How Do You Handle Bad News?

NOTICE: This is a true story that took place very recently. If you are sensitive to slighty yucky but natural things I suggest you do not read on.

I hate delivering bad news. In fact I dread it. Though in my line of work it is a necessary evil. As a special education teacher I find myself in contact with parents more than most teachers. Like daily. This week alone I had to call a parent to tell them that their child proceeded to color his teeth black with a magic marker when he was out of my line of vision. But most of my phone calls are little things. Like little Johnny is eating toilet paper and glue sticks and has a real fondness for chalk. Or Mikey has taken to looking up all the adults skirts. Or Becky is eating her boogers. A lot. Like so much I’m wondering how she has a nose left. Even though my babies are special most of what they do is not outside of the normal kid realm.

But there is one thing I hate telling parents. Like hate-hate. Like stay up at night wondering how I’m going to break the news. You think I would be a pro at it by now. Kids typical and special alike do it.  And I see more of it than one would expect teaching second grade.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Doe? Would you mind coming inside for a few minutes,” I ask a parent during dismissal.

The poor woman gives me the look. The what now look, that I see from every parent when I ask to speak to them in private. I know she isn’t going to want to hear what I have to say and trust me I don’t want to be the one to have to tell her. But one must soldier on in these cases.

“Your son is…. Um…” My ears start to burn.

Mrs. Doe looks at me with sympathy.  “What is it? Trust me. Almost nothing you can say would shock me at this point.”

“Your son has found his willy wacker.” (For the record I did say the real word but so low the woman couldn’t hear me.)

“Excuse me?”

“His thing.” My ears are on fire at this point. “He’s found his thing. And has taken to whipping it out at every opportunity. I guess the good news is that he doesn’t know what to do with it so he kind of just swats at it. But my point is that he CANNOT do that in school.”

The mother sighs, only, slightly mortified. “I was hoping he was only doing that at home.”

“Nope. He’s sharing his love with everybody.”

“How long can I expect this phase to last?”

“He’s a man, Mrs. Doe. It will probably be for the rest of his life.”

Thankfully she laughs and wraps her arm around me. “Thanks for telling me. Now how do we fix this?”

That problem I actually know how to fix. I have a file on my computer filled with information about this along with a bunch of other files most teachers wouldn’t dream of having.Like a nose picking file. And how to potty train children over five file. And a body odor file. But I digress. For me the only way to deliver unpleasant news is to plow through it.

On the reverse side I take in good and bad news the same way. I barely react at all. My poor parents have been disappointed many birthdays and Christmas Mornings. Because I barely reacted to my awesome presents at all. Although a child once surprised me with a plate of brownies and my face lit up like a the Fourth of July. (Go figure.)

So what about you? How do you deliver bad news. How do you receive it? Are you a reactive person. Are you easily surprised?

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7 thoughts on “How Do You Handle Bad News?”

  1. Jamie, you are a brave heart. It is sad to witness and have to tell parents what we call “not normal” behavior, unacceptable in society. Good for you to appreciate and feel this obligation your duty to explain to parents. I applaud you. I am a bottom liner, but I have learned over the years to be gentle. I appreciate it in return. Great post.

  2. My thinking is that you can say almost anything to anyone if you say it kindly. You done good, my friend! I take bad news the same way as I take good news. I hear it, process it, and react as if someone has just given me the weather report. I tend toward holding back my feelings until I’m alone and have time to assess the damage…or the wonderfulness of the news.

  3. I think delivering bad news is an art form, though I’m not sure I’m good at it. I think I am, only because bad news has been given to me in a very bad manner… “He’s dead!” or “Get to the hospital, there’s not much time!” or “There’s no way he can make it.” It’s dreadful, those blunt statements. I think Paula’s right…a sympathetic heart and a gentle tone of voice, and maybe some hand-holding, too.

    Really neat post, Jamie. Thought-provoking!

    1. My father is the king of delivering bad news in a really bad way. I always look at him and think dude take a sensitivity course or something.

  4. I honestly don’t know how you do your job, Jamie. I love kids, but I’d be pulling my hair out in your situation :) Sounds like you “handled” it perfectly (sorry, couldn’t resist). As for bad news, I do my best to take a step back from whatever it is and try to drop the bomb gently and calmly. Other people often take their cues from your demeanor, so if you’re not freaking out, maybe they won’t either. Maybe. Then I go freak out someplace private :)

    1. I do my job because I sucessfully potty trained and 11 year old. And cried the first time he peed in the toilet. Nobody understands how awesome that was for me.

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