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Tough Conversations With Your Child’s Teacher: A Guide from a Mom and Former Teacher

We’ve all been there: the kiddo comes home with a low grade or complaint about another student or teacher. If you are like most parents, approaching a potential conflict with your child’s teacher makes for murky and uncomfortable waters. When a student myself, my parents rarely intervened in my education. If I had an issue with a teacher, it was my responsibility to handle it appropriately. If I received a low grade, they considered it the natural consequence of not meeting the requirements set forth.

The days of helicopter parenting and technological advancements have ushered in a new era of teacher/parent communication. It’s much easier to fire off an email to a teacher with a concern than to sit down face-to-face. And consequently, tone and intent can easily be misconstrued—leading to further issues.

As a high school English teacher for twelve years and now a parent for nearly eight years, let me offer a well-rounded perspective derived from experience to approach conflict on both ends of the spectrum. Here are a few handy tips to effectively communicate with your child’s teacher while maintaining a positive relationship among all parties:

View and approach every conversation through the lens of partnership.

Both parents and teachers ultimately have one main goal in mind: to serve the best interests of the child. Even in the midst of conflict or differing opinions, remember that. Your child’s teacher is there to grow and educate your child. You are on the same team with the same goal. The best starting point with your teacher? Ask, “How can we best support at home your work in the classroom?”

By doing this, you recognize that learning doesn’t occur in the vacuum of a classroom. Learning extends to home and needs reinforcement and value placed on it. You value working in tandem to maximize your child’s education. And it shows the teacher that you are an ally—not an adversary. When you encounter conflicting opinions on a grade or assignment? Remember the same tactics you would use with any other partnership – compromise. Strong-arm techniques, condescension, and one-upping have no place in partnerships. Listening to each person’s point of view and seeing the merits of each side? That leads to open lines of communication and allows room for the right level of compromise.

Realize our children are not perfect.

Honestly? This is the hardest struggle as a parent. I speak from both teacher and parent perspectives. It used to infuriate me as a teacher to have a parent take the word of their child above mine as an adult. Then I had children. I empathize with those parents now. As parents, we naturally view our children’s successes and shortcomings as extensions of our own worth. It’s never easy to see our child make a mistake. But it happens. And you know what? It doesn’t mean we did anything wrong.

My son is his own person with his own complex personality, quirks, and strengths. He makes his own choices and his own mistakes. I reinforce classroom consequences within my own at home. And I recognize that as long as I am backing his teacher, he understands the weight of his choices. If I went to his defense every time? He would understand easily how to work the system. And it would undermine all the lessons and character that his teacher spends her day attempting to instill. The best approach? Come to the table with the teacher with an open mind. Recognize the student’s autonomy apart from ourselves. And trust the teacher’s account of what happened.

In parent meetings, no matter the age, have your child present.

Obviously, there are exceptions. Matters of a sensitive nature sometimes require an adults-only conference. However, in most cases? I would require my students to be present—especially if we were discussing their work, behavior, or progress. This method reinforces ownership and self-advocacy for the student. And it shows a united front between parent and teacher.

Many times, after Mom or Dad and I discussed the situation, I would turn to the student and ask, “How do you feel about this? Do you feel like what we are saying is accurate?” Let’s be honest – no matter how great our kiddos are, they know how to work the system to avoid trouble. We all have done it. It is human nature. By having all three parties present at the meeting, you eliminate the “he said/she said” tit-for-tat. This method opens the gateways for communication — while empowering students to have a voice in their own education.

Exercise patience and understanding.

Teachers don’t always get it right. They are human beings—just like the rest of us. Sometimes they make grading errors. Sometimes they judge situations inaccurately or say the wrong thing. As a teacher, even after all these years, those moments still haunt me. If I could take them back? I would a thousand times over. It’s tough in those first few years to separate your normal human reactions from the classroom. What normally merits a retort or a response now must be suppressed. Teachers condition themselves over time to separating their instinctive human reactions from being the adult in the room. But this takes time. Be patient with teachers. None of them are in this for the big bucks.

To give you a snapshot of a week in the life of an average teacher, here are just a smattering of duties they juggle: classroom management, grading, parent meetings, faculty meetings, IEP meetings, department meetings, collaborative group meetings, lesson planning, parent communication, website updates, class coverage, district meetings, professional development, evaluations and pre/post evaluation meetings, class sponsorship, club sponsorship, athletic coaching, tutoring, and data evaluation and assessment.

Yep. They handle all of this as a daily and weekly workload. Then they come home and switch into the all the routines we all do – laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning, homework with their own children, and attempting to be a human being. I’ll be honest. I taught a brief stint of elementary enrichment last year when we switched schools after my divorce. Now I believe that elementary and middle school teachers are earning crowns in heaven daily. How they manage to provide the building blocks of our children’s education? Beyond me. It was like herding cats. Give me high school students any day. It’s good for us as parents to come to the table with soft hearts and realize no sane person would endure a schedule like this if they weren’t in it for the right reason – to love and grow our children.

Never go ugly.

I’ve had some extremely contentious situations as both a parent and a teacher. I can say with all certainty that demeaning your child’s teacher (both to their face and/or in front of your child) ultimately does more damage to your child than to anyone else. When you speak ill of the teacher in front of your child, it gives them permission to be disrespectful. If you have a serious beef, handle it among adults. Leave the child out of that conversation.

Keep the focus on the child. I’ve been told that my marriage was in shambles and that must be why I was such an awful teacher (several months after I first married). I’ve been accused of undermining the family’s Christian values. And I’ve been told flat-out that I’m an awful human being. None of those conversations were productive. By name-calling and going low, you create an unavoidable rift between your child and his or her teacher. Maintaining the focus on the situation and staying away from character attacks makes coming to a reasonable solution is much more achievable.

Conversely, there have been times when I have had to be a “momma bear” because I legitimately saw a blatant illegal FERPA violation occur. In that instance, I addressed it calmly but firmly with the administration and the teacher. I had very clear documentation and desired outcomes. Remember: if you have to go into “momma bear” mode, your goal is to shelter and advocate for your cub. It is not to rage and tear down the entire place. Avoid ranting on social media about your child’s teacher. Trust me—it gets back.

Ultimately? Remembering rule number one is key to diplomacy. You and your child’s teacher are partners in one sole investment: your child’s well-being. If you view each situation through that lens, discerning the right approach to conflict is much more apparent, and your child will reap the benefits. After all, it takes a village, right?

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