How to interact with your child's teacher

By Nancy Fornasiero on July 29, 2013
The parent seminar had a lofty, serious title: the Importance of Family Engagement. Our local school board sponsored it and brought in a big name speaker to match: Dr. Karen Mapp, director of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Dr. Mapp stressed that “trust and respect between school and home is key to student success.”

If only it were that simple. As both a mom and a teacher, I know it’s not. I left the talk wondering if parents are making the most of this vital relationship. Do they trust and respect teachers? And do those feelings go both ways? Rather than rely on my limited experience, I decided to interview several educators from across the country.

The consensus? Teachers were very positive about their interactions with us parents. We’re generally described as supportive and respectful. When pressed, however, they did confess that a few of our habits irk them. Interestingly, the same issues popped up again and again, whether in a rural or urban setting, whether in Grade 1 or Grade 8. A pattern emerged… there seem to be nine distinct “types” of parents who could use some pointers.

Any chance you see yourself?

Meet the teachers

Twelve educators were interviewed for this story. Since we insisted on utmost honesty, we agreed to use pseudonyms. Of course, they don’t necessarily represent every teacher everywhere. The best thing you can do is make time each year to get to know your own child’s teacher, then build a rapport based on that individual’s style and preferences.

Lori teaches Grades 5/6 in West Vancouver
Marlene teaches Grade 2/3 in Toronto
Chris teaches Grade 6 in Porter’s Lake, N.S.
David teaches Grade 7 in Burlington, Ont.
Beth teaches Grade 5 in Winnipeg
Sean is a principal in Oakville, Ont.
Debra is a Special Education Resource Teacher in Montreal
Denyse teaches Grade 1 in Markham, Ont.
Marisa teaches Grade 6 in Toronto
Kristen teaches Grade 5 in Port Moody, B.C.
Anne teaches Grade 1 in Toronto
Alison teaches Grades 7/8 in Winnipeg

The monopolizer: Do you occupy a disproportionate amount of the teacher’s time and energy?

Overwhelmingly, teachers say we are very reasonable and a pleasure to collaborate with. However, a few of us are described as “extremely self-centered and demanding.” (Yikes!) Lori says, “These parents believe that their child is extremely special and should be my top priority.” But, like all teachers, she has many students and they all need equal care and attention. Chris says: “Some parents forget that you have 25, 26, or more other students in the classroom, as well as their parents to deal with.”

Don’t expect a teacher to give your son or daughter preferential treatment or demand daily updates of them. It’s just not realistic.

The tattle-tale: Do you go “straight to the top” with every concern?

Teachers agree that parents are absolutely within their rights to speak to administration when issues cannot be resolved. Denyse says: “I would always prefer the parent ask for a meeting with me to discuss concerns, but I’m also willing to hear from them with or through my administrator. This can make me feel defensive, but I try to always be open to parents’ concerns.”

Speak to your child’s teacher first, says Marisa. “It sets a cooperative tone when the teacher is addressed directly, and usually problems are resolved more efficiently.”

The town crier: Do you find it easier to complain with your friends than to have a real, constructive dialog with a teacher or administrator?

Kristen expressed dismay at parents who refuse to communicate with her directly. Griping with pals is even less effective than going to straight to the principal, since concerns will never get any airtime this way. Plus, it just promotes a bad cycle of negativity in the school community. “Parents should feel comfortable asking the teacher anything,” says Anne. “We are supposed to be partners on this educational journey.”

Discuss issues with the teacher instead of complaining to other parents, says Anne. “Really, we can usually work things out!”

The fixer: Can you not bear to see your child struggle or fail?

Do you often deliver forgotten textbooks, make excuses for poor homework, or participate a little too fully in your son or daughter’s projects? “I wish parents would let students figure out more things on their own,” says Debra. “It’s so important for them to learn, make mistakes and grow. They won’t be able to do this if the parent is always helping them out.” David agrees, saying that many parents don’t let the child grow in responsibility. “They make excuses for behaviour instead of allowing him or her to suffer the consequences and learn.”

