How do I decide whether to email, call or meet with a parent?

Q: My principal is always telling us to carefully consider how we communicate with parents. We’re required to reply to emails within 24 hours, but sometimes she says we should just call them instead. Unless, of course, it would be best for us to meet with them in person. This is NOT intuitive for me.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes. How do I know when to do what? I tend to shy away from meeting in person, because I worry that parents will deny what I said, twist my words or say I promised something I didn’t. However, I also know that tone can get lost over email. Any guidelines that would simplify this for me? I want an easy flowchart! 

A: I’ll create rules for you, but recognize that communication is more art than science. These guidelines are a start, but always consult a perceptive colleague or administrator when you’re at a loss. Some emails are deceptively simple and hard to categorize. A parent’s concern may seem innocuous when it’s actually quite loaded. You may think you’re the first line of contact, when four people already have denied the parent’s request.  

Let’s start with the basic requirement to respond to emails within 24 hours. You need to respond, but you’re not required to immediately resolve the issue. If parents want facts or information, don’t hesitate to email back. If you need to look into the question, write a brief note to let them know you’ll get back to them. 

If the email is complimentary or generally positive, you also can feel free to respond over email. But that’s it. If it’s not praise or a request for information, continue down the flowchart. Send an email to acknowledge receipt. Then either call them or reach out to request a meeting. So how do you know which one to choose? 

If the parent’s email is emotionally charged, but their concern can be quickly extinguished, call them. If their concern is complex or multifaceted, at minimum pick up the phone. If it’s negative, set up a time to meet. You may even want to include someone else in that meeting, such as your department chair or an administrator.  

You always can gather more information as you consider your next steps. Use your available resources. If your school logs parent communication online, check to see if anyone else has interacted with this parent over the past year or two. You might pick up some useful information from colleagues’ entries. The student’s other teachers may offer useful nuggets as well. 

As for your concern about parents twisting the truth, you can document the conversation after the fact. Send the parent a follow-up email summarizing any decisions or action plans.  

Keep in mind that prevention goes a long way. You can avoid flare-ups by proactively communicating when things are going well. Encourage parents to reach out when it’s a “411,” not a “911.” Plus, if you have a preexisting relationship with the parent, you won’t have to do as much guesswork. You’ll be able to pick up on more subtle social cues. You might recognize when they need a day to cool off, or know that they tend to send anxious middle-of-the-night emails that they barely remember the next day. Also, try to assume positive intent. It sounds like you may overestimate how risky it is to interact with parents.  

If after following these steps, you still don’t know what to do, err on the side of caution. Email promptly and suggest times to meet. It’s more time-consuming in the short run, but this approach may be the most efficient in the long run. 

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog.

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