. This doesn’t mean that parents haven’t been upset with me about this or that. While I AM pretty darn fun and lovable, I’m not every parent’s cup of tea.
Luckily I’d managed to implement a system to quickly resolve these types of conflicts. I developed it from a mix of just being diplomatic in nature, through trial and error, and from advice from my colleagues.
Before you act on this angry message, the first thing you must do is take a deep breath and reread the email again slowly. Really read and wrap your brain around it because you’re going to have to deal with it in an informed, calm manner.
1) Investigate the issue the parent is upset about.
Suppose the parent is upset about their student’s grade in your class. Before you get defensive, go and double check.
- Did you accidentally mark an assignment as missing?
- Did they student fail because they didn’t do their homework/study/was absent?
- Could it have been a mistake on your part?
If you made a mistake, apologize and fix it. This is clearly the easiest solution and one that you should wish upon every time.
If there are legitimate reasons why the student’s grade is low, then move on to the next step.
2) Take a moment to understand the parent’s perspective.
Whether you’re the first or fourteenth teacher to fail that student, parents can get into momma bear mode and attack. They may have circumstances that affect how much support they can provide their student, or may honestly believe that their child is a genius and you’re an idiot.
Either way, there’s a lot to be said about putting yourself in their shoes to get clarity on the situation. I suggest not automatically becoming defensive and indignant, and instead focus on clearing up misunderstandings.
What is it about what you wrote/did/said that might have set them off? If you were in their shoes, why might you have reacted that way? What do they need to know in order to gain understanding and closure on this?
Remember that at the end of the day, they’re just looking out for their own student.
3) Have another colleague take a look at it.
Remember how I told you that you should lean on your colleagues? Go to them and get their take on it. Explain the situation as objectively as possible and let them decide on their own.
I do this anytime I think a parent might be upset with me. Since it’s our nature to take it personally and get defensive, I know that I need a second pair of eyes in case I’m overreacting.
We tend to commiserate with our colleagues in order to gain sympathy, but sometimes we’re wrong, and we need to let each other know.
4) If you feel compelled to, draft your angry reply in a different medium
If you’re super angry about it and want to send a nasty reply, type it somewhere like a Google Doc. I do this, and it’s SO cathartic. You just need to get it off your chest somehow.
After you’re done, walk away and do something else. Don’t send it.
I mean it. Just don’t send it.
5) Give your principal a heads up.
There’s always a chance that the parent will go to your administrator after they’ve unloaded on you. Therefore, you want to be sure your principal is prepped with your side of the story. Put aside your pride, and don’t keep it to yourself because you think you’ll get in trouble.
If they’re sidelined and have to deal with the parent with no prior knowledge, it could make you look bad. You’ll actually end up being in more trouble as a result of your principal having to defend you while completely unarmed.
Also, if the parent is particularly belligerent, is personally attacking or threatening you in an email or phone call, document it and then immediately forward it to your principal. Always take meticulous notes, which means writing down EVERYTHING that was said.
We all have every right to be upset, but that doesn’t give parents carte blanch to be abusive.
6) No matter what, you’ll need to respond, but stay cool.
So you have to respond somehow, but remember this: Do NOT send an email that you wouldn’t want to receive. You don’t have to let them walk over you and mistreat you, but fighting fire with fire will lead to disaster.
You will gain NOTHING by being snarky or attacking back. In fact, you’ll just lower yourself to their level. Plus, parents talk, and they’ll create an army of fellow parents who will make your life hell if their student is ever in your class.
Seriously my friends – be the bigger person. Students and parents will come and go, but you’re stuck with the fallout if act foolishly.
7) After crafting that email, save it as a draft and come back to it when you’re not upset.
Responding to that parent’s email will most likely upset you. So give yourself some distance.
When you come back to it, read it with the lens of “What do I want to accomplish? What is my end-goal with this email?”
- Is it to “win?” If you’re someone who has to get in the last word, you’ll not only ruin any possibility of cooperation in the future, you’ll also create tension with that student. They’ll most likely hear their parent disparage you, which is awkward if the student truly likes you.
- If you do want to win, how far are you willing to take it? Is it REALLY worth having to go to a parent-teacher conference with your principal? Is it REALLY worth the hassle of receiving a barrage of angry follow-up emails? What if this parent wants to take it up with the superintendent? Is it REALLY worth having your name and reputation dragged through the mud because you had to have the last word?
- Do you truly want them to understand your point of view? If so, take way any language that communicates you being defensive. If you truly did nothing wrong, then just be matter of fact. If you did make a mistake, admit your oversight and apologize for any misunderstanding. Simple. Done.
8) Don’t blame or lecture the student the next day.
Even if that student said negative things to their parent about you, they ultimately cannot control how their parents respond. Most of the time they don’t want their parent to get involved and are embarrassed when they do. It’s not fair to take it out on them because of their parents.
I’ve heard of students purposely getting their parents riled up in order to get the teacher in trouble. While I haven’t experienced this, if I did, I would still choose to be the adult in the room and prove that student wrong. When you decide to engage in email-to-email combat, you inadvertently validate that student’s claims.
9) Find a way to prevent this issue from popping up again.
