The angry or upset parent phone call: it’s one of the hazards of life as a dean of students. For years I was on the receiving end of calls from parents looking for an explanation, a source of blame or a target. I never really got used to it. Calls like this made me queasy and defensive. I was always frustrated at the limits of my ability to respond.
Something happened, though, over the course of several years, that changed my response to these calls in a profound way. I owe it to my two brothers who between them sent five children to college during my years as a dean of students.
I thank my brothers and their wives, along with their five children, for providing me with what I think is the single most important characteristic of a dean of students: the ability to see the world, and one’s self, through the eyes of another person.
Neither of my brothers graduated from college and so their experience with institutions of higher education was limited. They were proud of their kids: good students, nice people, reasonably responsible. My brothers and their wives were, by all measures, terrific parents: involved, but not over-involved. Loving, but strict. Their good work had paid off and each of their children looked forward to a successful college career and life beyond graduation.
One day during a call from an angry parent, I started to think of these family members. I don’t remember what this particular father was angry about. I do remember, however, that he sounded a lot like my brother Bob, who has the most noticeable New Jersey accent among the six of us. As I listened to this father, I pictured Bob on the other end of the line. I imagined him frustrated, concerned, scared, perhaps, for his son.
Something in my heart went “ping” and I heard my tone change.
I imagined talking to Bob, whom I hold in the highest esteem as a reasonable and fair man, and saw this situation through his eyes. His sons were decent people–not perfect, not without the capacity to do dumb things, I’m sure, but at their core, good kids. This father on the phone was not looking to excuse his son. He was simply hoping that on the other end of the line there was a dean of students who knew that at his core, his son was a good kid.
From that point, I began to hear my brothers’ voices in these calls. Each call found me listening for the thread I knew was there. It wasn’t just when a student was in trouble for doing something dumb. When I talked with a parent whose daughter had reported that she had been sexually assaulted, I imagined my brothers responding to a similar situation. I adore my nieces. They are lovely young women. I tried to imagine the pain and anger any harm to them would cause their fathers. So I found myself growing more patient and more sympathetic with each parent interaction.
The next step was obvious: I began to think of my students as someone’s nieces and nephews.
There were a lot of equally lovely young women on my campus and they needed me to treat them with the respect and fairness I wanted for Casey and Kim on their respective campuses. And my campus was, of course, populated with some terrific young men similar to Ryan, Kyle and Dave. All of my students, I hoped, had someone at home who saw and knew the best in them. So, of course was incredulous when some dean of students told them when they called that yes, their son had done something incredibly stupid or harmful and was in a heap of trouble.
The incredulity, I realized, was temporary. The love? That was permanent. If I could hear and respond to the love instead of trying to convince them that they were misguided in their disbelief about their son’s actions, I could truly partner with them to figure out next steps.
Then I pictured my nephews and nieces.
I imagined the fear and regret they would likely have felt if they committed some serious violation, the embarrassment at causing their parents pain. I could imagine it because I have known them since the day they were born. We don’t have that luxury with our students. I knew my brothers were decent and reasonable people because I had known them my whole life. We don’t have that luxury with our students’ parents.
We often need to use our imaginations to solve problems. If you find yourself frustrated with a student or defensive with a parent, put in a sub. Put in their place someone from your own life whom you love and respect. See if you feel your heart go “ping.” If you do, say a silent “thanks” to that substitute for giving you a new perspective. You will better serve your students, and you will find new enjoyment in your work.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Dave Kerpen on Authenticity/ Branding on Social Media