by Angela V. Woodhull, Ph.D.
Alex looked perplexed. The teacher had just finished explaining how she wanted the class to tackle a group project. Alex moved his chair into a small group with six other students. The first thing the others said was, "What exactly are we supposed to be doing?" Everyone appeared to be confused. Alex raised his hand. "Could you give us more of an explanation?" The teacher declared, "You never pay attention! You should have paid attention in the first place!"
When Alex went home and complained about his teacher, his mother immediately strapped on her boxing gloves, so to speak, and confronted the teacher.
"Contrast that approach with kids who grew up in the 1950's," says elementary teacher Ted Fathen. "If a student complained about one of his teachers back then, the parent would punish the child twice." Today's parents are not so obliging. Somewhere between the 50's and now, Miss Smith ate the apple on her desk and lost her infallibility.
Teachers are Only Human
"Perhaps Alex's teacher was simply having a bad day," says Principal Jacque Cake. The manner in which a parent approaches a difficult teacher can make all the difference in how Alex is perceived for the remainder of the school year. The following is a workable approach for establishing rapport and solving disputes with your children's teachers.
Establish a Relationship at the Beginning of the School Year
Visit with your child's teacher during the fourth week of school (the first three weeks are hectic; give her a chance to get settled). If a misunderstand should occur at a later date, she'll remember you as the thoughtful parent who introduced yourself in a warm and professional manner. And chances are, she'll be more receptive to hearing your side.
Work as a Team
Try to see yourself as a partner working with your child's teacher. Both of you are concerned with your child's education. By viewing the teacher as an asset rather than an adversary, you can both work to build a plan that will benefit your child.
When a parent approached Sharlan Henry, a special education teacher, about her son's disciplinary problems, the two of them created a behavior modification reward system that could be used at home and in the classroom. "By teaming up, we were able to affect behavioral changes in both environments." Sharlan Henry explains. You may even want to bring your child in to discuss the situation. "Some of the most successful conferences are the ones where we include the child -- everyone hears the same thing at the same time," Laurel Schmidt of
Franklin Elementary in Santa Monica added.
"Parents need to get involved in some way," emphasizes PTA President Gae Calais. "They need to know what's going on in the classroom. It doesn't need to be the PTA or the Parent's Advisory Committee. Just volunteering in the classroom once a week for 30 minutes will do. Go on a field trip or have lunch on campus with your child. These little things help to strengthen the parent-teacher relationship."
Talk In Depth With Your Child Prior to Scheduling a Conference
'Often, when you probe a child's memory, you get details that were not expressed at first," says substitute teacher Frances Weintraub, who hears students' complaints all of the time. "The complaints are usually very general -- the teacher is 'mean,' 'unfair,' 'picks on me,' 'doesn't like me.' Get specific examples from your child. Exactly what did she say/do?"
Parents shouldn't assume that their child is right," says college professor Robert Selphon. "The child may not be telling the whole story . . . or even the truth."
Check with Other Sources
To make sure you have a strong, well grounded complaint, check with other parents beforehand. Does this teacher generally have a favorable reputation? Have other parents lodged similar complaints? "My son had a teacher in middle school who would fall asleep during class," says Calais. "He would put something on the board and say, 'Do it.' Occasionally, he would give a brief explanation." Calais contacted other parents and discovered that several complaints had already been lodged. By consulting with other parents, Calais built a stronger case.
Start with the Teacher
If you schedule a conference, talk with your child's teacher first. Many parents contact the school board or the principal first, but this only slows down the process. "If a parent comes to me with a problem, the first thing I ask is, 'Have you discussed this with the teacher?'" says Principal Gordon Morse of mark Keppel elementary in Glendale. After all, the teacher will have more information about what is happening in the classroom. ""As a professional, I feel that I know more about what's going on with my class than the principal," first grade teacher Jan Rosen states.
"I would want the parents to talk to me before they complained to my principal -- as a common courtesy to me," says Sharlan Henry.
Begin in a Friendly Manner
When you meet with the teacher, state the situation as facts, rather than accusations. Instead of saying, "My son isn't learning anything in your class," you can explain, "My son is having a difficult time with algebra." Instead of saying, "You are prejudiced!" tell the teacher exactly what your child quoted her as saying. "sometimes they accuse you before they find out the facts," says Jan Rosen. "They believe the child and they don't know everything. When parents begin by accusing, the teacher immediately gets defensive. This causes problems with communication because the teacher is upset and she just clams up," Rosen adds. Begin by explaining what your child perceives as the problem.
After stating your case in a rational, brief manner, invite the teacher to explain her side. "Sometimes the parents come in so upset and they just have bits and pieces of the story," says Rosen. Example: The child says, "The teacher didn't allow me to go to the bathroom," when, in fact, the child never asked permission.
"I think parents need to put their anger behind them. Come in rational. Accusations put the teacher on the defensive and set the wrong tone," says Morse.
Schedule a Conference with the Principal
If you can't get the results you want by working with the teacher, it's time to contact the principal. "The principal can provide the teacher with alternative strategies for dealing with the child," says Principal Jacque Cake.
Teachers are human. They have their good days and bad days. Contact them on other occasions to let them now they're doing a great job. "I've had teachers come to me and say, 'I hope nobody calls you today but I have had just an awful time. I have a cold and I said something I wish I hadn't," says Principal Cake. "They really wish parents would compliment them."
Angela V. Woodhull, Ph.D. is the author of Coping with Difficult Teachers (Schenkman Books), The New Time Manager (Gower Publishing), Police Communication in Traffic Stops, Easy Words: An Easy Way to Learn New Words, Private Investigative Strategies and Techniques, and the musical, "Remember Idora." Dr. Woodhull is available for speaking engagements, in-house training, consultations, seminars, and radio and TV interviews. Dr. Woodhull can be reached at (352) 327-3665.