Being related to a teacher, I have seen the joyous, triumphant highs that accompany my sister Mikaela's profession, and also the lows, when she has seemed on the brink of emotional exhaustion.
Photo by Nicolas Alejandro/Flickr
Teaching is no easy task, especially since you aren't just building a relationship with the students, but their parents as well. Fortunately, according to Mikaela's estimate, "Ninety-five per cent of parent-teacher interactions go smoothly" - an encouraging figure, considering all the emotions at play.
Still, that five per cent can wreak havoc on that carefully-triangulated student-teacher-parent relationship, and that can have major implications on a student's future. Luckily, Mikaela has been nice enough to tolerate my questions about what parents can do to help, even during her summer holiday.
She shares some ways to support your kid's teacher:
Teach Your Student How to Self-Advocate
"The biggest thing a parent can do for their kid is to teach them how to self-advocate in the classroom," Mikaela explains. A lot of times, she says students tend to take grades or feedback personally, but it really isn't personal.
She advises parents to encourage kids who are upset about a grade, critique or a confusing lesson to approach their teachers after the bell and vocalise their feelings in a respectful manner. If they frame the question the right way and at the right time (not in the middle of a lesson), they have a greater chance of having their concerns listened to and addressed.
For instance, if a student received a lower grade than expected, he or she can approach the teacher after the bell with questions such as:
- "Hi, Mrs Hagen, I worked hard on this assignment and was disappointed in the grade I got. Can we go over it together so I can have clarity on how I could have done better?"
- "Mrs Hagen, I studied a lot for the test and didn't do as well as I'd hoped. I'm worried how it will affect my final grade in the class. Is there another way I can demonstrate my understanding of the lessons so I can earn back some of those points?"
"Teachers are human," Mikaela says. "Sometimes we make a grading judgement too quickly, or we upload the wrong grade. Students who speak up or seek explanations are taking initiative and showing that they care about their grades. When they do that, our instinct is to help them, not punish them."
Acknowledge That Your Kid Might Make Mistakes
Some parent-teacher conflicts stem from parents believing their student is incapable of wrongdoing, or an insistence that certain behaviours have never happened at home.
"It helps when parents keep in mind that school presents a completely new social environment for their kids," Mikaela advises. "There are many social factors that encourage them to experiment with new behaviours that they don't do at home."
When those behaviours become problematic or disruptive to the broader classroom (even in non-malicious scenarios, such as playing the class clown), a parent clinging to the delusion of a perfect child only exacerbates the problem.
Try to avoid these pitfalls:
- Blaming your kid's friends. Yes, peer pressure can make kids do stupid things. But that doesn't excuse your flesh-and-blood from owning their own behaviour.
- Blaming the teacher. A teacher's responsibility is to help your kid succeed academically. If they happen to inspire a deeper character-shift in your kid, wonderful! But you can't expect them to do the heavy lifting for you.
- Blaming yourself. Behaviour mistakes happens, even with straight-A students. Don't beat yourself up about it. Address the behaviour, and move on.
If an accusation or insinuation is really angering you, get clarity by writing down the specifics. Get all the information from the teacher's perspective, and then, in a separate conversation, get your kid's side of the story. Once you've written it all down and you're still convinced of your child's innocence, you should be in a more level-headed state to disagree than in the heat of the moment.
Switch Into 'Problem-Solving' Mode
"I get why parents get defensive," Mikaela says. "It's easy to take a teacher's concern as a questioning of their ability to parent, but in most instances, it's not that at all."
She advises that parents switch from "defensive mode" to "problem-solving mode", which can help correct a behaviour early rather than masking it - or worse, emboldening it - via denial.
Phrases such as these help address the issue and set a plan of action:
- "I understand and share your concern. Is there a counsellor at the school who we can reach out to about how best to address her behaviour?"
- "I'd value your input on any ideas you have to help improve his behaviour. I will sit down with him and take him through an outline of what we come up with. Can you and I set a time to talk in the future to check in on his progress and see what's working?"
"Open communication is vital," suggests Mikaela. "We're on the same team. We both want your kid to succeed. If there are obstacles to that, we have a better chance overcoming them as allies, not opponents. One of my more difficult students really turned things around when his parents started regularly checking in with me on his progress. That made his graduation a really poignant moment for all of us."
Exhaust Your Empathy Before Escalating
Teachers have to make hard decisions that sometimes prioritise the good of the classroom over individual preferences, Mikaela tells me.
"I don't think we're above scrutiny," she says. "However, I hope parents give us the benefit of the doubt in all but the most extreme circumstances."
Empathy for teachers and open communication is important. However, if a teacher shows continuously unfair bias and uses their authority to repeatedly and unjustifiably punish a student, the best thing to do is to remain as objective as possible.
Oftentimes, a teacher who abuses their authority has been reported before, so presenting factual documentation to an administrator will make the strongest case against them. Bringing emotion into a three-party meeting with a counsellor can inflame the situation.
Show Your Appreciation
Teachers face pressure from many directions - students, parents, administrators, along with the strict benchmarks set by higher powers. Very often, we don't see the whole picture.
Let them know you respect their struggle. If you're at the dinner table and your kid shares an inspiring lesson they connected with, email the teacher about it to share the success and show your gratitude. A cafe gift card during the gruelling slog of standardised testing is also appreciated.
If you're really feeling generous, a nice brainless novella for them to read on the beach during their summer vacation - while possibly being interrogated by their curious brother who's writing a story - will also do quite nicely.
Get out those calculators and sharpen your 2B pencils - it's Back-to-School Week! Going far beyond the classroom, Lifehacker is bringing you genius tricks and ideas on how to start routines, brush up on old skills, or learn something new this year.