Why Some Teachers Hesitate to Call Parents About School Issues
Journal: Think about the last time you sat in a conference with a parent and a teacher. Were you an adult or a child? Journal about the interaction. Reflect on how you might have conducted the conference differently in some way. You may think about how the parents might have spoken differently or how the educator could have. How much do you think conferences between parents and teachers influence your child’s education?
What kind of a relationship are you building with the school staff? Teacher? Are you welcomed with a smile or avoided? Do you smile and say positive things to the staff? What was the first thing you spoke to the teacher about? Were you hot around the collar? Were you offering to help in the classroom? Were you taking a moment to talk to the teacher regarding your child’s needs?
After reading this article I hope you get a feel for how a good supportive parent acts and talks to the school staff.
I want to tell you about some of the big problems with teacher training in the area of communication. “Stake Holder” is a term you should become familiar with. Educators refer to ‘stake holder’s’ when they are discussing adults who have a stake in the outcome of education. Most school districts list the ‘stake holder’s’ as students, parents, teachers, school board members,
There is NO specific training built into (most) teacher preparation programs designed to teach a new teacher how to talk to parents. Learning to communicate within a family of people who live together is difficult enough. Teachers take courses on speech giving and of course on communicating with students. The only opportunity a new teacher has to practice talking to parents is during their student teaching phase. In California private schools offer short 18 weeks of student teaching while the California State University system offers two semesters of student teaching. During an entire school year of training young teachers have the opportunity to watch senior teachers talk to parents and eventually they are able to lead conversations with parents.
Journal: Think about reasons you would request a conference with a teacher? If you were a teacher why would you request a conference with a parent? Do you have any experiences in which you wish the adults (parent/teachers) had worked together to help you solve a problem?
Many parents only come to school to talk to the teacher when they are angry about something. Throughout my career I held many parent/teacher conferences. In general, the conferences were scheduled as follows. If I felt there was an academic or behavior problem. I would contact the parents. I held a conference over the telephone and hoped that would help solve the problem. Sometimes I needed to show the parents some of their child’s work or test results. In that case I skipped the phone conference and immediately scheduled a face-to-face conference. Parent’s should appreciate any extra time the teacher spends planning to meet the academic or social needs of a student.
If you talk to most teachers about their job satisfaction you will hear them say something like, “I love working with the kids and teaching. I hate the rest. I wish I could just teach. Parent conferences, administrators and yard duty bog me down.” I know many teachers who quit their jobs because of the negativity they had to deal with from outside stake holders.
As a parent you have a great deal of power. More power than you know you have. The hard part of this equation is for a parent not to use the power to make a teachers life miserable. A good teacher works hard every day to keep their class interested and excited about learning. Each of us have our own personality. I believe that if a parent does not like the teacher, the student will not like the teacher. Some parents simply hate school in general. Those parents are looking for any reason to blame the teacher for their child’s own actions.
Parents need to work as a partner with the teacher in order to best meet the needs of their children. The worst parent interactions for me were with parents who loved me one minute and hated me the next.
I will use my cousin as an example. He called one day to tell me about his thirteen-year-old’s science teacher. “I went to the principal today to tell them that the science teacher needed to be fired.”
“What on earth did she do?”
He answered, “She told the class that pepper was on the periodic table.”
My first reaction was that he was out of line complaining about something so small. His argument was that his daughter was smarter than her teacher because she knew pepper was not on the periodic table. I asked him if he heard the entire conversation and he said he was repeating what his amazingly perfect daughter said. I told him that it may be completely twisted from what the teacher really did. In fact, I have read a lesson plan online where a teacher was told to ask students to look for pepper on the periodic table. After all, salt is there, why not pepper.
I suggested that might have been what really happened. Regardless, I asked him if he ever made a mistake at work. He said that had nothing to do with it. I can assure you we had quite a lively conversation about the subject of parents expecting teachers to be perfect all the time.
Our conversation probably fits in the area of “don’t talk about religion or politics…or teacher.” But, don’t we all talk about teachers?
Discussing Teachers At Home
Do you ever sit at the table and discuss the person who checked you out of Walmart or the teller who gave you money at the bank? Do you talk about what they are wearing, how they do their, if they are good at their jobs or not? After all, how would we really know if a teller at the bank was good at their job. All we see is the moment they are interacting with us. We do not know what happens behind the scene.
I wonder what would happen if we all kept track of how many times we talked about a teacher in our home. What would that look like in your home? Maybe you could journal about it.
Now think about the fact that some teachers are very afraid of parents. That can come out as a teacher giving parents the cold shoulder or maybe parents think the teacher is “holier than thou”. I suggest that the reason some parents struggle to talk to parents is because of fear. We fear those who can ruin our lives. Teachers try so hard to meet the needs of every student that we feel torn apart if we make a mistake.
