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Talking Turkey with Your Child's Teacher

10 Steps For Communicating Concerns without Ruffling Feathers

Okay, so you're concerned about your child's latest report card grades, especially the math grade that went from an "A" to a "D" all in one marking period (and you had no idea, nada, nothing!). Maybe it's the fact that your child loved school last year but positively hates it this year, or perhaps it's the poorly prepared and haphazardly graded written work that he brings home. Whatever your concern, you know it's time to meet with your child teacher and talk turkey. The problem is, how do you do this so that everyone's blood pressure remains in the normal range and you still discuss and resolve difficult and emotionally charged issues with the person who has (from your point of view) absolute authority over your child's success and resultant happiness every day?

Well, speaking from the teacher's side of the conference table, here are some basic steps you can take to improve your chances of participating in a pleasant and productive parent teacher conference, one during which real issues are discussed candidly and a mutually agreeable plan of action is devised or a problem is actually resolved.

1. Calm down and pinpoint the problem.

Before scheduling a meeting with your child's teacher, take a few deep breaths and pinpoint exactly what you believe the problem to be. The pinpointing process usually requires a candid talk with your child to find out his side of the story. It also requires that you keep things in perspective by reminding yourself that there are at least two sides to every story and your child's side might be a little more than slightly biased in his favor. After stepping back, speaking with your child, and trying to get things in perspective, you may realize that your concern about the freefalling math grade isn't simply that your child suddenly wasn't getting it in math or that he wasn't even trying to get it (although these are indeed problems you want to address with his teacher). What concerns you the most and has you more than a little peeved is the fact that you didn't even know your child wasn't getting it until it was too late for you to help him get it or even to try to make him want to get it!

2. Imagine some possible solutions for the problem.

Although it is easier to have the teacher suggest solutions to school related problems, it's best for you to go to a meeting with one or two plausible solutions of your own, just in case you find the teacher's suggestions totally unacceptable. For example, some possible solutions to the non-communicated poor math grades might be to request the teacher email you a brief report on your child's weekly progress in math class and to have the teacher or guidance counselor attain tutoring help for your son from a math savvy student (or, even better, a math savvy teacher.)

3. Prepare a list of questions you would like answered during the meeting.

When formulating questions, word them so they are direct, clear and devoid of accusatory 'why-didn't-you' language. For example, if you were preparing for a meeting to discuss your child's suddenly poor math grade, your question list might include:

  • "What caused the drastic drop in my child's math grade?"
  • "What can be done at school to help him better understand the material and improve his grade?
  • "What can I do at home to support the school's efforts?
  • "How can we work together to improve communication so I'm better informed about my child's progress?

4. Schedule the meeting.

After you've thought things through, contact the teacher and schedule a meeting. If you contact the teacher by phone, avoid the tendency to discuss your concern in its entirety during the course of scheduling the meeting since doing so usurps the teacher's planning time and has the overall effect of negating the need for a meeting.

"Choose a mutually agreeable time.

Afternoon meetings are best for most teachers since their mornings are usually occupied making last minute preparations for the day's classes. Therefore, when a morning meeting runs longer than scheduled these teachers tend to get antsy, distracted, and, depending on the manageability of their first period class, even panic-stricken.

"Inform the teacher of the meeting's purpose.It is always helpful for the teacher to have some idea as to the purpose of the meeting, and if they are not told, most will ask. This is not because they are unusually nosey but because they want to be better prepared to address your concerns and answer your questions.

"Give the teacher an estimate of the amount of time you'll need.
Since the teacher may have to reschedule some of his other responsibilities in order to meet with you, it's thoughtful to give him some idea of the amount of time you think your meeting will take. A reasonable amount of time for meetings that are focused and effective is 30-45 minutes. Meetings that run longer than this usually involve many participants (parents, teachers, school psychologists, administrators, and so forth) and cover very serious issues.Regardless of how upset you may be, always contact the teacher first and schedule a meeting. Don't just go barging into school demanding to meet with the teacher immediately. If you do so, you will not have the teacher's undivided attention (envision yourself holding a party with twenty-five children your child's age and having an impromptu visit by an irate neighbor wanting to know why her child wasn't invited) and neither he nor you will be properly prepared to discuss your concern in a calm, rational, and productive manner.

