I’m no stranger to speaking up for my kids at school.
Both my kids have needed help handling the social and academic expectations of the classroom. At times, this has required me to reach out to their teachers for clarification (“Are you seeing in class what I’m seeing at home?”), or as translator (“When he gets anxious he blurts out answers.”). No problem.
Sometimes, however, I have to take on the role of advocate (“She needs to be able to eat a snack before lunch to help her concentrate.”) and challenger (“I’d like to talk to you about something that’s concerning me.”).
This is hard to do, because I wrestle with something I’ve craved ever since I was a kid: I want the teacher to like me.
Seeking teacher approval
Well, not like me so much as approve of me. I want the teacher to respect me as a reasonable, intelligent person; not one of “those” parents who wants to shield her kids from failure, or who thinks they’re exempt from the rules because of their extreme specialness. (Hello, Minimalist Parenting co-author here!)
I also want the teacher to see me as a partner: someone on his or her side who shares the same goal — for my kid to thrive in school.
Usually, I find my way just fine. Empathy and tact are two of my superpowers, so I’ve always worked well with teachers and administrators — even in tricky situations.
But I still struggle every time I have to bring up a problem. It’s hard to be my kid’s school advocate when I spent my formative years deferring to a teacher’s authority.
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I’m writing about it because I know I’m not alone. Parent-teacher relationships can be complicated and the rules change every year. Teachers are under immense pressure to serve crowded classrooms full of kids with diverse needs, all while juggling the demands of parents, administrators, and the system. Parents have limited visibility into the classroom, but also know their kids better than anyone.
And — let’s be honest — everyone’s got baggage. Both parents and teachers have preconceptions, biases, and blind spots. It’s human nature.
8 steps for productive conversations with teachers
Here’s a practical roadmap for broaching tricky conversations with teachers. Hopefully it will help you handle the tension between advocating for your kids and wanting approval. Everyone’s situation is different, of course. This doesn’t address serious teacher/parent conflict; more the day-to-day bumps during the school year that require some work to smooth out.
1. Start by talking to the teacher.
Don’t avoid an uncomfortable conversation by calling the principal. Respect the teacher enough to address the problem kindly but directly.
2. Before you say anything, express appreciation for the teacher’s hard work.
The teacher doesn’t work for you, she works for a system in which you are one of the players. No matter what has brought you to the table, know that she works hard, often with very little support, every day. Acknowledge this.
3. State your concern using straightforward language, with a neutral tone of voice.
Be friendly, but avoid an overly-casual “no big deal” approach. Minimize chit-chat and getting to the point relatively quickly.
4. Adopt the perspective of a collaborator who’s there to address a mutual problem.
You both share the same goal: for your kid to succeed in school. Ask the teacher, “How can we work together on this?” Or, “What can I do to help clarify things?” In my experience, just about every teacher wants to help, and appreciates the partnership.
5. Really listen to the teacher’s response.
This is harder than it seems because it’s next to impossible to stay neutral about your kid. At the same time, you might be fighting the urge to quickly agree with the teacher so as to avoid confrontation. But do your best to pause and listen. Be open to the notion that he might see a different side of your child in the classroom than you see at home. Acknowledge the teacher’s perspective and validate what you can, while remembering that you have valid input and every right to your concerns. Pause before responding so you can gather your thoughts.
The problem may be solved — sometimes all it takes is clear communication to find a resolution. Or you might have more work to do, but at least now you have a fuller picture of the situation.
6. If necessary, rephrase your concern taking the teacher’s response into account.
As you restate your concern, demonstrate that you heard and understood the teacher’s input. (Tip: “I hear what you’re saying, but…” isn’t the best approach.) Repeat Steps 5 and 6 as necessary. (Hopefully it won’t be necessary.)
7. Accept that sometimes you won’t be heard.
Most of my conversations with teachers have been wonderful (or at least effective). But once or twice I’ve been dismissed as unreasonable or overreactive even though my tact and communication settings were cranked up to 10, and it was clear that I wasn’t making excuses for my kid (or myself). For an approval-seeker like me, this felt terrible.
But it wasn’t the end of the world. I got over it.
Try not to panic or give up. Sometimes there’s history you just can’t control or the teacher is too exhausted to hear you. Consider whether patience might help. It might take another meeting and repeated validation before a teacher will be open to your input.
8. Don’t be afraid to escalate the matter.
If you and the teacher can’t find common ground and the situation warrants immediate attention, don’t be afraid to bring it up with someone else — the guidance counselor, special education teacher, or the principal — whoever can move the situation forward. Thank the teacher for his time and let him know, in a neutral but direct way, that the matter still needs resolution. This might feel scary (approval-seekers want everyone to be happy at the end of a conversation), but it’s honest and necessary.
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I have immense admiration for teachers (as you can probably tell). Honing my “advocate” skills has taken time and practice, and I still have a lot to learn, especially now that one of my kids is in high school and needs to advocate for himself. Hopefully my experience will shed some light on your own. I’d love to hear your thoughts (both parents and teachers) in the comments.
I want to thank Stu Mark, Kendra Reimermann, Amalia Egri, Jessica Lahey, Jo-Dee Collins, Heather Flett and all the other smart, thoughtful people who left comments about this issue. Click here to see the conversation on my Facebook profile.
And for some related reading, see Jessica Lahey’s fabulous “Parent-Teacher Conference” column: What If A Teacher Doesn’t Like a Parent?