How to talk so teachers will listen

How to talk so teachers will listen and listen when teachers talk about your child.

I used to teach music to groups of young children whose parents stayed in class while I taught. One evening, I got a call from the mother of one of my five-year-old students. “How’s my son doing?” she asked eagerly. “I’d say about average,” I replied. Big mistake. Amid the mother’s protestations about her son’s unusual aptitude and her insistence I agree he was “ahead,” I didn’t get off the phone for an hour.

Two decades later, I’ve become that mother. No teacher is gonna tell me that my child is average. When my son’s kindergarten teacher made that very claim, I protested just as vehemently as music mom. I declared that Jackson was bored to tears in class, which the teacher seemed to take as a personal attack on his methods. Our communication ground to a halt.

A yawning gulf often separates what teachers say and what parents hear, and vice versa. Parents and teachers may have the same goal — the success of the children in their charge — but they don’t always agree on how to get there. Teachers secretly roll their eyes at parents’ inflated opinions of their offspring, while frustration mounts in parents who feel the teacher simply doesn’t understand their child.

In the interest of building bridges across this great divide, the parents and teachers interviewed in this article agreed to talk candidly about sensitive issues. Fearing such revelations might compromise their careers or their child’s school experience, they all requested to have their names changed.
When parents first send their child out into the great big world of school, they naturally expect that teachers will see what they see in their offspring: the smarts, the humour, the delightfully high spirits. In the wake of such expectations, the teacher’s perspective can come as a shock. That’s how Michelle Knudsen of Toronto, mother to six-year-old Chloe, felt at her first parent-teacher interview. “The teacher told me that Chloe still confused letters like p and q, and had a fear of trying new things, like going to the sandbox on her own. This is a kid who likes calamari! I sat there thinking, ‘You just don’t get my child.’”

Amy Sellers, a Toronto elementary school teacher who has two school-aged kids of her own, says parents need to remember that “children behave differently at school than at home. Some kids turn inward at school, while others let loose.” In other words, don’t be surprised (and don’t automatically balk) if the teacher reveals facets of your child that you don’t normally get to see.

This doesn’t mean you should listen meekly while the teacher calls your son a wallflower. “By all means, tell the teacher what your child is like at home, so she’ll be in a better position to understand the child,” says Sellers. “And please, please, please tell us if there’s a change in the child’s home life, like a divorce or a change in medication. It makes us less likely to misinterpret behaviour.”
Communication can break down even further when parent and teacher differ in their educational approaches. Mary Ackerson of Fredericton cringed when her eight-year-old son’s teacher gave her a list of books he had to read by a set date. “I didn’t think he was ready to meet that objective, and felt strongly that pushing him would backfire,” she says. Recognizing that sparks might fly if she expressed this outright, Ackerson took pains to understand the teacher’s perspective. “I realized she needed Matt to reach a certain target in order to feel like a competent teacher. I thought it would be counterproductive to try to get Matt to do it before he was ready. So I asked the teacher how we might work together to satisfy our objectives.” Framing the dilemma as a problem to be solved, Ackerson reflects, softened the teacher’s stance. “We ended up settling on some leeway in the learning curve.”

According to Sellers, many parents put up walls when confronted with the suggestion that their child may have behavioural or learning differences. “I see a lot of denial,” she says. “It’s a shame because learning problems just keep snowballing if they’re not addressed.”

And what happens when a teacher lets loose with sweeping generalizations, as happened to Suzanne Ellerby of London, Ont., when her gifted fifth-grader’s teacher declared him “uninterested and not working to capacity”? Vancouver parent educator and Today’s Parent columnist Kathy Lynn suggests you steer the conversation to the facts. “Ask the teacher to describe what she sees your child doing or not doing.” Ellerby did just that, requesting the teacher show her “specific examples of my son’s ‘mediocre’ work. She couldn’t find any. This helped me realize I was just dealing with her perception. I know my son is an absorber, so he often seems uninterested when he’s really taking it all in.”

Sometimes you just can’t wait until your child’s teacher approaches you — you want her ear right now. The most common parental complaint? “School work,” says Toronto principal Gail Kittle. “It’s either too hard or too easy.” If that’s your beef, Kittle suggests you bolster your case with concrete examples — the Sudoku your daughter has been solving, your son’s nightly tantrums during homework time — and then focus on steps to accommodate your child’s learning pace without putting undue strain on the teacher’s resources. As Kittle points out, “you can’t reasonably expect the teacher to focus exclusively on one child in a group of 20.”