One of My Big Mistakes
One of my big mistakes happened after I had already taught fifteen years. You would think I was better than this but here goes nothing. I was supervising a dance being put on by the yearbook staff. At dances we have a “no gum” policy – in order to protect the gym floor. We used to have a contest to see who could catch the most gum during the dance. (We had to find something fun to do).
I saw a new student chewing gum. She was new to America and did not speak much English. I didn’t think she understood the rule. She was really sweet. I asked her to come outside with me. My intention was to explain to her – not to kick her out. Her cousin was part of a local gang and was oppositional and aggressive. She got in my face and yelled at me. She thought she was somehow going to intimidate me into letting her cousin stay at the dance. Which I was in the first place.
I said to the cousin, “You can get ready to go home for speaking to me like this. You are out of line.”
The girl started to back paddle. “Oh, I thought you were one of the kids. I didn’t know you were the teacher. I am sorry.”
Here comes my big mistake…don’t be too shocked. “Oh, Bite Me!” came out of my mouth. I immediately told her that I had spoken out of turn and that I was sorry. And to get her stuff she was going home.
We went into the office and an administrator was there. I went in first and right in front of the student I said, “Before we get started I need to tell you that I said, “Oh Bite-Me” to her when she was trying to manipulate me out of going home. I am truly sorry for saying that. Now let’s talk about why she should go home.
She went home. The administrator said, “You are the first teacher I have ever known who will walk in and tell me the truth about saying something inappropriate to a student. I am still shocked. Why did you do that?”
I answered. “I knew you had the character to forgive me and to understand that I would never make that mistake again. I also knew she was going to try to deflect the incident and make it about what I said instead of her own actions. Then I knew she would go home and tell her parents what I had said and twist the entire truth until the parents came in hopping mad that she was sent home. I hope that my admitting that in front of her will change how this whole thing plays out.
Sure enough I was called in to talk to him after school on Monday. The father had come to complain that his daughter was removed from the dance. The administrator told the whole story. By the end of the story the father wanted to talk to his daughter. He told her that he was embarrassed to have believed her. Then told her she was grounded – I suspect that didn’t last a day.
My second year teaching I had identical twins in my classroom. The parents wanted the girls to be together in class because that was the only way anyone at school would be able to tell them apart. The other (and great reason) they kept the girls together was homework and classroom expectations. When the girls were in the first grade and in different classrooms one of them had a tough teacher while the other a laid-back teacher. One had a lot of homework, the other barely any. I am sure you can see how that could be a problem for parents and children.
I was a rookie teacher and made a big mistake. My big mistake was that I prayed with them and had a small devotional with them every morning before school, at the parent’s request. As you can imagine we became very close.
Mother’s Day rolled around and the girls gave me gifts and referred to me as their second mom.
That would change overnight.
I planned a unit on poetry. I wanted to teach them that songs were poetry set to music. I thought and thought about what songs were safe to use as an example. Ultimately it was the President Reagon who guided me. He announced a national anti-drug abuse song. Michael Jackson’s song Beat It.
I spent time scripting the words to Beat It and planning my lesson. That day we talked about poetry and music. We wrote poetry and put it to music. I thought it was a fabulous lesson. The other thing going on in our classroom was Gold Rush Days. Since the fourth grade taught California State history I had fun with my students taking them to pan for gold. We made our food for the picnic at the federal park nearby.
It was ten at night and I was up baking molasses cookies for the field trip the next day. The phone rang. It was the principal. “Sally, you need to get an attorney and be in my office at six in the morning. The twins parents are trying to get your credential yanked because they say you are teaching your class to live worldly drug filled lives.”
I was shocked. I didn’t know how to defend myself. I didn’t know how to find an attorney who could be there the very next morning. I called my union rep, waking her up. She helped me be ready for the next morning.
I stayed up and finished making the cookies. I thought about this family who gave me Mother’s Day gifts less than a week before. They turned on me instantly without talking to me about anything. I still feel hurt about how things went down.
Things calmed down. I tried to get the girls transferred out of my classroom. I was uncomfortable for the rest of the school year. The end of the school year is supposed to be fun and carefree. Mine was nothing but stressed out.
One day the twin without the freckle was mean to another student. I told her she lost two minutes of her recess. She stayed in but instead of sitting quietly and waiting her two minutes she decided to do cart wheels around the classroom.
They reported to their mother that I had embarrassed her in front of the class. They were horrible. I believe it was the first time I had been bullied by students. Unfortunately, it happens to teachers every day.