5. Arrive promptly.

Once you schedule a meeting be sure to attend it and make every effort to arrive on time. If for some reason, you find that you are unable to follow through or know that you will be late, inform the teacher ASAP. Doing so affords him, should he be biding his time waiting for your arrival, the opportunity to use that time more productively.

6. Begin Positively.

Since meetings tend to be more productive when they begin positively, especially meetings that will eventually cover negative topics, it's best to start by saying something positive. You can thank the teacher for taking the time to meet with you and then make a few complimentary and/or supportive comments. For example, you might comment on the wonderful bulletin board displays or on how difficult the teacher's job must be and how much you appreciate his efforts.

7. Present your concerns in a clear yet non-accusatory manner.

Statements such as, "I'm concerned about the sudden and terrible drop in Billy's math grade and want to know what might have caused it and what we can do to help him improve" facilitate communication and encourage cooperation." Statements such as, "I had no idea Billy had suddenly tanked in math! Why didn't you let me know what was happening? It's obvious he doesn't understand the material you're teaching so why haven't you given him some extra help?" build resentment and discourage open and honest discourse. The first statement expresses concerns using "I messages" and implies a shared responsibility for Billy's school success while the remainder of the statements use accusatory "you messages" that create defensiveness and imply that the teacher's incompetence caused Billy's downfall in math.

8. Listen objectively to the teacher's responses to your questions.

As a parent it's hard to listen objectively when someone critiques your child, even if in your heart of hearts you know their assessment is correct. (It's some sort of genetically programmed parental defense mechanism that tells you, "I can criticize my kids all I want to because they're mine but anyone else better not even think about it!") In order to have a productive conference, however, you must make every effort to control the urge to make defensive comments such as "I can't believe Billy hasn't handed in ten math homework assignments. When I saw his poor report card grade in math, I asked him if he completed all of the work for this class. He told me he had, and he wouldn't lie to me. . . about something like this." Remarks such as these (although understandable due to that genetically programmed parental defense mechanism thing) add little of value to the conference, interrupt its flow, and force the teacher, unless he is a silver-tongued and extremely gifted diplomat, into a lose-lose response.

9. Resolve differences by focusing on problem solving.

Both you and your child's teacher want your child to do well in school although you may at times disagree on the best ways to do this. One way to resolve disagreements is to focus on problem solving instead of playing the blame game. If the teacher informs you that your child hasn't handed in several homework assignments, its immaterial that the precise number is sixrather than seven and irrelevant that you disagree with the school's homework policy (although you may wish to address this issue at another time.) The immediate problem is not the teacher's poor record keeping or the fact that school policy stipulates homework is assigned four days a week. The immediate problem is your child's poor homework performance and, it's in your child's best interest for you and the teacher arrive at some way to help him improve. If your child is having difficulty learning to read, the immediate and significant problem is finding a way to help her acquire basic reading skills, so it does little good, other than to create some hard feelings, to mention that you think the classroom bulletin boards need to be redone. By avoiding negative comments and focusing on practical problem solving, it's easier for everyone to discuss problems, resolve differences, and arrive at a mutually acceptable plan of action, and everyone usually has a more pleasant time while doing so.

10. Strive to end cordially.

Even if you and your child's teacher cannot agree on a plan of action, strive to end the meeting cordially. You do not have to be insincere to do this, just sensitive to the feelings of others. If you totally disagree with the teacher's position, politely tell him so, inform him of your intended course of action, and thank him for meeting with you. Do not storm out of the room in ahuff or tell the teacher the issue is resolved and then follow up by complaining to a higher administrative authority. Hopefully, however, by following steps one through nine, your meeting with your child's teacher will be pleasant and productive, and your child's educational progress will flourish as a result.

About the Author:
Yvonne Bender is the author of The Power of Positive Teaching, which consists of thirty-five practical and easily implemented teaching strategies that create positive student attitudes and productive learning environments. Supported by personal anecdotes, helpful hints, sidebars, and teaching tips, each strategy in The Power of Positive Teaching is explained in an easy-to-follow, concise, point-by-point format. Thoughtful, sensible, comprehensive, and refreshingly free of jargon, The Power of Positive Teaching provides hands-on advice for turning negative behaviorsinto positive interactions, and offers innovative methods for transforming common classroom struggles into opportunities for positive change. Ms. Bender taught in the Baltimore, Maryland public schools for more than thirty years and was a Maryland Teacher of the Year nominee.

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