When I started in management, I dreaded having difficult conversations with parents and students. I even couldn’t sleep the night before! Experience has made conversations like that much easier, especially if we keep reflecting and learning from them. There’s also much to be said for learning from the experiences of other teachers and managers. But what kind of difficult conversations do I mean?
In a recent post for Pavilion ELT, Having difficult conversations, I looked at how the difficult conversations we might have with teachers or teacher trainees, so it’s now time to turn our attention to the ones we might have with students or their parents.
There are numerous reasons why teachers or managers might have difficult conversations with parents or students. Often, these conversations can be very stressful and cause unnecessary conflict, so it is worth exploring some of the reasons behind why difficult conversations might arise. Once we know what to look out for, they are easier to avoid in the first place, as you will see in the examples I’ve shared below. Although the examples show I how dealt with them, do keep in mind that the context in which your difficult conversations might happen is most likely to be different, and there are many ways a situation can be handled – in other words, this post is purely meant as guidance.
So, what are the main reasons difficult conversations with parents or students can arise? There has been/is:
- miscommunication in terms of what you/a student expected to receive and what you/they received
- a broken promise where you/a student didn’t get what you/they were promised
- a behaviour issue with a student
- a conflict of values
- a request for something you cannot do
Miscommunication as a source of difficult conversations
It happens more often that we probably are willing to admit. We interpret what we hear in terms of what we want to hear, which is not necessarily what the speaker or writer intended. When, say, students or their parents buy a course, they have certain expectations in terms of what would happen in the course, and most of the time, they are probably happy, or content with what they receive. Sometimes, however, they receive something that doesn’t meet their expectations, which can then lead to conflict. This is often very clear from how they communicate their complaint and allows you to prepare for the conversation. Key questions to ask yourself would be:
- How did this miscommunication arise?
- Can I strengthen the sales pack or documentation that students receive?
- How can I avoid this situation in the future?
A student was upset that he couldn’t have eight essays marked with feedback from the teacher after his IELTS course had ended. It highlighted that whilst we said we would provide detailed feedback on eight IELTS pieces of writing in our sales pack, we didn’t actually specify the marking would be done during the course. We agreed to look at eight pieces of writing for the student quite a few months after the course, but then also adjusted our student sales pack to include that this feedback would happen during the course. The customer was happy, and despite a difficult conversation where we had to budge and accept the customer request, it highlighted a weakness that we could address to avoid future difficult conversations.
Not receiving what we were promised
I find these the easiest of difficult conversations, because the solution is often obvious. Once you realise a customer was promised something that they didn’t receive, there are really only two reasons why it happened. During the sales process they were misled, or your academic team didn’t deliver.
In the first instance, this often means a difficult conversation with the salesperson/agent who made the promise to get the sale. Clear documentation and a sales contract often avoids these issues, and at times it means either delivering what was promised or offering a refund.
In the second instance, it is as simple as saying, ‘You are right. I am very sorry this has happened. Let me remedy it.’ When this is post course, it might mean offering a refund, or a credit towards a future course where the customer can have another course at a discount to experience the excellent service you do deliver. Reasons for why something might not have been delivered can range from a simple slip up to issues beyond your control, so whenever possible, explain why something wasn’t delivered.
Behaviour issues with students
If a school has a clear behaviour policy, it makes it much easier to deal with behaviour issues … especially with young learners, but not exclusively with them. Making your behaviour policy part of the sales pack that parents and students receive always makes these conversations a little easier. A simple example that your teachers could use would be:
- Address behaviour issues as they arise with consequences as you normally would.
- If bad behaviour persists (young learners getting physical or an adult student making inappropriate comments about other students, for instance) inform the academic management team, and then escalate consequences. This could include a one-on-one conversation with the student where an academic manager is present.
- If the behaviour persists, let the academic team and customer management team contact the student’s parents, or the company they work for if it is a corporate course (or skip this step if it is an adult student who isn’t at the course for their company). Set up a meeting explaining what the behaviour is and why it is considered inappropriate. Ask for the behaviour to end.
- If it is still problematic, ask the student (and their parents or company) to sign a behaviour contract stipulating what is unacceptable and what needs to change.
- If it persists, remove the student from the course.
Each conversation in these steps could be considered difficult, but a clear next step makes the conversations better structured and helps with moving forward. In all my years as an academic manager, I have gotten to the last step three times. It was extremely unpleasant, but I had an entire process to back me up, and ensuring you have a process makes these conversations much easier.