I’m not implying that you necessarily did something wrong. I’ve had parents who are upset at their miserable job and decided to take it out on me. Many times I’ve had students lie about something I said or did to get themselves out of trouble.
After their parent sent me an angry email, and I calmly and diplomatically shed light on the truth, those students never did it again.
However, if parents continue to misinterpret your message and intention, then you may need to reevaluate your approach. If one parent complains now, you can count on more complaining in the future if you repeat “it” again.
10) If you’re delivering unhappy news, have another colleague take a look at it.
So you’ve survived the angry parent email incident. Awesome. Now let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again anytime soon.
You may have to take preventative measures to not set off parents in the future. This is actually easy to do. If you’re sending an announcement or email that could be construed as negative (nobody studied for the test, remember to do your homework, you have detention tomorrow), run it by a colleague.
There’s so much to be said about tone and delivery, especially through electronic mediums. Sometimes we don’t know how we come across, and we may unwittingly offend someone.
If you tend to get angry parent emails and complaints, then there’s a problem with the tone of your communication – either to the students or parents. So take some precautions and have someone take a quick look at the message.
After you’ve done this a few times without offending anyone, you’re probably good to go.
What happened to that angry teacher/parent?
I followed the same protocol I outlined above:
- I ran it by a colleague, who agreed that it was out of line.
- I looked back at my original announcement to the parents to see if something was awry.
- I drafted a fairly nasty response in the Notes app and later deleted it.
- I forwarded the parent email to my principal, who quickly took action.
- I also responded and invited the parent to a meeting with my principal and myself (don’t ever, ever go alone into a parent conference with an angry parent. ALWAYS bring an administrator or counselor).
- I made sure to shield the student from the drama, especially since she really liked me as her teacher.
The parent eventually apologized, and the incident was resolved. I’m absolutely confident that had I put on my sparring gloves with that parent, the result would’ve been far worse.
You see, I knew it wasn’t worth it. I had come way too far to let an incident like that bring me down.
And ultimately, my top priority is to ALWAYS put my students first.
I have received some “angry” emails from parents and I have learned to handle them professionally and to have an administrator present if the email was threatening. The email that you received was clearly out of line and unacceptable. I am a parent too and I wound NEVER speak to anyone in that manner even if I was infuriated. Even when angry you could say, Dear Mrs. So and So, I have some concerns that I would like to discuss at your earliest convenience.” Why be mean and degrade another human being? I feel sorry for that angry parent but I could tell that you handle these situations with grace. Thank you for sharing your experience along with these tips.
Kim Lepre says
I agree Christine – I don’t understand how anyone can see that type of behavior or sentiment as productive. Some people are just bullies, and unfortunately get away with it!
Thanks for reading!
This is great advice, especially for new teachers! Even though it can be easy to take personally what might be said in an email, it’s always imperative for us as educators to be professionals and do what is best for our students.
Kim Lepre says
I agree that it’s natural for us to take it personally when anyone attacks us, but if we engage in a verbal battle, it’s the student who ultimately ends up losing out.
This very thing happened to me on FRIDAY night of the first night of spring break. I am thankful that I was under no obligation to address it for more than a week. Teachers return to work Monday; students on Tuesday. I can discuss the issue (behavioral, not academic) with colleagues and admin on Monday. Thank you for sharing this great post.
Kim Lepre says
AGH! That’s the WORST TIMING EVER! We also aren’t obligated to answer emails during break, so hopefully things will blow over during that time!
Sueh-Min Liew says
I am searching for information for a teacher I work with. This teacher has been receiving angry emails from a parent since the beginning of this school year. She has done all your suggested steps and even had a meeting with the administrator. Apparently the meeting was off topic and the issue was not resolved. What are this teacher’s next steps? This teacher has talked with school counselor, administrator, peer teachers, SEL support staff, and school site union rep (myself). As a site rep I am reaching out to the union president at this point. I would like to support this teacher the best way. I am forwarding your advice on the issue above to her as well. Thank you ahead of time for any support/advice you can give on this issue.
Kim Lepre says
I’m so sorry to hear about what’s happening with your colleague – it sounds like a terrible situation. There are times when a parent really just has it out for a teacher. It’s important for the admin and union to stand up for that teacher and let the parent know that they can’t abuse the teacher this way – they can’t be allowed to verbally berate and harass the teacher. If it doesn’t get better, then I would insist that admin place that student in another teacher’s class. This isn’t to pass the buck on to someone else, but sometimes parents just really don’t like a teacher, and no amount of diplomacy will help. The situation is toxic, and the well-being of the teacher is at stake, especially during these difficult times!
Please let me know how it turns out!
Tessa DeHaven says
I think this is great advice; however, after receiving the most horrible email from a parent ever (I’ve been teaching for 32 years) I did ask that the student be removed from my room. He obviously was not truthful to his father, and I simply could not put the threatening, degrading email aside. There are some things I just refuse to accept, and grown adults sending this type of email is one of them. We don’t deserve that, and I won’t jeopardize my health because of one inappropriate parent.
Kim Lepre says
Yes, there comes a point when you do need to have them removed. It’s never acceptable for a parent to be belligerent, and while I do try to work it out as much as possible, there have been a couple of instances where the parent moved the student out of my class.