I think I now know why I never had parent complaints

One of the flash points on teacher listservs for me has been my claim that I did not get complaints from parents. I did not get them over grades or homework or discipline. I got one complaint that I was being racist, but I dealt with it by phone and it went away.

Over time on various listservs, those who complain so bitterly about being hounded and harrassed by parent complaints assure me that I must have worked in a special school (my school was like any other public high school) or that I avoided confrontation (I gave low grades and failed students and dealt with discipline problems right away) or that I got the cream of the crop (fl students do tend to be the better students, but I had plenty of poor students, undisciplined students, cases of oppositional behavior, etc.).

When I tried to explain what I did, I was met with either skepticism or outright anger, as if I were somehow accusing teachers who did have such problems of incompetence. It got tiresome, but so did constant complaints from teachers about how terrible kids and parents were, along with feckless administrators who wouldn’t back the teachers up in these horrible confrontations.

Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” has given me an insight into how I avoided confrontations with parents. You will read a lot about Gladwell over the next couple of weeks; his book Outliers, along with this one, should be required reading for all teachers.

In Blink, he cites experiments with doctors and observers who try to assess how much risk there is in a particular doctor getting sued for malpractice. After some discussion of the experiment where what came out was that people do not sue doctors they like and they often sue perfectly competent doctors who’ve made no errors. Finally, experimenters doctored the sound recordings of doctors’ voices as they talked to patients so that the content of the conversation was deleted, leaving only the voice intonation, pitch, rhythm, etc. Observers were able to predict with almost total accuracy which doctors were getting sued and which were not.

The differentiating factor? How they talked to their patients; basically, did they show respect, offer some orienting comments, reassure the patient that they would make time to answer questions, and so on, but the amazing part was the ability to tell which doctors would get sued by whether their voice showed DOMINATION or not. Domination implied lack of respect, and malpractice lawyers interviewed said they had never had a patient who said they liked the doctore and hated to sue but felt they had to. Statistical examination showed that some doctors with lots of errors did not get sued and some error-free, very competent doctors got sued frequently; it had nothing to do with mistakes they made.

Thinking back on conversations between teachers and parents I’ve overheard, I realize that the teachers were trying to protect themselves by asserting their professional standing but the parent was reading that as an attempt to dominate. Even in parent-teacher conferences where all the kids’ teachers were there along with a counselor and school psychologist, I would offer the parent some token of my respect and concern on my way out, even if I left the meeting early. It worked for 20 years and now I’m in a school where parents pay throught the nose and are constantly harrassing teachers about grades. Same thing: no complaints.

Where did I learn this? In 20 years of counseling I often dealt with touchy situations where I saw a client leave who I suspected might be suicidal or homocidal or prone to abusing their spouse or child or some similar situation. So I devised ways, you might call it a life-line, to bind them to me or at least to the agency so they wouldn’t be calling emergency hot lines or showing up at County Hospital; they felt like they could wait and get in touch with me. Eventually, I’d wean them off that and the weekly or monthly visits with me became enough.

That’s not independence, but I was dealing with Chonically Mentally Ill patients (the label is something else these days) who had long histories of hospitalizations and arrests and so on, so we weren’t about to turn their lives around with a few visits to a psychiatric clinic. But you can see how that technique of leaving them a life-line would ease their anxiety, make them feel respected and reassured, and thereby cut down on their anxiety-based felt need to reach out; the therapy sessions provided that.

As is so often said, though, you have to love people in order to treat them like that. The dominating doctors may not have been aware of it, but most likely their own concerns, anxieties, and self-doubts were distracting them from loving their patients enough to listen with respect. Teachers may think they are being caring and respectful, but if parents read something else, they will feel a need to go around or over the teacher. If we could drop the distracting elements in our own behavior, we might see our way to giving parents a sense of reassurance.

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