Q: I’m an 8th-grade social studies teacher, and a parent has been trashing my reputation. At first, this parent liked me. She came in during teacher preservice week to meet individually with all of her daughter’s teachers, along with the counselor and administrator. She wanted us to know her daughter had some school phobia in elementary school — three years ago! I assured her that I treat all of my students with sensitivity. As I got to know the student, though, I realized that this is about her mother’s anxiety. The child is fine, at least so far.
When the girl missed a few days of school due to illness, I let her hand in an assignment late. From her work, it was clear she didn’t understand the material, which wasn’t surprising given that she had missed a few classes. I met with her to review the material, and then I suggested she redo the assignment. She was OK with that, but Mom hit the roof. I got a “How dare you pressure my kid when you know she’s easily thrown” email, with my principal copied. She also told all of her friends — mostly other parents in the school community — that I was a horrible person with no understanding of kids’ mental health needs. One of her friends happens to be a teacher in my school, and she told me everything. It really bothers me that I now have a reputation for being a b*tch when I’m not. I don’t know how to fix this.
A: There’s nothing to fix, other than your self-talk. I know that’s probably a frustrating response. You’re human. It hurts when people say negative things about you, or misread your motives, or spread false information. Of course you want to change the narrative, but your goal should be to let this go. Don’t give one individual so much power over you. I know this is easier said than done, so here are some tips:
- Don’t bother defending your reputation. Strip the story of drama so it dies faster. Try to view this as too ridiculous for discussion. Yes, you’re misunderstood, but you won’t change anyone’s mind by retelling this from your perspective. People will believe what they’ll believe.
- Try not to blow this out of proportion. How much will these other parents really care about how you handled one interaction with someone else’s kid?
- Let your work speak for itself. Focus on your sense of purpose. Look at celebrities — no matter how fantastic the work they do, they all have detractors. If you know you’re interacting sensitively with children and doing the best you can, don’t worry about the trash talking.
- If you can, muster some empathy for this mother, or at least consider her perspective. You know this is more about her than you. She obviously carries a great deal of anxiety about a rough phase in her daughter’s life, so try not to personalize it.
- If you think it would help, you could debrief with your principal and share your worries. He or she might be able to reassure you that you’re doing good work. That said, don’t depend too much on any one person’s reassurance to feel better. As one bullying expert I know likes to say, “When you give people the power to validate you, you give them the power to invalidate you.”
- Along those same lines, think about the nice comments you’ve heard about your teaching. We tend to focus on the negative, but try to give equal weight to the positive feedback you’ve gotten in the past.
- Check in with the student again, just to ensure you’re not misreading the situation. Her school counselor might be able to give you some helpful insight as well — for all you know, this mother is sending nastygrams to all of her daughter’s teachers.
- Play out the worst-case scenario. Let’s say a handful of parents conclude that you’re a little insensitive with kids. Whenever you feel yourself getting worked up, ask yourself, “So what? How much does it really matter?”
- Last, give it time. Everything feels worse when it’s fresh. Imagine that it’s 10 years down the road and you’re looking back on this one incident. How significant do you think it will feel then? Tell yourself, “This too shall pass.” It will.
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