How to start a conversation with your child’s teacher.
A letter home, a bullying incident, a missed opportunity, goals not being reached, your child being singled out to be told off or punished, or just a general concern are just some of the reasons you might want to talk to your child’s teacher. However, there are some ways to ruin this relationship within the first few minutes of conversation, and equally ways to make sure that you and your child’s teacher are on the same page in regards to their education and wanting what’s best for your student.
The first and most important thing is do not go in to school, or ring up shouting and swearing. Teachers are doing their job and doing it to the best of their abilities. If you have a genuine concern about a teacher’s behavior or abilities, you need to be calling the head teacher or someone else on the management team. If not, then you need to be talking to the teacher as a professional.
Educational Consultant Ann Welch offers some perspective. “If you are a parent, close your eyes and think of your child on his or her worst day. Now, imagine dealing with 25 other children at the same time. This is the life of the teacher.” (Link)
Speaking as a teacher I cannot describe the feeling that hits the pit of my stomach when I get a note passed into class by one of the worried admin “Mrs. Smith wants to talk.” The closest I can come to it is when I was a child and I was sent to the principal’s office. Except in this case the story has been filtered through the child that doesn’t want to get in trouble, so now I’m going to face the wrath of an angry parent. Did you know that many teachers will make sure they have support in case the parent attacks them? You can understand why many teachers are on the defensive before you’ve even opened your mouth.
So starting the conversation. Check your school’s website, or the information you have. Many schools give out email addresses, or key contact telephone numbers. If not ask at reception, there should be a way to contact your child’s personal tutor, and hopefully some of their subject tutors.
Decide if you want information, a telephone call, or a face to face meeting. Remember that written information can be taken the wrong way, so if it’s important it’s worth a phone call or an actual meeting.
What information do you need, or are you passing on, is your child falling behind and you want to know what they need to do to get back on track, or are you concerned about a specific incident. Be clear about why you’re contacting them.
Start the conversation with something positive. Trust me the teacher may be as worried as you are. Has your child progressed in some meaningful way that you can list, or does this teacher have interesting lessons? Find something to start with that puts the conversation on the right footing.
Mary Fowler, a teacher and author of Maybe Your Know My Son, also stresses the importance of being positive and remaining in control of your emotions. “If you come into a meeting bubbling over with anger, it hurts your credibility,” says Fowler. “The teacher is more likely at that point to view the problem as something coming from home rather than the classroom.”
No I don’t mean “What are you going to do about it?” Is your darling Jane coming home saying she’s being bullied? Ask if the teacher has noticed anything, are their anyways that the matter can be handled discretely, or do they think it’s worth taking further. Is Max falling behind in maths? Ask the teacher what are his predicted grades, and where is he missing out? Does he need a tutor in their opinion, and what can be done to turn this round?
It may seem like an odd one, but the number of parents that I’ve sat across the desk from that are totally tuned out and not listening to a work I say is astounding.
“Amy says you’re picking on her in class” (yes that is a real conversation starter from the parents of a 17-year-old girl.)
“I’m afraid I haven’t seen Amy for 8 weeks, the truancy officer has been trying to get in touch with you.”
“How do you expect her to learn if you shout at her every time she doesn’t get the answers right.”
“I’m afraid as well as not turning up to my classes Amy has never handed in a homework, takes no part in class discussions and hasn’t turned up to any of her exams. I can assure you I’ve never shouted at her over anything, especially not answers to questions.”
“If you keep picking on her I’ll sue you.”
The conversation went on much like that, part way through I considered starting to talk about unicorns and rainbows, because it was clear that we were having two different conversations.
Let the teacher talk, and practice reflective listening.
Teacher. “Liam tends to be disruptive in class, shouting out and getting out his seat.”
So now you need to show them you’ve been listening, so rephrase the question and reflect it back.
You. “I’ll be having a discussion with Liam about that behavior, shouting out and not sitting properly is not acceptable.”
Now ask a question.
“Do you think he’s struggling with the work, or being distracted.”
Stay on topic.
Remember the information you wanted, or the topic you needed to discuss, that’s what you’re there to discuss, deal with that one problem here and now, other issues can be dealt with at a later date.
Work towards a solution.
What do you want to happen, I’m by no means saying you’ll get your own way, but it’s a starting point? Worried about bullying? Make it stop is not a solution, do you want the teacher to have a word with the other students? The bully’s expelled from school? Or maybe your child need an older student as a person to talk to. Do you think your child needs extra help in school, or do you want a list of missed topics so that you can work with a personal tutor? Have a goal in mind, but at the same time be prepared to change your direction if it works out that the teacher has a different goal in mind. Try and find a solution that keeps everyone happy.
Mostly remember you are both trying for the same thing, a happy educated child, you both have good days and bad days, and each of you is getting about half the story. Finally ask one question of your teacher that shows you know you have a role in the solution as much as they do.
“How can I help?”