Parents and Teachers
by Julia Sneden
“That woman just doesn’t like my child,” my young friend Emma cried. “I don’t understand teachers like that. Gus has always done well in school. He’s a great kid but now he’s floundering. You know what he said to me? ‘I like Ms. Thomas, but I don’t think she likes me.’ It about broke my heart.”
It was tempting to jump in and condemn the teacher on the face of what Emma told me, but having been on the other side of a similar situation, I found myself hesitating to comment on what I hadn’t myself experienced.
There was a time when I had to tell the mother of a terrific little boy named Juan that I really felt he needed another year in kindergarten. He was small for his age, as well as being the youngest in the class, and he was extremely immature and twitchy in the way that children are when they’re placed in situations for which they aren’t ready. He was also very bright and articulate and just plain lovable.
“You don’t like my child,” his mother snapped, and then she burst into tears. It was all I could do not to join her. By the end of a school year, children who demand a lot of attention and need a huge amount of a teacher’s energy are usually wound tightly around that teacher’s heartstrings. That was certainly the case with Juan and me, and I had been dreading his parent conference for weeks. Delivering bad news is no fun.
It took a lot of persuasion to convince Juan’s mother that she and I were really on the same side, i.e. Juan’s side, wanting only what was best for him.
The long and short of that tale is that Juan did indeed spend another year with me. When he graduated from sixth grade, his mother came back to thank me for my wisdom. I didn’t tell her that the call I made wasn’t wisdom, just a hope that retention would help the child. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t, which is why I rarely recommended it.
Last April, there was an article in The New York Times¹ entitled “Adults’ Differing Perceptions Make It Hard to Read Johnny,” reporting on a study by Timothy R. Konold, coordinator of research, statistics and evaluation at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.
“Educators have generally assumed that the teacher is right [in assessing a child’s performance],” Dr. Konold points out. “Teachers have a whole classroom of kids to use as a standard ... and can compare him with others.”
Parents, on the other hand, may well have important information to share, inasmuch as they are the ones who truly know the child.
Tallying both parent and teacher concerns about students, Konold found that parents felt a child’s “internal traits” were most important, for example depression or anxiety or physical problems. The teachers, however, focused on “external traits,” i.e. delinquent or aggressive behavior.
If that is truly the case, it is no wonder that parent conferences are often frustrating for both sides. It seems to me that a few simple guidelines could make a huge difference.
In the first place, both parties need to be sure they are seeing the same child. If they aren’t, they need to figure out why. Is the child over-stimulated by the presence of so many of his peers? Is she intimidated by them? What can be causing the difference between the child’s classroom behavior and home behavior?
In the second place, keeping things non-confrontational is important: parent and teacher need to be reminded that they’re truly on the same side, the side of the student. They may differ as to what will be helpful, but they mustn’t lose sight of their shared purpose. Responses to the problem can then be negotiated without anger.
Parents need to come prepared to fill in the gaps if the teacher asks questions. For instance, if the child has been behaving disruptively, is there anything going on at home that has upset him?
Parents should be accorded their rightful place as the child’s first teachers, and treated as colleagues (or maybe co-conspirators) in the educational plan. In recognition of this, teachers need to listen, not just to talk.
They also need to be prepared to back up any observations they make. For a disruptive student, written input from specialist teachers (art, P.E., music, etc.) who have observed the same behaviors can be helpful. For cases of extreme disruptive behavior, a video tape made during a normal day can help. So can the report of an administrator who has been called in to observe a classroom session.
But most important of all for both sides of the parent/teacher equation is the cessation of hostility. Too often parents enter the room in a confrontational mode. Too often the teachers react defensively. Nothing positive will be accomplished in such a situation.
According to a young friend of mine who is majoring in Education, an entire week of her “Classroom Management” seminar was devoted to dealing with parents. And not once did anyone mention the “we’re on the same side” approach. Instead, the emphasis was on legal protection, physical protection, and – briefly – the importance of having an organized presentation.
That’s a sad comment on the fact that these days, teaching can be a dangerous profession. I’d hate to think that there was no better advice to give to a young person about to become a teacher.
Maybe we need to start by taking a close look at the schools of Education!
¹ New York Times, April 26, 2006: “Adults’ Differing Perceptions Make It Hard to Read Johnny” by John O’Neil