Productive collaborations between family and school, therefore,
will demand that parents and teachers recognize the critical importance
of each other’s participation in the life of the child.
Teachers gain plenty of experience over time having difficult conversations about students with parents. However if you are parent, you may only experience difficult conversations with teachers a few times in your children’s educational careers. It’s conceivable that your child may come home with issues or concerns that merit your initiation of a conversation with a teacher. With only your child’s words to inform you, you need more information and the help of her teacher to really understand the problem. “Will I sound like I am accusing the teacher or another student or parent?” “Will the teacher penalize my daughter or like her less because of our conversation?” and “Will my discussion with the teacher lead to tensions between our family and that teacher and possibly other teachers in the future?” These are all valid questions that are raised in the minds of parents before they proceed with a conversation. Last weekend as I attended a once a year lunch date with my college friends, mothers of children from preschool through high school, this common dilemma was a feature of our conversation.
The next day, I asked my Mother, a retired high school English teacher what she might say about this topic. Her response was, “I can tell you what not to do. Don’t stand in the front entrance of the school and yell, ‘Where is she? Where is she?’ ” This parent was calling out for my Mom, angry that his son was accused of plagiarism. So teachers have all kinds of experiences with conversations with parents which may not always be positive. Whether or not you believe your son’s retelling of the event, it doesn’t change the fact that you need to engage the teacher as a partner. Your approach with the teacher could impact your child’s experience of his teacher and of school itself so taking a well-considered approach is important.
Imagine the following scenario. Your child is in seventh grade. He tends to not discuss much about what happens at school but has been fairly happy so far in the school year. You have been reasonably satisfied with the school and with his teacher. One day he comes home and says, “My teacher said I was looking on another student’s paper. But I wasn’t. And now she’s given me a failing grade when I should have gotten an A.” You spend some time talking with your son trying to find out more. He is adamant that he did not cheat on the test. The natural next step might be to have a conversation with his teacher. But how does an emotionally intelligent parent handle that kind of difficult conversation?
Considerations before the Conversation
Could your child have a conversation with the teacher first to attempt to resolve the issue? Is this an appropriate issue for you as a parent to raise with the teacher? How old is your child and can they first be coached by you to approach the teacher him or herself? High schoolers are definitely old enough to advocate for themselves and middle schoolers, depending upon the maturity of the child, could be able to as well. A parent will more likely need to get involved at the early childhood through fifth grade levels. If old enough, a best first step is to allow the child to try and work the problem out directly with the teacher in a constructive way. If you decide to coach him to act as his own advocate first, in the imagined scenario, here’s what you might say.
Coach your child not to accuse the teacher or get into a power struggle by expressing his view as right when he knows she holds the opposite view. A child is typically tempted to say,
“Mrs. Smith, you think I cheated but you’re wrong, I didn’t. I don’t deserve that zero you gave me.”
Coach your child to avoid placing blame. Instead, he might say,
“Mrs. Smith, I know you are convinced I cheated on the exam. I want to prove to you that I did not. Can you think of any way that I might be able to show you that I did not or make up for what happened? I am willing to re-take the exam. I am willing to do extra work so that I might not get a zero for the test.”
Wouldn’t it be so nice if a problem like this was all neatly resolved through that one conversation? It certainly could be. But as we know, these situations can extend into the need for further intervention. If you decide that your child has adequately and constructively approached the teacher with an offer to make reparation but the teacher has denied the offer and your child is still highly upset and feels an injustice has been done, then here are the next steps you might consider.
Get yourself into the right frame of mind.
