How should parents approach their child’s teacher? This is a topic not generally covered on back-to-school night. As a parent of an elementary school student, I realize how daunting it can be to contact his teacher with a concern. Yet, as a former teacher, I also understand that early and respectful conversations between parents and a child’s teacher can have a lasting impact on that child’s relationship with school.
So, what’s the best way to connect?
First, make sure that contacting the teacher is necessary. Information about an assignment or a class is now available online. Adam Waltzer, a high school science teacher at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland, Wash., explains that parents should “work with the student to accumulate as much related information as possible from the class website or online grade book” before approaching the child’s teacher.
Double-checking when a project was assigned — and what the instructions are — is a simple way for parents to gain insight and perspective before entering what could become a tense conversation.
Once parents are certain that the issue cannot be resolved at home, they should ask the teacher for help. David Burroughs, principal of Sacred Heart School in Bellevue, Wash., knows parents are often anxious about initiating a dialogue with their child’s teacher. “Meeting with your child’s teacher shouldn’t be any more intimidating than meeting with your child’s pediatrician,” he says. “Approach your child’s teacher as you would any other adult professional.”
Burroughs suggests contacting a child’s teacher early in the year, before problems arise. An email mentioning how much a child is enjoying the first few days of class can set up communications on a positive note.
Next, think email, not phone calls, when you initiate that conversation. “Often, I can read an email and even send off a simple response, if called for, in less time than it takes to punch all the buttons on the phone to check voicemail,” says sixth-grade teacher Gena McReynolds, who teaches at Sacred Heart.
Monica Adair, a teacher at Alexander Graham Bell Elementary school in Kirkland, agrees. “It is difficult to talk on the phone or meet with parents during the school day, and I want to be able to give my full attention to the issue,” she says. And keep the tone friendly, they advise. Approaching the issue as if there’s just been a “simple misunderstanding” helps.
If you feel you need to schedule a face-to-face meeting, consider whether the child is ready to be his or her own advocate. Self-advocacy can start with a student guiding the meeting, helping to explain the problem and offering suggestions.
When McReynolds’ own daughter, 9-year-old Megan, had difficulty completing her homework, McReynolds set up a meeting with Megan’s teacher, but let Megan drive the discussion. “I went with Megan for moral support, but she did all the talking. Her confidence greatly improved.”
Students can discuss their concerns with their teacher from a very early age. Jayme Harris, who was Megan’s third-grade teacher at Sacred Heart, notes how important it is that even young students “begin to take responsibility for reasons why their homework was not completed on time and what they can do to be sure it gets completed in a timely manner.” Working together, parents and teachers can help a child gain independence, so that by the time the child reaches high school, self-advocacy comes naturally.
Seattle dad Jack Nolan encouraged his children (16-year-old twins and a college junior) to take control of their education by talking to their teachers as soon as they were old enough to complain about a problem. Self-advocacy, he says, is “a life skill. Kids need to know how to ask questions with tact.”
Keep it positive
When a teacher has been engaged with a parent in a constructive way, the teacher is more likely to take small problems seriously. And that kind of positivity can help keep a situation from escalating. Patti Mintz, a Woodinville, Wash., parent of a 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, kept a conversation going with her son’s teacher after another child teased him when he was in second grade. “I knew she would get to the bottom of it quickly,” says Mintz. “I felt better knowing that my son was being protected, even when I couldn’t be there.”
Although parents worry about interfering, most issues are easier to resolve in the early stages, before the child loses confidence, teachers report. A quick note from a parent to the teacher when the situation is still relatively calm is not intrusive, and can be very effective.
Although teachers can handle most conflicts, a school administrator may sometimes need to get involved. But approach the teacher first, says Burroughs. “You wouldn’t want a colleague or client calling your boss before talking with you. Neither does your child’s teacher.” Burroughs is happy to take part in discussions — but only after the teacher and parent have attempted to work toward a solution together, or when the issues are “about the larger policies or programs of the school,” he says.
Remember that teachers are professionals. Parents who trust their child’s teacher and approach problems with an open mind will create a relationship that benefits the child and allows for quick resolutions. McReynolds, who encourages her sixth-graders to tackle their own issues before taking them home to a parent, offers this reminder: “Give the teacher a chance to explain or put a plan into place. Ask questions and listen. Remember, everyone wants what’s best for the child.”
Jessica Minier Mabe is a private tutor and writer. Her work is featured on her award-winning blog, where she publishes essays, movie reviews, stories and poems, as well as photographs and craft projects. She lives with her partner and their three children.
When to connect
Before contacting your child’s teacher, ask yourself:
1. How serious is this? Assess how urgent the matter is. Keep it simple and involve as few people as necessary.
2. Can we solve this at home? Check the assignment’s instructions and other resources, such as the class calendar.
3. Could this problem be the result of a misunderstanding? Remind yourself that your child may be mistaken and give the teacher the benefit of the doubt.
4. Can my child advocate for himself? Try to facilitate a meeting that is student-led or that does not involve you at all.
5. What outcomes will work for all of us? Consider a range of solutions and be prepared to compromise.