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If you’re the parent of school-aged children, you’re probably still well acquainted with 4:00 am. This is when you once fed your hungry babies and nursed them through bouts of whooping cough, ear infections, and tummy aches that shook you out of your dreamless half-sleep. Those were the days when you assumed you’d return to full nights of sleep once your babies grew older and started school, weren’t they? Yeah, me too. Ah, to be young and naive.
While it’s true that the parents of school-aged children may have more hours of uninterrupted sleep available to them, when their kids are unhappy, it goes unused. Those babies eventually go to school, and when they do, they introduce us to a world of new dilemmas: foreign routines, separation anxiety, learning problems, performance issues, and social tension.
Great teachers help children assess their strengths and needs. They help them develop a growth mindset and self-advocacy skills that help them negotiate the scary stuff and thrive. They teach kids how to name what they need, and they work hard to help them get those needs met, even if it means changing their preferred approaches or plans.
And when this doesn’t happen, we’re awake at 4:00 am again, wondering how to help our kids.
Often, the solution involves problem solving with our child and the teacher. This makes sense.
What happens when the teacher is not responsive or even critical when we reach out, though? What if the teacher resorts to shaming or blaming us or our children rather than practicing empathy and working with us to find solutions? What if the teacher is truly terrible: unprofessional, uninformed about your child’s needs, and unaware of best practices?
Well, this is often where our blood pressure begins to rise, and when it does, we consider schooling the terrible teacher. But you must be careful to use the right approach. When you take the teacher to school, consider this.
Schooling the Terrible Teacher: 10 Things Parents Should Never Do
1. Don’t do anything until your child has advocated for himself or herself. Coach your kids to define their real problems and teach them how to share them respectfully with their teachers. Then, check in afterward. Most of the time, teachers will respond in incredibly helpful and sensitive ways, and you will have no need to get involved. Sometimes, this doesn’t happen, or for a variety of reasons, it just isn’t possible. The fact is that the student-teacher relationship is inequitable, and an imbalance of power will always exist. Great teachers are sensitive to this and create classroom cultures that work to level the field a bit, so children are able to effectively advocate for themselves. This is the ideal. If that’s not your reality and your child gains no satisfaction from practicing self-advocacy, it’s your responsibility to do so on his or her behalf. Never feel guilty about that.
2. Don’t join leadership committees because you’re angry and you see this as a vehicle for “making a difference.” These groups exist for the benefit of the entire school community, and they are typically places where positive stories are shared and where inspiring, systems-wide work is accomplished. Don’t pollute their plans and compromise their time by making their work all about your family’s needs. Don’t assume that those needs are shared by others, either. If they are, create a different forum for problem solving.
3. Don’t complain about teachers on social media. Unless the teacher in question has been convicted of a crime which stands to put uninformed families at risk, never complain about or mock a teacher in your social media groups. This is gossiping at best and bullying at worst. This is how reputations and careers are compromised, and the fact that the teacher isn’t present to share his or her perspective is incredibly unfair. Inviting other parents to pile on the bandwagon of your dissatisfaction does nothing to solve the problem, and it brings out the worst in everyone.
4. Don’t show up unannounced. Most teachers work with dozens of children every day, and most have dozens of lessons to prepare each week as well. Ambushing them outside of their classroom door or in the parking lot at the end of the day is no way to get your needs met. The most talented and patient teachers will not have good answers for you when they are approached this way. If they’re going to help you, they will need time to reflect on the problem you are sharing and to gather good information.
5. Don’t call for meetings without sharing your questions ahead of time. Requesting a sit-down without explaining your needs is anxiety producing and it doesn’t help to solve the problem. If you want teachers to provide helpful answers and meaningful solutions, give them as much time as possible to consider them carefully so they can plan to help. This will make your meeting much more productive.
6. Don’t discuss the teacher with other staff members. Your relationship with this teacher and your needs are unique. So are their relationships and their experiences with one another. If you’re seeking validation, turn to the teacher first and expect that your needs will be met. There is no better validation. If they aren’t, speak to the person directly responsible for supervising that teacher. If this person is unresponsive or unable to resolve the problem, speak to the person responsible for supervising that administrator. Follow the chain of command, and give everyone within it ample time and opportunity to really help you.
7. Don’t expect your child’s teacher to embrace your preferred practices. You may be an experienced teacher or well informed parent yourself. You may also have a clear vision for how things should be done. You might be wrong, and even if you aren’t, those best practices that work in one context may not work in others. Expect that this teacher is working hard to employ the best practice for your kid. Share information and perspective that can inform the thinking behind that work, but don’t assume you know what’s best.
8. Don’t forget that teachers are human too. They come to school sick, having spent all night caring for the sick, overwhelmed by a thousand other duties they have to attend to, and often, lacking confidence about the difference they’re making on any given day and even their abilities to do so. If your kid tells you that his teacher was distant or grumpy on a given day, speak with your child about these realities and help him develop a bit of empathy. If your kid tells you that his teacher is consistently unkind, cold, or shaming, this is worth exploring with the teacher.
9. Don’t expect (or worse, demand) an immediate response. Teachers are on their feet, teaching all day. They aren’t on their computers waiting for parents to email them, and they aren’t able to take messages or return calls easily either. When they aren’t teaching, their time is consumed by planning and meetings with other colleagues. Leave a message and wait a day or two. If you don’t hear back, leave another. Wait a week to reach out to someone else, unless the problem will be made much worse by doing so.
10. Don’t remain silent. Approaching teachers with questions or concerns is rarely comfortable, which is why many parents decide not to act at all. This is a tremendous mistake. Our children need to know that when they share real needs with us, we will help them find real solutions.
If you’ve coached your children to advocate for themselves, if you’ve approached the teacher directly and respectfully, and if you’ve taken care to set your child and the teacher up for successful problem solving, you have much to be proud of, even if your anxiety is telling you otherwise. Parents who fail to speak up often set the stage for increased frustration, and as kids become more unhappy, they do too. This is when they start doing things that no parent should ever do.
I hope these ideas bring you a bit of peace and provide a pathway toward satisfying resolutions the next time you find yourself wide-eyed and worried about your child at 4:00 am.
Years from now, your child will be able to thank you for having the courage to ask hard questions and advocate for what was needed without resorting to disrespectful tactics or unkind behaviors.
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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.