Did you ever stop to think that what you say to your child’s teacher might be something incredibly frustrating for him or her to hear? And if you knew that, wouldn’t you want to know how to rephrase your statement or question?
“The most important thing is for parents to view their child’s teacher as a partner,” says Natalie Schwartz, who conducts workshops on parent-teacher relationships and is the author of The Teacher Chronicles: Confronting the Demands of Students, Parents, Administrators, and Society. “Teachers want your child to succeed. Sometimes parents mistakenly view the teacher as an obstacle instead of a partner.”
From her book, which is based on more than 50 interviews with teachers, Schwartz offers the Top 10 Things Teachers Don’t Want to Hear—and ideas for better ways to broach potentially sensitive topics with your child’s teacher:
1. “My child is acting up because he’s bored. He’s so bright.”
“I’ve been teaching for 13 years, and I would say in that time I’ve had maybe one or two children who were truly bored and I immediately got different material for them,” says teacher Thea LaRocca, who has taught 3rd through 5th grades in Raleigh, N.C. “I didn’t need the parent to tell me.” LaRocca says she understands that parents naturally want to think the best of their child, but suggests that they try to be honest and think about why their child is acting up, then ask the teacher for strategies to deal with it. “If you truly think your kid is bright, ask for more work,” she says.
2. “I know it’s only an open house, but let me tell you about my daughter’s reading skills.”
This one applies to the beginning of the school year. “I’ll often see parents who can’t wait to prove how good their kid is. Don’t worry,” LaRocca says gently. “I’ll find out very quickly.” An open house at the beginning of the year is a time for kids to get comfortable with a new grade, meet new friends, and meet the new teacher. It’s stressful enough without the added pressure of performing, she says. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll have parent-teacher conferences in a month, anyway.”
3. “I know I agreed to chaperone the trip, but something came up.”
If you agree to chaperone a trip or an event or to volunteer in the classroom, the teacher is counting on you. But more importantly, someone else is too, says Sheila Lobel, who teaches 6th grade in a suburb of Albany, N.Y “The child gets so profoundly disappointed if you say you’re going to come and you don’t,” says Lobel, who has taught for 28 years. “I understand that many parents simply can’t be there because of work, and that’s hard. Just be realistic.”
4. “Jane is picking on my daughter. I want her punished!”
Nikki Wilson says all teachers should take bullying seriously, but some parents approach classroom conflicts the wrong way. “A lot of times, both kids are to blame. Parents only hear one side of the story,” says Wilson, who has taught 1st, 3rd, and 4th grades in Long Beach, Miss., for 8 years. “You can say ‘I know my child is not perfect, but are you aware of this thing that happened? How can we solve the problem?’
More importantly, Wilson says, is to use the situation as a way to teach your child about conflict resolution. “Some parents jump all over the teacher rather than say ‘This is what we’re trying to do at home. Can you watch out for this at school?’”
5. “You give too much homework!”
When parents say this, Wilson explains, their child gets the message that school isn’t important. Homework is a time when parents can see what their kids are learning and take an active role in their education.
“Instead of grumbling about it, maybe ask for suggestions on how to help manage the time it takes to complete the homework,” she says.
6. “Billy’s homework is not done because …”
Obviously teachers want to know about missed homework as a result of a major problem, such as a death in the family or an injury. Dance class, sports teams, and forgotten backpacks don’t apply, explains teacher Stephen Kelley.
“I just wish that parents would let the kid come in and face the consequences,” says Kelley, who teaches 3rd grade in Washington, Pa. “They think they’re doing the right thing, but kids learn a better life lesson: to take responsibility for yourself and your actions.”
7. “This homework is too hard.”
Kelley recalls how many parents complained when his school adopted a new, more challenging math curriculum. “It was a hard adjustment,” says Kelley, who has taught for 13 years. “But instead of working with the kids, [parents] just wanted to blame the new math series. They were complaining, ‘Why did the district pick this curriculum?’ instead of asking teachers, ‘How can we work on this? What are some strategies we can use at home?’ ”
8. “Our old teacher didn’t make us do that,” or “Teacher so-and-so doesn’t make her students do that.”
“Teachers usually have a good reason for what they’re doing,” says Anne Marie Sytnyk, a 2nd grade reading specialist in Jersey City, N.J., who has taught for 40 years. Instead of challenging the teacher on an assignment, ask for the reasons behind it.
“Give them a chance. At least give them until the first marking period, and maybe you’ll see why the teacher does what she does,” Sytnyk says.
9. “I tried that. It doesn’t work.”
Washington, D.C., kindergarten teacher Patricia C. Wilkins says she hears this line from parents most often when she tries to talk to them about discipline problems. “It tends to shut the door,” says Wilkins, who has taught for 10 years. “You prod them a little, and you find out that they really didn’t try what you’re suggesting.”
Instead of throwing up your hands in defeat, Wilkins says a better response would be “I tried it and it turned out like this. What else can I do?”
10. “I wrote a letter to the superintendent detailing all the issues I have with you, and I’m going to read it at the next school board meeting.”
Going over a teacher’s head as a first step is both disrespectful and unproductive.
“It’s frustrating, but it really makes the parent look bad because the superintendent and the principal are just going to say ‘Well, did you talk to the teacher?’” says Debra Cupani, who teaches 5th grade in Long Beach, N.Y.
Cupani, who has taught for 12 years, says she understands that parents who are concerned about something at school are emotional and passionate about their kids. It can be uncomfortable to bring up problems with a teacher directly. Email is often a good way to start if parents are nervous.
“Teachers are always willing to listen,” she says. “We just want the best thing for the kids, just like you.”