A very important side note
There are numerous times in this process that we have identified that a student has special education needs or disabilities and were then able to firmly communicate to parents and sales teams that we are best positioned to deal with SEND issues if we are informed of them (see Can you stop fidgeting? a post I wrote back in April explaining ways to understand rather than control some typical SEND behaviour). This is also why we have a process like I described above that allows us to identify how we can help students rather than just ask them to change. While I have had to ask three students to leave schools I was working at (an extremely tiny percentage of people I’ve taught), there have been numerous occasions where we identified a specific SEND student that we were able to really support. While conversations may be difficult, it has made all those difficult conversations worthwhile when the student flourishes.
Conflict of values
I have always felt that people sometimes have values because they believe that’s what the world expects them to have, rather than completely believe in them. For this reason, I was quite surprised when the conversation below happened and there was astonishment. If your organisation has (or you have) certain values, you need to be able to articulate them to people in a way that highlights why you have those values and shows why you stand by them.
A mother was very upset that her child had a non-native English teacher, and not only non-native, but from the country where they were living. So, a Japanese person teaching English in Japan, a Korean person teaching English in Korea, or a Taiwanese person teaching English in Taiwan. Often these teachers are paid less and viewed as less desirable than foreign teachers. So, the family had paid a premium price for our services, and then other young learners had a foreign teacher and hers had a local teacher. The sales team explained that we employ qualified teachers only, and that is what differentiates us from competitors (in our context at least), but that had no effect. And so, I stepped in. My comment was very simple. I asked why her child studying English, and the mom explained. I then asked if she thought it was OK for her daughter to become an English teacher if her English was good enough and she had all the qualifications, and whether the mom would support her. Mom said yes. I then said, well, the message you are communicating to your daughter right now is that she will never be a good enough to work for us, because she was born here! She can’t work for us even if she had all the qualifications and were completely proficient. Your daughter could even study all her life, but she will never be good enough. Is that really the message we are sending her? Because her teacher was probably in a very similar situation, put in all the training and work, they can now be an excellent role model. Just like your daughter could be.
My values are supported, and if difficult conversations are based on your values, be ready to stand up for them, and be sure why you have them. They are not just words on page. They should be the core of what you believe in. And sometimes you need to refund customers despite your values, like I had to in this case. But, my sales team never doubted my commitment again and neither did my teachers.
Something we cannot do
For me, the most difficult conversation with a parent or a student is explaining why we cannot do something they have asked for. There is, however, a common thread in these conversations, and as you become more experienced as a manager, they become much easier to have. A recent example of this type of conversation is described below.
A father wanted his child to be moved to the front of the classroom. His reasoning was that he had paid a fair amount for the course and insisted that his daughter received the best she could. He also didn’t want his daughter sitting next to a student who had special education needs – something which was in conflict with our values. I received an email about the request, and my reply took me all of five minutes. The dad thanked me for reply, so this story does have a happy ending. As with all difficult conversations, I considered what I wanted to communicate, I set the tone early in my email, I focused on the issues, and I ensured that I was careful with my word choice.
My reply basically covered the following key points:
- The teacher isn’t only in the front of the classroom like in traditional classes so even if the student is sitting at the back of a 20-people classroom, they are still getting all the attention they should.
- With class observations (which we do very regularly) we ensure that students have equal opportunity to participate.
- The specific child has excellent Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and she is the perfect child to help the SEND student to achieve the most they can. But, it also teaches her valuable life skills to help her deal with difficult situations because she is the kind of person that should end up as a manager with excellent soft skills, and that is exactly what we are developing.
- If at any point the child feels threatened or unsupported, to immediately let me know, so I can intervene, but to be a partner with us in explaining why we are giving her some extra responsibility.
I also had to have a conversation with the sales team to ensure that they understood the precedent set when we move children around as parents wish. Can you imagine the difficulty of having a 20-child classroom and every parent walks into the centre asking for their child to sit in the front? All of these are learning experiences all round.
The best part of these difficult situations and difficult conversations is that they prepare us better for the next time they happen, and perhaps indicate weaknesses in our documents and procedures. We should embrace them rather than shy away from them, because in the end, they make us so much more aware of who we are, what our values are, how we show and live those values, and how we can better communicate these to customers.
Do share your experiences (if you are able and are happy not to specify names) in the comments. I’d love to learn from your experiences as much as you might learn from mine.