Social problems rank almost as high on the list of parental complaints. Ellerby felt she had to act when, having skipped grade two, her son reported that his new grade-three classmates were bullying him. “He would come home with stories of being shoved out of lines and getting called names like ‘brainiac moron,’” she recalls. She set up a meeting with the teacher to express her concerns. “The teacher told me she hadn’t noticed anything,” Ellerby recalls. “She may have thought I was overreacting.”

Want to boost the odds a teacher will take you seriously? “Lay the groundwork by establishing yourself as a positive presence in the school,” Lynn advises. Volunteer if you can, and point out what’s working well (such as a unit your child loved) so your concerns will get a fair hearing. “Don’t make your first meeting a distress meeting,” says Lynn. Adds Sellers: “Pick your battles. Don’t schedule a meeting if your child is excluded from a recess game or doesn’t make the team.”

Not all school problems can be solved with a simple parent-teacher chat, of course. “I hate to say this because I’m a teacher myself, but I’m all for parents fighting for their child,” says Jennifer Hughes of Toronto. “Teachers do miss things, and sometimes they really don’t get what a child is about.”

This was arguably the case with my son’s kindergarten teacher. When Jackson reached grade three, his teacher that year did see “something different” in him and recommended he undergo testing. When he was identified as gifted, I felt vindicated: I hadn’t been a delusional mother after all, and the kindergarten teacher had missed something important about my son. If you think your child may have learning differences and the school makes no provisions to have her tested, Hughes urges you to “get the testing done on your own. Yes, it can be expensive, but it could turn school around for your child.”

When do you move the fight to the principal’s office? “I’m quite happy to meet with parents to help resolve their concerns, but only after they’ve already been through the teacher,” says Kittle. Her second rule: “Wait until you’re feeling calm before talking to the principal. Don’t use the meeting as a vehicle for showing off your confrontational skills to your kids, as some parents do.”

If you get nowhere with the principal, move up to the superintendent level, and so on. Just don’t “skip rungs” as you work your way up the ladder, says Sellers, recalling how one mother “went straight to the school board to complain that the project I’d assigned was too difficult for grade-two students. Next thing I knew, a consultant came to my class to scrutinize my teaching. It was upsetting, to say the least.”

Needless to say, such tactics don’t dispose the teacher to hear out future complaints with an open mind. So fight if you must, but fight fair. “Your child is special and unique, and teachers aren’t all-knowing,” says Hughes. “Just realize you may be missing things too.”

Hearing Aids:

What the teacher says
“Your child is not working to potential.”

What the parent may hear
“My child is inherently lazy and I’m a bad parent.”

Bridging the gap
Ask the teacher to help you brainstorm ideas for motivators that suit your child’s personality, both inside and outside class.

What the teacher says
“I’ve done everything I can to help your child; he needs therapy or medication to control his behaviour.”

What the parent may hear
“My child doesn’t measure up and the teacher has given up on him.”

Bridging the gap
Help the teacher understand your child’s strengths; suggest pairing your child with a peer mentor; talk to your child’s doctor about behavioural testing.

What the parent says
“The questions on that test didn’t match what my daughter was asked to study.”

What the teacher may hear
“I’m a bad teacher who doesn’t even know how to prepare kids for tests.”

Bridging the gap
Frame your concern as a question (“I’m wondering why the test didn’t seem to reflect what my child studied”), then ask the teacher for strategies to help your child avoid this problem in the future.

What the parent says
“My child is being bullied in the schoolyard and the staff is not supporting him.”

What the teacher may hear
“We’re being accused of not following bullying protocol or noticing negative behaviours.”

Bridging the gap
Acknowledge the staff’s ongoing efforts, then ask the teacher how your child might make better use of staff and other resources to feel safer in the schoolyard.

Looking Ahead
During the high school years, parent-teacher communication can deteriorate dramatically. Many parents simply give up, says Toronto high school teacher Kevin Stephenson. “That’s a bad idea,” he maintains, “because lack of parental involvement is inversely related to student achievement. I rarely see the parents of failing kids.”

The involved parents, in turn, divide into “helpers and pushers,” says Stephenson. “The pushers get hung up on marks and class averages. They view a 90-percent grade as a failure on my part. It makes it difficult for me to help their kids succeed and — more importantly — discover what they really want to do in life.” In contrast, “the helpers ask me for organizational or study tips, which is much more useful at this stage.”

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