Talking to the teacher

A positive parent-teacher relationship helps bring out the best in kids, but it's not always easy. Here are some tips from behind the desk

At least in elementary school, your child’s teacher ranks as one of the most important adults in his life. Sometimes you’ll immediately feel a bond with her and sometimes, well…you won’t. But one thing is for sure, says long-time Jasper, Alta., elementary schoolteacher Deborah Wood: “If the parent and teacher aren’t working together, they can’t support and assist the child to be the best he or she can be.” Read on for 10 tips to help you develop a supportive, open relationship with another fearless leader in your child’s life.

Make first contact before there’s an issue Meet-the-teacher night and other events early in the school year give you a chance to make nice before any issues arise. “That way the lines of communication are already open,” says Cathy Reimer, a grade- three teacher at Aldershot Elementary School in Kentville, NS. Similarly, if there’s something you want the teacher to know about your child — split living arrangements, medication that she takes — arrange to get together early in the school year for a more in-depth conversation.

Book a time to chat Parents sometimes drop in and ask to see Reimer out in the hall. But, as she points out, “I have 30 kids in the class and I can’t just leave them.” If it’s an emergency, Reimer advises, check in with the office so someone can come and relieve the teacher. If it’s not critical, wait until there’s a break or until the end of the day. And if you live in a small town, don’t corner the teacher at the grocery store or the kids’ baseball game, advises Wood. “Teachers have lives outside of the classroom and that has to be respected,” she says. “If it’s important enough to talk to the teacher about, it’s important enough to make an appointment.”

Keep the teacher in the loop “I really appreciate it when parents call to tell me about something that’s going on in the family — a divorce, or a death or illness,” says Kathy Fotia, a grade-seven teacher at Jack Chambers Public School in London, Ont. “It’s hard to talk about it, but I’m not going to blab. And if I know, I can keep an eye on the child, cut her a little more slack or give her a little extra TLC.”

Be a team player The teacher is the expert on the curriculum, but you are the expert on your child. Together, you can bring out the best in this budding individual. That means keeping abreast of his workload through homework hotlines, blogs or agendas, and ensuring your child does what is expected of him.

It also means that if you have an issue — perhaps you believe there’s too much homework or your child feels picked on in school — you should raise it calmly with the teacher and try to work out a remedy. Fotia, for example, got a call from a parent who was upset that her daughter was spending two hours a night on homework. When she looked into it, Fotia discovered that the young overachiever was slaving for hours over minor assignments. She came up with this solution: “I started to write on assignments how much time I thought the student should be spending, and how much it was worth.” If the parent hadn’t voiced her concerns, Fotia would have remained in the dark and the child would have continued to stress.

Don’t tattle If you have a bone to pick with the teacher, start by talking with her face to face. If you don’t get resolution, then go to the principal. Says Wood: “It’s common courtesy to let us speak for ourselves or explain why we did what we did. Otherwise, we feel like we have been ‘told on.’”

Keep the end point in mind If you’re meeting with a teacher over a touchy subject, advises Wood, ask yourself what your goals are. Do you want to ensure your child gets extra help in reading? Do you want the children who are bullying your child to stop? Do you want to share with the teacher some methods you’ve used to deal with your child’s behaviour? Write down your main points before the meeting and if you’re feeling emotional, have someone neutral read them over. Are you just going in to vent? Turn around and go home, advises Wood.

Try some talking tricks Once you’ve nailed down what you want to accomplish, Wood has some suggestions about how to get your message across. Her advice:

• Try the sandwich method. Start off positive: “I appreciate that you took the time to meet with me.” Follow up with the negative: “I just wanted to share my concern about.…” Then end positive: “So, this is what we’re going to do to resolve this issue. That’s great. Thanks again for sitting down to discuss this.”

• Assume good intentions. “You humiliated my child when you asked him to leave the room” sounds accusatory, suggests Wood. Instead, start with the presumption that the teacher’s intention wasn’t to cause shame and explain your child’s point of view: “For my son, being asked to leave the room was humiliating.”

• Mind your manners (you know, those courtesies you teach your kids): Say please and thank you, and don’t interrupt when someone else is speaking.

• Watch your body language. Crossed arms can make you look confrontational. Tapping your foot can leave the impression that you’re bored.

Listen with an open mind When the teacher tells you something about your child you’d rather not hear, you may find yourself becoming defensive — it’s human instinct to circle the wagons when you feel your child (or your parenting style) is under attack. But even though it can be tremendously difficult to admit that your child has a learning disability or a social or behavioural problem, you have to be able to acknowledge there’s an issue before you and the teacher can prepare a plan to deal with the situation.

Don’t open fire on the teacher Reimer once had a parent ream her out right in front of her class. Although the woman later apologized profusely, “it really damaged the relationship.” Reimer’s advice: When you’re very emotional, you’re probably not at your most rational, so wait a day or two before approaching the teacher.
If a meeting with a teacher is becoming too confrontational, suggests Wood, it’s time to reschedule. If you say something rash, you run the risk of placing your child in a difficult situation — in the middle of two grown-ups he is supposed to trust. Plus, you still have to communicate with the teacher, potentially for as long as 10 months.

Offer a pat on the back now and then Just as parents love to receive a sunshine call (“Just calling to tell you I think your kid is great”), teachers love to get positive feedback: “I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done for our family.” That simple remark was one of Fotia’s favourite “gifts” from a parent whose four kids she taught. “To me it was worth far more than a $20 gift certificate from Starbucks,” says Fotia.

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