Being a principal means being exposed to angry parents; they are part of the territory. Parents often will support their children when a suspension is the end result -- even if the children are wrong. A calm approach is the only approach to use in those circumstances.
Mrs. Smith (not her real name) showed up in my office yesterday -- unannounced and unexpected. She was upset that the assistant principal had told her son he would be suspended for fighting. The assistant principal had not even had a chance to get to the parents to discuss the situation before the parent showed up on our doorstep; as soon as the student realized he was in serious trouble, he tried to head off suspension at the pass by calling his mother on his cell phone.
Whenever upset parents show up at school unannounced, I try to make time to talk with them. I don't let them sit in the main office area where they can be a disruption to students or passersby. I try to quickly discern who the parents need to speak to -- a counselor, the assistant principal, myself, or someone else.
In this case, I invited Mrs. Smith into my office, called her son into the meeting, and invited the assistant principal to join us. I calmly told Mrs. Smith that the floor was hers; we would give her all the time she needed. I told her we would listen to her side of the story as long as no profane language or yelling was used. We would listen without interrupting; we would sit and take notes. We promised her we would not be judgmental or take any of her comments personally. (That can get difficult when a parent attacks you or a member of your staff, but we respect this ground rule.) Setting those simple ground rules helped assure Mrs. Smith that she would be heard. It helped keep the discussion focused and calm. Then my assistant principal and I listened as Mrs. Smith vented her frustrations.
Mrs. Smith shared all she knew of the incident that led up to the suspension. She shared that she believed the assistant principal had treated her son unfairly. She did not believe the punishment fit the crime. She thought "boys will be boys."
When Mrs. Smith was finished, I reviewed the main ideas she had expressed. I spoke slowly and without any emotion. I spoke plainly and without jargon. When I felt myself getting a little upset, I made a conscious effort to slow down. I counted to ten (in some circumstances, I must count to 100!) before I continued speaking.
At that point, we asked the son if he would like to add anything or share the incident as he knew it. We gave him the floor and the same attention we had given his mother. He told the story accurately; if he had given erroneous information, we would have taken that time to ask questions and get to the bottom of the disagreement.
I explained to Mrs. Smith that I can control some things; others I cannot. I cannot control district policies. Then I calmly shared with her our School Board Code of Conduct. That is a published document each parent has had the opportunity to read. All parents and students sign a form agreeing to its terms at the start of the school year.
According to the Code of Conduct, fighting is a Class 2 offense. Class 2 offenses, which include fighting, smoking, and repeated referrals, call for an out-of-school suspension of 3 to 5 days.
I told Mrs. Smith that I empathized with her situation, but told her we could not possibly make an exception to the rules for one student. I explained that student discipline -- our Code of Conduct -- is not in place to punish; it was established to help ensure that incidents like the one her son was involved in do not happen again. Surely, I explained to her, she must understand that the Code is in place because we must be able to maintain order in our schools. Then I calmly explained all the ramifications of the suspension. We talked through everything. Smith's son would be suspended for three (3) school days. Teachers would provide assignments, so the boy would not lose ground; he also could use the time to make up other missed work.
Whenever I am speaking with a parent in a situation such as that one, I try to imagine how I might feel in the same situation. What I have learned is that parents need to vent. Usually, they just want to talk and get a reasonable explanation or solution. After they have vented, then I usually can calmly and rationally work through whatever issues they might have. I can't win parents over every time, but if I listen and respond with carefully chosen words, the parents usually come around to my side. At the end of the meeting, I might schedule a follow-up meeting or phone call. If there's one thing I have learned from situations like this, it's to avoid getting into a spitting contest with upset parents -- because then everybody loses.
About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. Six principals comprise our How I Handled team; two of them are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals. Team members remain anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.