Assume the best intentions on the teacher’s part. Assume competence and caring. Assume that the teacher is trying to do what is fair and, also, teach lessons about habits of learning. I personally have never encountered a teacher who went into the profession without the noblest intentions to help children learn (I know they must exist but I have not yet met one in my career). But of course, teachers are human and make mistakes like all of us. If you are upset or emotional about the situation, first do some journaling, walking or other means of getting out some of your frustrations. Try not to go into the conversation highly charged and emotional if possible. If you do, you are SIGNIFICANTLY less likely to be successful. James Comer of the Yale Child Study Center writes,
Children in home-school conflict situations often receive a
double message from their parents: “The school is the hope
for your future, listen, be good and learn” and “the school is
your enemy. . . .” Children who receive the “school is the
enemy” message often go after the enemy–act up, undermine
the teacher, undermine the school program, or otherwise exer-
cise their veto power.”[i]
This is not in the interest the child. He is not mature enough to understand constructive ways to deal with the conflicting messages he is receiving.
Ask yourself: What are your desired outcomes for the conversation? Think about it. If you raise this issue, are there a number of outcomes that might be acceptable to you? Involve your son in thinking through what solutions might be acceptable to him. If there is only one solution that is acceptable and you do not believe that the teacher will either a.) understand or b.) accept that solution, then it sounds like it is not worth having the conversation unless you are only planning to focus on the future. In other words, “What can he do in the future to avoid this problem from happening again?”
Initiating the Conversation. Whether you call or email to set up a conversation, let the teacher know that you would like to discuss your child in general and specifically the problem at hand. Be sure to find the time to go in person. Email and phone conversations seem easier but real resolutions in which all parties feel better can best be reached in person.
“Mrs. Smith, I would like to meet with you to discuss how Benjamin is doing in your class. I would like to partner with you and be sure I am supporting your efforts at home. I would also like to talk about the most recent test he took to understand the situation better. Please let me know when we can have that in person conversation.”
The Conversation Itself. Think about a time when you received constructive, helpful feedback from your husband, boss or friend. You want to take a similar approach in this conversation. Begin with the positive strengths of the school year and the teacher’s influence on your child. What do you like about her or what he is learning? Ask for her expertise in how you might support his learning at home. Then, ask about the problem at hand.
“Mrs. Smith, I notice that my son has really moved forward in his math understanding and comfort level and I know that is due to your good work and encouragement. I wanted to ask in general if there are ways I can support his learning in my role at home. I also wanted to ask about the recent test he took. Can you tell me from your perspective what happened? After she describes what happened, you might say, “I hear that you experienced the situation in this way (paraphrase what she said so that she is certain you have heard and understood her). My son is upset and feels unjustly accused. Is there a way that he could make up the test or prove to you that he knows the content?”
When you leave the conversation, be sure and thank the teacher for her time and care with your son. Be sure and go through the conversation with your son. If agreements have been made, you then need to supervise your son carefully to ensure that he follows through with those agreements. It may be the case that because of school rules there is no way that a student can make reparation or improve a grade. Your child may have to learn that the zero is the consequence for his actions. Help your child to accept the rules of the school that his teacher is following. Discuss what he can do to avoid the problem the next time. You will not only be working in partnership on his behalf with the school, but also teaching him the valuable lessons of accepting consequences and learning from mistakes.
Follow up on the Conversation. Because you want to continue a good and growing relationship with your child’s teacher, follow up. After your son has followed through on making up the test, for example, check back in with her in a few weeks just to see if reparation has been made and things are going well. This is an easy step to skip. He seems fine. Life goes on. But you want to maintain the relationship with the teacher and let her know that you will continue to be a partner with her. This is what you might do in another valued collegial relationship. So demonstrate the same kind of respect with his teacher. If you focus on your partnership with the teacher as an important investment in your child’s future success and not on the problem of the moment, you will make better choices about how to approach the teacher even when difficult situations occur.
Parent Leaders in Education: Resource Round-Up by Edutopia
Effective Home-School Communication by JoBeth Allen, Harvard Family Research Project
The Dicey Parent-Teacher Duet by Sara Mosle, The New York Times
[i] James P. Comer (20th century), U.S. psychiatrist and author. School Power, ch. 2 (1980).