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Challenge: Back to School

9 Tips on How to Talk to a Teacher

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Teachers are human, like anyone else. They’re not perfect. They make mistakes sometimes.

But, unless we’re talking about the extremely rare pedophile pervert or raving psychopath who’s found her [1] way into the teaching profession,chances are your child’s teacher is a good person: a person who means well, who tries her best, who honestly wants what’s best for all of the children in her care.

Sometimes you need to speak to your child’s teacher. Perhaps the teacher has done something wrong: something you disagree with. Perhaps there’s something the teacher needs to know about your child. Perhaps you’re angry at the teacher for whatever has gone wrong.

Before you go into that parent-teacher meeting, here are some tips from a teacher for you to take along.

1. First of all, if you’re angry, cool down before you say anything.

Shouting will not help a teacher hear you any better. Teachers, as I already mentioned, are only human, and the immediate response to any attack—whether physical or verbal—will be to go on the defensive. If you speak to a teacher in anger, she’ll defend herself, and the entire exchange will be negative and unresolved. It will be about what has already happened, rather than about what will or should happen in the future.

2. Stay polite.

Generally the teacher will too. Go into the discussion with an open mind and a willingness to listen to the teacher’s views. Perhaps the teacher has a reason for whatever she did that angered you. Or perhaps the teacher did indeed make a mistake and wants to repair the damage. Either way, listening and speaking politely will work much better than attacking.

3. And speaking of listening, you need to listen to the teacher as well as talk.

Parents often speak to teachers at great length about their concerns, but don’t pause to listen to the teacher’s view, as a professional, on the same concerns. You might come out of the discussion with new insights into the classroom situation or into your own child’s place in that classroom, but only if you stop talking long enough to listen to what the teacher has to say.

4. Do NOT say things like “I know my child better than you do!”

Of course you do! No one is claiming to know your child better than you do. However, every child—or perhaps I should say every person—has different aspects of his or her personality that are revealed to different people. Presumably you act differently and show a different side of yourself when you interact with your spouse than with your employer (I hope so!). The same goes for your child. Little Johnny may be an absolute angel at home, but may be a holy terror on the playground. Don’t deny what the teacher is saying about little Johnny. There is absolutely no reason a teacher would make up a negative story about your child! Listen, and try to work with the teacher to figure out why the bad behavior is happening.

5. Do NOT say things like “I used to be a teacher and…”

There are two implications to a sentence that starts that way, and the teacher will immediately assume both. First of all, it points out that you are no longer a teacher, and the teacher you are speaking to is thinking (but is too polite to say out loud), “But you’re not anymore, are you? You couldn’t hack it!” Secondly, it implies that you think you know better than the teacher you’re speaking to how to do her job. That’s guaranteed to get her hackles up. Anyway, if you used to be a teacher, you should know how hard it is! You should be able to understand what the teacher is dealing with.

6. Do not wag your finger at the teacher or otherwise speak to the teacher as if she is a child.

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Teachers are trained professionals, no matter how little they get paid. You need to keep them sweet or they’ll stop teaching, and then where would we be? Teachers deserve your respect – yes, even the brand-new, inexperienced ones!

7. And speaking of keeping them sweet, don’t wait until the teacher does something wrong to speak to her. We all need positive feedback, and teachers get very little of it, not because they don’t deserve it – they do – but because parents don’t tend to give it (although children often do). Parents tend to contact the teacher only when they have a complaint. Instead, tell the teacher the positive comment your child made about her over dinner. Thank the teacher for the extra tutoring she gave your child in a free hour. A bouquet of flowers or a thank-you note wouldn’t go amiss. Teachers receive praise so rarely that we treasure it. Sometimes it feels more important than food.

8. Do not bypass the teacher to complain to the principal or headmasterbefore you try to discuss the matter with the teacher directly.

Going straight to the principal might make you feel like something will be done about the matter more quickly, and it might, but not without negative effects. The teacher will be put much more on the defensive, for one thing. Going to the principal may even threaten the teacher’s job, in some cases. Is it really worth getting a teacher fired? Does the incident you’re angry about really cancel out all of the good teaching that person has done for your child and many others, perhaps over many years? And does the principal even know your child anyway? In any case, speaking directly to the teacher is much more likely to get a result that’s right for your child.

9. And speaking of results, keep in mind that the teacher is not dealing with your child in isolation, but rather as part of a group of children the same age, often a large group.

You can be sure that the teacher cannot spend as much time focused on your child as you’d like, and you’ll just have to accept that. Any extra tutoring that the teacher gives your child may be in her free time: lunch break or after school, for example. Do not expect such extra help, and if your child nevertheless receives it, do not take it for granted! And what might be a desired outcome for you and your child might be detrimental to other children, so it may not be possible. The teacher has to think practically about how to balance the individual educational needs of each child with the individual educational needs of the other 30 children at the same time.

I hope these nine tips will help your parent-teacher meeting go better next time something comes up in your child’s school life. I think if I needed to sum up all of these tips in one sentence, it would be: “Remember that you and the teacher are on the same team.”

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