Parents often second-guess their kids’ teachers for many reasons. Differences of opinion about discipline, incompatible educational philosophies, or plain old personality clashes could all be part of the problem. Here’s what to do when it just isn’t working.
Keep your anger in check
Losing your cool or venting your frustration in front of your children isn’t going to help anyone, and it may even damage a student’s relationship with her teacher. “Keep your negative thoughts about the teacher to yourself,” says Nikita Crook, a child and adolescent psychotherapist in West Vancouver. “Negative comments from you will confuse your child, and he’ll go into the situation with less respect for the teacher.” Phil Kestrel,* a teacher in a small Arctic Canada town, says there’s always one parent who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with him, but serious problems only arise when they’re openly discussing their dislike for Kestrel with their kids at home. “I can tell when my students hear their parents talking about me,” he says. “It becomes apparent in our interactions.”
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When you notice there’s a problem, set up a meeting right away, says Kestrel. “Don’t wait. And don’t say, ‘Well, let’s see what happens.’ Talk about your issues, even if they seem small and insignificant.” If you don’t have a parent-teacher conference coming up, email the teacher to ask for a special meeting. It shows your concern, and they won’t automatically assume you’re a meddling helicopter parent. Sure, some parents do become over-involved, but teachers want what’s best for your child, too.
Jeff Kugler, a former principal and executive director of the Centre for Urban Schooling at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, insists that teachers and administrators will understand, and that they’ll devote some time to listening to your concerns. “When we feel like something is happening with our kids, we have a right and a duty to intervene on their behalf,” he says.
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Kugler suggests starting the conversation with something positive, and then try asking the teacher an open-ended, non-accusatory question, such as what he or she has noticed about your child in the classroom setting. Often, says Kugler, teachers can offer valuable insights that a parent wouldn’t be able to see. If you’re worried your emotions will run high — or that you’ll get flustered and forget your talking points — there’s no harm in writing down a list of your concerns before you meet and checking it from time to time during your conversation. Kugler also advises parents to remember that some teachers are better at communicating with children and have difficulty talking to adults without feeling threatened by them.
If you’re not sure what’s causing your child’s troubles at school, try to spend some time in the classroom so you can gauge the student-teacher dynamic for yourself. Volunteer to give a speech about your career, or ask if you can pass out lunches on pizza day. When helping at her kids’ school, Davidson says she saw Miss X yelling at another child in the hallway in the same way she’d been yelling at Ethan. It made her realize that her little boy was not this teacher’s only target. From that point on, she felt like the situation was a little less personal — but a problem nonetheless.
Going to the principal
While the decision is a personal one, Kugler assures parents that most conversations with administrators are confidential, and that going to a principal should be your next step. “If you feel your concerns aren’t being heard with a teacher, an administrator can usually help negotiate through personality differences,” he says. At larger schools, finding and switching to a classroom that will be a better fit for your child isn’t unreasonable.
The bottom line
Parents and educators alike should do everything they can to keep students feeling motivated, welcome at school and ready to learn. Handled well, a little bit of discord can help children learn to recognize and work out personality differences, and teaches them how to deal with conflict in the future — a good life skill. Your job as a parent is to coach your child through challenging situations, not necessarily to shelter or remove them from all conflict. Says Kugler, “It’s part of learning to be an adult.”
*Names have been changed.
A version of this article was published in our October issue with the headline "Hey Teach, we need to talk," pp. 52-3.
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