Resist the urge to intervene. For teachers who are trying to impart lessons of responsibility and accountability, swooping in to the rescue can be very counterproductive.

The virtual parent: Do you avoid face-to-face interaction and opt to express your dissatisfaction via email?

Some teachers prefer email to written notes or phone calls. Others don’t use it much. Still, there are two key points about virtual communication that everyone agrees upon. First, email should never be used for resolving serious or sensitive issues. “It’s good for quick, factual responses,” says Sean, but for bigger questions “meeting in person is always best to understand tone, intention, body language.” Second, don’t vent in an email. Alison had an experience recently with threatening emails. “One even included flaming, where the parent was yelling by writing in capital letters.” Obviously, if a teacher feels attacked, it’s unlikely that the problem will be resolved smoothly.

Get to know your child’s teacher’s preferences every year and try to accommodate it as best you can.

The blind believer: Do you forget to take your child’s version of a story with a grain of salt?

I’ve been guilty of this one – trust me, it’s humbling to discover that you should not have accepted your child’s truth so readily. “I think parents forget that what they have been told at home is reported through a child’s filter,” says Beth. Kids may have their own reasons to share or withhold vital information.

Get both sides of the story before making a judgment. Checking with the teacher first can often clarify the situation and avoid turning it into a problem, says Alison.

The surprise visitor: Do you drop by the classroom for a “quick chat” with the teacher?

If so, you may be unwittingly driving him or her crazy. Teachers are more receptive to conversations with us when they’re not in the midst of doing the most important part of their job: teaching! Lori says, “You wouldn’t walk into your doctor’s offi ce and do this.” Other tips? “It’s nice to be contacted by email or note to give me a heads-up that you have a concern before discussing it,” says David.

Don’t talk with the teacher about issues you have in front of your child. That’s a big nono. Arrange a suitable meeting time.

The squeaky wheel: Do you only contact the teacher to air a concern or grievance?

The squeaky wheel parent only appears when there’s a complaint – otherwise he or she is invisible. “Don’t just contact us when a problem arises,” says Alison. “If a parent shows they’re involved in their child’s education, I am more at ease when communicating.” Volunteering is an excellent way to establish a rapport with school staff. This way, if problems arise, you can address them together as allies. “Teachers love helpful parents,” says Lori. “As a volunteer you get a sneak peek into the learning environment.” If your schedule doesn’t allow for volunteering, try to be involved in a positive way on a day-to-day basis. Marlene advises parents to “return calls, respond to notes, come to interviews, read the agenda” and generally keep in touch.

Establish a good working relationship in the beginning, so that when problems arise, it is less stressful for parent, teacher and student and problems are easier to resolve.

The denier: Do you find it hard to accept that your child may have “certain academic limitations?”

“Sometimes when a child has diffi culties, the parent has trouble accepting his child’s learning difference,” says Marisa. Debra adds, “With parents who do not yet understand the limitations of their child, fear arises and can sometimes be blamed on the messenger.” Remember that teachers are looking out for the student’s best interests. When parents insist a child doesn’t need extra assistance, it’s the student who suffers, says Alison. “I’ve dealt with parents who continued to push, although the child just wasn’t capable of meeting their expectations.”

Be open and listen. Even though we know our children best, educators’ expertise and experience can shed light on strengths or weaknesses that we wouldn’t have otherwise recognized.

In conclusion...

Dr. Mapp’s studies have proven that family engagement leads to students with higher levels of achievement, faster literacy acquisition, and better social skills. One of the fi rst steps we can take in the effort to “engage” is to get to know our teachers and then partner with them in a healthy way.

Remember, the only parent type less valuable than those listed is the “zeroinvolvement parent”… so even if you recognized a little bit of yourself here, you get bonus marks for being in the game!

Nancy Fornasiero is an Oakville, Ont.-based freelance writer and mother of three. An engaged parent as well as a former teacher, she has had plenty of real-life experience with both sides of this relationship.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2013.

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