Go to any ballet teacher forum and you will find a slew of threads discussing the topic of parents. Teachers willingly pour hours of work into their students and still have energy left over to go home and choreograph until 1 AM; but a two minute conversation with a parent can easily do us in.
Just a guess, but I believe it is because parents don’t “get it”. I think this is true because having a two minute conversation with a different kind of parent has the ability to recharge me instantly. And that different kind of parent is one who does “get it”.
The Different Parent
If you have been in the business long enough you know the kind of parent I mean. They stand out. In truly brilliant ways. I find they land in one of two categories:
- They know they don’t get it. And because of this awareness, they happily follow your leadership and expertise.
- They totally get it. And because of this awareness, they happily follow your leadership and expertise.
These parents’ kids usually stand out as well. They might not be at the top of their class technically but you dream of having a studio filled with this type of kid because, simply put, they are excellent students.
What makes these parents so magnificent isn’t that they never question you or never need clarification or extra help. On the contrary they seem to always be seeking ways to better understand/support their dancer/help the studio flourish/etc. In short, they are a dance teacher’s heroes.
We want these parents! We want all parents to be these parents!
And all (or the vast majority at least) parents can be these parents. I believe this wholeheartedly.
- “My child has been in this level for two years now. I think it is time they be moved up.”
- “Why can’t my daughter go on pointe with everyone else in her class? It doesn’t seem fair.”
- “My son is not being challenged in your class. It might be time for us to switch teachers.”
These statements are just the tip of the iceberg for what we teachers address with parents. It is easy to cringe at the thought of engaging in these conversations because, truthfully, it feels the parent is accusing us of all the things we make every effort to NOT do.
- Neglect students.
- Play favorites.
- Dull teaching.
- and on and on and on and on to infinity . . .
When confronted with these issues we immediately shut down to the parent and open up to our insecurities. We might respond with something like:
- “Your child’s attendance has not been where it needs to be this year. I can’t reward that.”
- “Your daughter’s technique is not strong enough to handle pointe work yet.”
- “Your son comes to class in baggy gym shorts and most often does not follow my directions. Challenging him is not the priority at this point. Getting him to pay attention is.”
Undoubtedly, all these things are true. But when we reply in these ways, the parents hear something entirely different. Something more like this:
- “You need to do a better job at getting your kid to class on time every single time. Your kid will get nowhere real fast if you continue like this.”
- “Your daughter is weak. Her struggles are because she is less than the other kids her in class. So she will be held back until she reaches our expectations.”
- “If you taught your son how to pay attention and behave we would not be having these issues.”
Wha. . . ?? As if we would EVER speak to parents in such a way! Like ever?!
However, parenting is some seriously hard work (logistically, emotionally, practically, physically—in all the ways) and even the most experienced parents can fall prey to feeling their child’s successes/failures reflect back to them.
Ultimately all parents everywhere want the best for their kids. They want their kid to be happy, to love life, to enjoy this world, to have friends, to have no regrets. The pressure to provide a perfect experience in childhood is super intense for parents. More intense for some than for others. The whole “helicopter parent” thing—yeah, that is parents in the crux of this pressure.
These parents don’t need more pressure. They need support. When they get that support, the pressure is lifted, the intensity is turned down, and everyone can breathe into a healthy productivity as opposed to a forced perfection.
How Can We Respond?
When parents come at us with accusatory remarks I suggest:
- Make certain this is not about you. Being as objective as you can, think back on your own behavior and consider how it might have been perceived in a negative light. If there is anything that requires an apology, give one—without excuses.
- Realize this isn’t about you. Not really. Even if you did need to apologize and correct a piece of your teaching method, this complaint isn’t really about you. It is about their kid. They see their child struggling and have chosen to reach out for help.
- Be the support they need. Ask them open ended questions so you can get to the core of the issue. Offer solutions, not only reasons. Educate them on the world of ballet in ways that are accessible to their busy lives and easy to digest.
So, perhaps reply to the above “complaints” more like this:
- “I am so glad you brought this up. I wanted to speak to you as well. We have missed [child’s name] in class so much this year! I know things get so busy. Is there some way we can make things easier for you so [child’s name] can learn the material needed to get to the next level? [Child’s name] is such a beautiful student and I know they are wanting to move forward. How can I support you and make this happen?”
- “I know. This is such a difficult thing to experience. For students and their parents and even for their teachers! [Child’s name] has done some really good work in pre-pointe this year. I am so proud of how far she has come and I want you to know that. Making the jump to pointe is a big decision because the risk of injury is increased so much. Readiness for pointe is also a very individual thing and it is not normal for an entire class to get there at the same time. Of course, our priority is to keep [child’s name] safe and dancing for many years to come. Here are some key areas she needs to hone in on to safely dance on pointe: [list the areas]. I definitely plan on making these a priority in our upcoming pre-pointe program. Is there some way I can help [child’s name] better understand where she is, the progress she has made, and the plan forward? I would be more than happy to speak to the two of you. We can devise a path together to help her achieve these goals. Does this sound like something you would be interested in?
- “Thank you very much for bringing this to my attention. I truly appreciate it. My main goal as a teacher is to be sure all my students feel heard, seen, and challenged appropriately. I have noticed some drop off in [child’s name] attention and behavior in class. At times he seems disinterested or distracted. I would love some input from you on how to redirect him and bring his focus back. He does seem to really enjoy the grand allegro (large leaps) we do across the floor so I have been working on ways to carry that energy into the rest of the class for him. Any tips you have you would be wonderful! Of course, I do understand if you feel another teacher would suit him better. While I enjoy working with him and would miss him, the important thing is his growth. Let me know what you choose to do and know I am here for you and [child’s name].
Yes, answering in this way requires more thought and energy but the benefits are well worth it. It generates compassion and connection between the teacher and student as opposed to pitting them against one another. It gently educates the parent on the ways of ballet training as opposed to making them feel guilty. It offers solutions and a chance to build an individualized experience for the student as opposed to “This is how we do things. Period.”
Just as we can create authentic artists and excellent teachers, we can also create “different parents”. Teachers need all the support they can get. Let’s not sabotage ourselves by alienating the very people who have the potential to help us the most.
Parents. It is time to stop dreading them and start helping them.