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Talking Turkey with Your Child's Teacher
10 Steps For Communicating Concerns without Ruffling Feathers
Posted January 2005
Okay, so you're concerned about your child's latest report card
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
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
home. Whatever your concern, you know it's time to meet with your
teacher and talk turkey. The problem is, how do you do this so
everyone's blood pressure remains in the normal range and you still
and resolve difficult and emotionally charged issues with the person
(from your point of view) absolute authority over your child's
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
pleasant and productive parent teacher conference, one during which
issues are discussed candidly and a mutually agreeable plan of
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
breaths and pinpoint exactly what you believe the problem to be.
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
reminding yourself that there are at least two sides to every story
child's side might be a little more than slightly biased in his
stepping back, speaking with your child, and trying to get things
perspective, you may realize that your concern about the freefalling
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
than a little peeved is the fact that you didn't even know your
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
problems, it's best for you to go to a meeting with one or two
solutions of your own, just in case you find the teacher's suggestions
unacceptable. For example, some possible solutions to the non-communicated
poor math grades might be to request the teacher email you a brief
your child's weekly progress in math class and to have the teacher
guidance counselor attain tutoring help for your son from a math
student (or, even better, a math savvy teacher.)
3. Prepare a list of questions you would like answered during
When formulating questions, word them so they are direct, clear
of accusatory 'why-didn't-you' language. For example, if you were
for a meeting to discuss your child's suddenly poor math grade,
list might include:
- What caused the drastic drop in my child's math grade?
can be done at school to help him better understand the material
improve his grade?
- What can I do at home to support the school's
- 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
meeting. If you contact the teacher by phone, avoid the tendency
your concern in its entirety during the course of scheduling the
doing so usurps the teacher's planning time and has the overall
negating the need for a meeting.
Choose a mutually agreeable time.
Afternoon meetings are best for most teachers since their mornings
usually occupied making last minute preparations for the day's
Therefore, when a morning meeting runs longer than scheduled
teachers tend to get antsy, distracted, and, depending on the
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
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
order to meet with you, it's thoughtful to give him some idea of the
of time you think your meeting will take. A reasonable amount of time
meetings that are focused and effective is 30-45 minutes. Meetings that
longer than this usually involve many participants (parents, teachers,
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
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
wanting to know why her child wasn't invited) and neither he nor you
properly prepared to discuss your concern in a calm, rational, and
5. Arrive promptly.
Once you schedule a meeting be sure to attend it and make every
arrive on time. If for some reason, you find that you are unable
through or know that you will be late, inform the teacher ASAP.
affords him, should he be biding his time waiting for your arrival,
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
time to meet with you and then make a few complimentary and/or
comments. For example, you might comment on the wonderful bulletin
displays or on how difficult the teacher's job must be and how
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
Billy's math grade and want to know what might have caused it and
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
doesn't understand the material you're teaching so why haven't
you given him
some extra help?" build resentment and discourage open and
discourse. The first statement expresses concerns using "I
implies a shared responsibility for Billy's school success while
the remainder of
the statements use accusatory "you messages" that create
and imply that the teacher's incompetence caused Billy's downfall
8. Listen objectively to the teacher's responses to your
As a parent it's hard to listen objectively when someone critiques
even if in your heart of hearts you know their assessment is
some sort of genetically programmed parental defense mechanism
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
conference, however, you must make every effort to control the
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
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
these (although understandable due to that genetically programmed
defense mechanism thing) add little of value to the conference,
flow, and force the teacher, unless he is a silver-tongued and
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
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
several homework assignments, its immaterial that the precise
number is six
rather than seven and irrelevant that you disagree with the school's
homework policy (although you may wish to address this issue
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,
and significant problem is finding a way to help her acquire
skills, so it does little good, other than to create some hard
mention that you think the classroom bulletin boards need to
be redone. By
avoiding negative comments and focusing on practical problem
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
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
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
a huff or tell
the teacher the issue is resolved and then follow up by complaining
higher administrative authority. Hopefully, however, by following
through nine, your meeting with your child's teacher will be pleasant
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,
consists of thirty-five practical and easily implemented teaching
The Power of Positive Teaching
hands-on advice for turning negative behaviors into positive
offers innovative methods for transforming common classroom struggles
opportunities for positive change. Ms. Bender taught in the Baltimore,
Maryland public schools for more than thirty years and was
Teacher of the Year nominee.
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