How to Have Courageous Conversations With Your Child’s Teacher

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Every year it has happened to me, you check your email or your voicemail not expecting much and there it is; a message from “that” parent that makes you so upset.  That message that makes you question everything you have been doing, everything you are trying to do.  And you cannot help but get a little angry, but get a little defensive, to immediately want to protect yourself rather than stop and think.  It is so hard sometimes being in a world where communication is so easy and words can be interpreted in a million ways.  And while those messages may seem hurtful at first, they can become the biggest inspiration for growth, if we let them.

No one sets out to be “that” parent.  No one sets out to send an email that can be read a million ways, to make a phone call that you know might dampen someone else’s day.  But sometimes we have to start the types of conversations that we hope to never have with our child’s teachers.  Sometimes we have to ask things that may be seen as questioning them.  And it is so hard.  Especially when you are a teacher and you know exactly how something can be taken.

And yet, for the sake of our children we have to find ways to have tough conversations.  When something is not working for our child it is our right and responsibility to speak up.  But there are ways to do it nicely, to where it will not immediately be taken as an attack but rather as an invitation to further discussion.  So what can you do?

Be nice.  Politeness goes such along way.  If you are about to ask some tough questions, use your manners and do not speak down to someone else.  All the teachers I know take great pride in their work and no one sets out to have bad experiences in their classroom, so show respect by the tone of voice you use whether written or spoken.

Investigate by asking questions.  If I believed all of the things our daughter, Thea, told me, I would have a crazy view of her school, after all she is 6 and sometimes pretty tired by the time she gets home from school.  So when something happens I always ask questions before I jump to any conclusions.  Often times what really happened is not what a child shares, so give the teacher the benefit of the doubt.

Do your research.  We oftentimes think that teachers have all  the power over what happens in their classrooms, but we do not.  Anything from district initiatives, state standards, and federal regulations all influence what we do in our classrooms, so make sure the teacher has control over whatever it is you are questioning, particualrly if it something that has upset you.

Ask for clarification.  When Thea came home with a reading log 5 days into kindergarten I emailed her teacher asking what the reasoning behind it was without sharing how much I hate reading logs.  I needed to make sure her teacher knew I was not questioning her, but rather trying to understand.  Once I had more information then I could ask further questions.

Leave room for conversation.  When we come across as brash or hotheaded, we are not inviting further conversation.  Ask for help.  Ask for support and ask to be a partner rather than dictate what someone should do.

Over-explain.  I would rather a parent over-explain their reasoning than under-explain.  Sometimes when we are too brief, we leave a lot of room for interpretation which almost always ends up being a negative experience for the recipient.  So state your point, explain why, and give enough information for the teacher to have something tangible to respond to.

Be specific.  If something is harming your child tell me how.  If your child has reported something to you tell me what that is.  I cannot sort through a situation or even respond to it well if I do not know the details, which can lead to further misunderstanding.

Keep it to your child.  If you are concerned for your child, state that, but do not generalize or ask questions about other children.  Teachers have to adhere to strict privacy laws and often cannot answer questions about children.  If this is a concern for many parents have them as part of the conversation to, do not just say that you speak for them.

Go to the teacher first.  Sometimes our gut reaction is to head to the top when we really need to first speak to the teacher.  It is common courtesy to give someone a chance to speak before others are involved.  That does not mean administration cannot be involved, it just means the teachers should have a chance to respond first.

Call rather than email.  Email can be misinterpreted in so many ways, trust me, I have probably misinterpreted intentions at least once a month, but a phone call or meeting is easier to navigate.  If someone is truly upset about something, I would much rather they seek me out and schedule a meeting, letting me know what we will be discussing, then sending an email.  And also, be mindful of school hours; if a teacher is in the middle of teaching they probably cannot speak to you at that moment.

Treat the teacher like you would want to be treated.  I cannot stress this enough; teachers are human  and sometimes we mess up.  It is not because we tried to, but it does happens.  If you treat us the way you would like to be treated in a tough conversation then our conversation will be much more productive.  Much can be handled via an honest and lighthearted conversation, even serious topics.

Gently question.  There is nothing wrong with questioning a teacher’s practice if you are seeing it harm your child, but do so gently.  Teachers spend a lot of time planning for best practices, and thus take pride in their work.  That does not mean it is always in the best interest in the child (public behavior charts, I am looking at you) but that can be a pretty hard thing to face.

And finally, a word to all of us teachers.  While criticism, even if just perceived, is hard, it is also a chance for us to reflect, grow and become better teachers.  Yes, there are times when criticism will be just that and those moments are hard to get through.  But in the end, I truly believe that when a parent asks us questions, even if they come of as a rude or disrespectful, within those questions are a seed for reflection, an opportunity to pause and make sure that what we are doing is in the best interest of children.  We are all trying to do the very best we can, after all, let’s not lose sight of that.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!

8 thoughts on “How to Have Courageous Conversations With Your Child’s Teacher

  1. A former colleague of mine, who is also a mom, always tells parents at Back to School Night, “I’ll believe half of what they say about you, if you’ll believe half of what they say about me.” When I first heard her say it, I didn’t have kids. Now I understand it so well and it makes total sense!

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  6. Hey Pal,

    Just a quick note to let you know that I really dug this piece! I think that making these kinds of thoughts explicit for both parents and teachers makes a ton of sense.

    Hope you are well!
    Bill

  7. Your suggestions make a good roadmap for prickly territory. Thank you! There are many difficult, awkward, and scary conversations that must be had, yet, many of us can’t seem to find our way “in.” Although different, this post reminds me of the Edwidge Danticat quote “Adults are afraid to have sad conversations with little kids.” I incorporated it in a post I wrote in the voice of a child who was reporting on having seen Edwidge Danticat at any author event. If you’re interested, here is the link: http://folkloreandliteracy.com/2015/03/little-leslies-report/
    cheers!

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