Have you ever been upset with your child’s teacher, or with your child’s school? Perhaps you’ve disagreed with how educators handled a specific problem involving your child, or maybe you’ve felt frustrated because you couldn’t get the teacher to see your point of view. If so, you know how stressful it is when your child’s needs just aren’t being met, despite your best efforts.
At some point, most of us have experienced conflict with our children’s school, whether the problems stem from bullying, peer conflict, learning challenges, or a perception that the teacher is being unfair to our child, isn’t the brightest or most caring person, or seems burnt out. And it’s tough to know the “right” way to deal with these problems.
Unfortunately, many parents not only don’t know the “right” way to deal with these conflicts, they default to the wrong ones – confronting, accusing, arguing, belittling, or criticizing the teacher. Why are these approaches “wrong”? Not only are they disrespectful, they do nothing to help you achieve your goal of helping your child.
So if these approaches are so obviously wrong, why are they usually the default? Simple – the sheer emotionality of these issues makes parents lose their cool, causing them to be ineffective problem-solvers. Children are vulnerable, and it’s painful to see one’s child suffer. A parent’s most powerful instinct in these situations is to protect his or her child, and that’s understandable. As a parent, I get it.
But it’s also misguided. Why? When you see yourself as a “protector” of your children in this context, it’s implied that there is an enemy out there to protect from. Since teachers are not the “enemy”, but are, after all, on our children’s side (this is true, at least, of most of the teachers I’ve worked with), I feel that the parent’s role, in conflict situations, is not to “protect”, but rather, to “advocate”.
What’s the difference? An advocate advances a cause, speaks on behalf of someone who can’t speak for himself, and focuses on achieving an appropriate outcome, but she does it all respectfully. A lawyer is a good example of an advocate; lawyers negotiate on their clients’ behalves every day. Will a lawyer succeed if he bullies the judge and the opposing lawyer, insulting and yelling at them, questioning their professionalism, and issuing an ultimatum? Of course not. An effective lawyer, or advocate, follows the rules, meticulously, tirelessly, persuasively, and respectfully making a case so compelling that the desired outcome is clearly viewed as the right one.
Fortunately, you don’t need to be a lawyer to be an effective advocate for your child. But you do need to remember some important rules.
- Don’t make the teacher fear or hate you! If you want your child to have a positive experience at school, you will undermine your own goal by taking an adversarial approach to the problem.
- Recognize that this is a relationship unlike any other, and a conflict unlike any other. The primary relationship is between the school and the child, and you are orbiting around that. You are not there every day to see what’s actually going on. You are peripheral to the conflict. Therefore, you really need to avoid jumping to conclusions based solely on what your child tells you. Make sure you get a full picture of what’s going on before you make hasty assumptions.
- Strive to balance two important objectives: You must prioritize the need to resolve the problem, but find a way to do so while also maintaining a respectful ongoing relationship.
Remember, if you destroy the parent-teacher relationship by being overly aggressive (or downright rude), it is quite likely that the problem may not be resolved. If you make the teacher fear or hate you, the teacher may react by avoiding you, focussing on defending herself, or engaging in a power struggle with you.
The following tips come from actual surveys I’ve done of real teachers, in which I’ve asked them to reflect on their experiences with parent-teacher conflict. These tips are a reflection of teachers’ true feelings about the parents they deal with every day, so pay careful attention!
Top 10 ways to guarantee a difficult relationship with your child’s teacher (in no particular order)…
- Jumping to conclusions and taking a child’s statement at face value without asking the teacher for her point of view;
- Undermining school/teacher authority. “The rules don’t apply to my child/ The teacher is stupid” – Speaking freely in front of the child and expressing your lack of respect for the teacher;
- Writing an angry email or confronting the teacher at the beginning of the day instead of writing a polite information-seeking email and/or asking for an appointment;
- Assuming that the teacher is doing a bad job because your child is getting a mark that is less than an “A”;
- Going over the teacher’s head – contacting the principal to complain about the teacher without first giving the teacher a chance to address the issue;
- Angrily or threateningly second-guessing teachers’ professional decisions such as your child not making a team or not being chosen to receive an award;
- Not respecting the teacher’s professionalism; treating him as hired help – this is especially problematic in private schools and/or if you’re in a position of power or wealth;
- Telling the teacher how to discipline other children who you feel have wronged your child and/or demanding that another child be labeled a “bully”, or be suspended or expelled;
- Demanding accommodations for your child without having a formal IEP or psych-ed assessment to back up the demands;
- Not bothering to build a relationship – only being in touch with complaints and criticisms and never taking the time to thank the teacher for her hard work.
