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How to talk to your kid's school teacher

As a parent and a former award-winning teacher and literacy trainer, I know what excellence looks like in the classroom and, on the other end of the spectrum, what can kill a child’s love of learning. So earlier this year, when I saw my daughter and the other 25 kindergarteners all working on the exact same letter-sound worksheets for months on end, wasn’t it my responsibility to speak up? The kids were bored, and soon my daughter stopped wanting to go to school and said she only liked recess. I realized that her learning needs – and those of many of her classmates – weren’t being met. They were ready for words, for real books, for something new to learn. Shouldn’t they be given different classwork?

Of course I know firsthand that teaching is a difficult job; classrooms are filled with different types of learners, some of whom have special needs. And, yes, it’s hard to adapt classwork so that all learners are challenged. But I’ve also been a teacher and understand what my daughter and her classmates need to learn, and it isn’t a pre-set, everyone-on-the-same-page curriculum.

Still, the next step – addressing my concerns about my child’s classrooms – felt tricky. How can you talk to a teacher without undermining the good work going on in the classroom? What’s the best way to make sure your point is considered? To get the appropriate strategy and protocol, I asked three experts – a school principal, a teacher, and a mediator – to share their thoughts on how to talk to teachers. Here’s what they told me:

From the Principal:

I encourage all parents to be timely, forthright, honest, and respectful when expressing concerns with teachers. Definitely approach the teacher directly, as he is the most knowledgeable source regarding classroom situations. It is sometimes frustrating as a principal to receive a phone call about a test or homework issue when I am not the person who has firsthand knowledge of that situation. Go to the source!

Always put the child’s needs first. Explain in detail what you see as the concern and how it’s affecting your child. Be sure to listen to the teacher’s perspective and ask questions if you do not understand any of the information they provide. Offer to meet with the teacher to discuss in more detail. Ask the teacher what you can do to support his or her educational efforts. Work together to put a plan in place for how the issue can be resolved, including follow-up communication from both the parent and teacher. If a parent meets resistance after attempting to work collegially with the teacher, I do believe it is appropriate to consult with the school principal.

Lyn Hilt, K-6 Principal and Tech Integrator/Coach

From the Teacher:

It’s important to discuss issues face-to-face or over the phone. Email can be misinterpreted too easily.

Try to go to the teacher before talking to too many other people. I can certainly understand wanting to bounce ideas off of a couple of other parents (done it myself) … but don’t wait too long.

Approach with a smile and a positive attitude … it’s contagious!

Show appreciation for the teacher’s job; it will take him/her off of the defensive.

And as with anyone, sandwich negative comments between positive comments if possible.

Diane Dahl, second-grade teacher and a BrainSMART grad student

From the Mediator:

I always think numbers are the key. This means talk to other parents to gain their insights. Once the ideas and options are brainstormed, I recommend sharing them with the teacher and asking to invite the principal to the discussion. The sharing should also include the parents that were involved.

A united front illustrates the importance of this issue. This is not just one parent battle; this is a battle of the majority of the parents. By showing numbers the teacher and/or principal begin realizing something needs to change; maybe not immediately but sometime. Maybe they could have you and the parents be part of a committee that can brainstorm and lead implementation.

We must remember that teachers are humans and are living an experience that we aren’t fully engulfed in. We really don’t know what it is like to be a teacher in today’s classroom. We need to provide the teachers with the capability of educating the parents about what is going on and then in unity figure out or brainstorm some potential solutions, options.

Elizabeth Suarez, Facilitator, Mediator, Speaker, Trainer, and Author

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