I could hardly wait for the family to move on. I never again made the mistake of getting too close to anybody at work. I learned to keep all of the pictures and notes students gave me throughout the school year thinking that would protect me. That is a story for another time.
Why These Stories Are Important
The reason these stories are important is that eventually every parent has a moment when they can become irate at a teacher. Keep calm. Look at the big picture. Are you playing the “parenting by guilt” card which says you child doesn’t lie or exaggerate? Your child is perfect and needs to be protected.
I had a student tell his parents that I took off my tennis shoe and slapped him across the face with it right in front of twenty-nine other students. That was so ridiculous I wanted to laugh when I was brought up in front of the administration and parents. I finally said, “If you want to talk about academics or your son’s disruptive behavior in class I am all for it. If you want to talk about the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard you can do it without me.” I asked why the other twenty-nine students and families hadn’t said anything to anyone? Then I pulled out the students file and saw that he had changed SCHOOLS every two years. Every teacher had a list of complaints from the parents. Those parents were making fools of themselves thanks to their child.
Teacher’s know everything about your home. Kids tell us amazing things. Some of the things they tell us lead us to call protective services. Most things just make us laugh or cringe or cry.
Sixth Graders Sex Life or Too Much Information
I was teaching junior high school. I overheard a conversation taking place outside my classroom between three sixth grade boys sitting against the wall. My window was open and I was quietly working so I could hear all of it. One of the boys was telling his friend that he had two girlfriends and they were both pregnant, due two days apart.
I thought to myself that it must have been a joke. How on earth? Then he said their names and I knew them, both were sophomores in high school.
What would you do? Would you tell someone? Would you talk to the student about inappropriate sharing? Is it any of my business?
The Hand Job That Wasn’t
I was teaching another junior high school girl who was in the eighth grade. I had been her teacher since she was in the fifth grade as she was in our at-risk program. I also taught three brothers who lived down the street from her. One morning she came in the room crying. The youngest of the boys was crying (he was seven). His oldest brother who was also in the eighth grade was furious at his brother.
I asked the girl to come talk to me outside. I asked what the problem was. “Sam told everybody on the bus that I gave his brother a “hand-job” and I didn’t.”
I tried to calm her down and told her I would take care of it. I called the young boy out to talk to me. He told me what he saw. He showed me. He slapped his thigh and said, “She did that to him, see a hand job.”
I had never dealt with something like this before. I called the parents and asked one of them to come down. Here I was with a parent who had three of her boys in my classroom. I told Sam to tell his mom what he saw happening to his brother. He again slapped his thigh and said he saw her give his brother a hand job. I asked the mother to explain to him what a hand job was.
She was really mad at me because she had to come down to school to explain something like that to him. I told her that he needed to understand the words he used. When Sam learned what a “hand-job” was I heard him say loudly. “That’s Gross!!” I laughed to myself.
I asked the young girl to come outside. Then I had Sam apologize to her. He said, “I never knew what a hand-job was. I am sorry I said that. I will tell people I lied.”
Bless her heart. She wanted him to explain it to the kids from her bus but said he didn’t have to say he lied because he just didn’t understand. She wanted to protect his reputation as being honest. The situation went away as quickly as it started.
Now how would you feel if your daughter came home crying because she was accused of doing this? It could have blown up in my face as the teacher. After the situation was dealt with the best way I could figure out at the time, she went home and none of it mattered to her again. Thank the Lord.
When we were kid’s we never complained about anything. If we were bored we had to clean toilets so we were never bored. If someone hurt our feelings my mother would ask us what we did to deserve it. We learned not to go to her with small stuff. Thankfully there were no big things to deal with.
Dealing with parents has become a deal breaker for teachers and especially for administrators. An administrator serves the elected School Board (in California). That means that the administrators must know the expectations of each school board member. Who are they related to? What is their “day job” or what was their career before retirement. What type of School Board is guides your school? Will they be micromanaging each decision? Will they “throw you under the bus” at the least little parent complaint?
In conclusion, I hope you will give a break to teachers during conferences. During your first conference as a parent you have only your own experiences as a student to tell you how to behave, what to ask and what to expect. It works the same way with teachers. The first year we teach, the first conference we have on our own is frightening. Let us work things out as win/win situations with you.
Let everyone enjoy your child. Hope all her/his teachers will care about him/her. If the teacher talks about something you consider to be a sensitive subject give the teacher a break. If the teacher talks about something like headlice or hyperactivity take it for what it is. Tell them you appreciate them for caring so much. Ask them if they will have some testing done at school before conclusions are made. Whatever you can do to make the conference be a win/win.
I leave you with this. Never assume the teacher has it out for your child. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Do not talk about the teacher negatively anywhere but alone with the child’s other parent.