It’s not hard to understand why these approaches are “wrong” if you just put yourself in the teacher’s position. I certainly see where they’re coming from. In my own professional life as a divorce mediator, there have been times when I’ve worked incredibly hard to help warring clients achieve a fair resolution of the legal issues resulting from their separation. I may leave feeling that I’ve done a great job for them, and they may seem happy with the outcome. So if the wife speaks to her mother afterwards, and her mother tells her that the process wasn’t fair, it burns – someone with no legal training and no understanding of the process, dynamics, and complexities of what I do has gone and undermined my credibility and hard work. Think about how you would feel in this situation, then think about how your child’s teacher feels when you jump to conclusions without having been there to see what actually happened in the classroom.
Attacking the teacher does not help the child not only because it’s rude and disrespectful, but because it puts the focus on the wrong discussion – a debate over the teacher’s competence. A teacher who is “attacked” will generally respond by defending herself and trying to present “evidence” of her competence.
Thus, when “advocating” for your child, the real focus needs to be not “how we got here” but “where we’re going”. Here’s how you can ensure your focus is where it should be:
Top ten ways to be an effective “advocate” for your child:
- Build a positive relationship from the beginning; give positive feedback and be appreciative of the teacher’s efforts. Most work very hard and truly care about the children. Most are sensitive and take criticism very personally, so think carefully about how to present issues constructively;
- Communicate openly and honestly. If your child has special needs, make the teacher aware of them from the outset. Don’t try to keep the issues under the radar in the “hope” that everything will be OK;
- Be realistic. Try to see your child objectively and not through rose-coloured glasses. Be open if the teacher raises a learning or behavioural issue that might require further investigation. If there is a genuine issue, don’t be defensive, and don’t look for someone to blame – blame is not the solution and will not help your child. It is OK for your child not to be “perfect”; an “imperfect” or special needs child is not a reflection on your parenting;
- Be clear on the goal, which should be to help your child reach his or her full potential – not necessarily “getting the child into medical school” or “getting into an Ivy League school” – especially if the child is in elementary school! If your goals are medical school or the Ivies, look in the mirror – the problem may not be the teacher, but you;
- Where conflict arises, separate the person from the problem (Wrong: “You don’t care about my child!”; Right: “What can be done to ensure Jimmy feels safe at school?”);
- In conflict, understand the difference between positions and interests (Wrong: “You must suspend Eric for bullying my son”; Right: “I need to know what’s going to be done to ensure my son is safe from bullying”);
- To resolve conflict, frame a mutual problem statement (“What is the plan to ensure that Aaron feels safe at school and is free of bullying? How will we communicate on an ongoing basis so that I know that this plan is being implemented?”);
- Understand and respond to individual differences: Culture, gender, age, personality (avoidant, adversarial) may affect how a teacher views your child and the issue, and how he responds to you;
- Share your own research/ knowledge/ expectations in a non-threatening, collaborative way: You can ask for specific accommodations or processes while also respecting and considering the teacher’s ideas; if it is appropriate to involve a learning specialist, request this tactfully, in a way that doesn’t threaten or undermine the classroom teacher;
- Never lose your cool. If you are at an impasse, you can involve the principal (but again tactfully), or meet with a psycho-educational professional. These are productive, solution-oriented routes around a “brick wall”. Yelling and screaming or insulting the teacher only undermines your credibility and will not help your child.
By making your child’s teacher a negotiating partner, not an adversary, you will not only maximize the potential for ensuring your child’s needs are met – you will also model effective communication and negotiation strategies for your child so that when the time is right for your child, he can step up and become his own advocate. Learning to negotiate effectively, and for oneself, is, after all, one of the most important life skills you can teach your child; good negotiation skills will serve him well not just as he enters middle school, high school, and post-secondary education, but also in the work force and in his own future interpersonal relationships. What could be more important than that?
Rosanna Breitman is a lawyer and mediator who holds a LLM in Alternative Dispute Resolution and has extensive academic and consulting experience in the field of educational disputes. She has presented PD workshops for teachers on conflict resolution and, specifically, on dealing with challenging parents, and has spoken to moms’ groups and other community organizations on effective advocacy techniques. To inquire about speaking engagements and individual advocacy coaching, contact her at email@example.com