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Playing nice with your child's teacher

Wency Leung talks to parents and educators for their tips on how to negotiate, communicate and solve conflicts with the other adult helping to rear your child

Joe Grabowski, left, a science and math teacher in Guelph, Ont., is a strong proponent of great parent-teacher relationships. He encourages parents to attend school open-house events and take time to introduce themselves.

As a mother of two, Beverly Beuermann-King has butted heads with her children's teachers on multiple occasions.

Her oldest son, now 20, was a quick learner, but teachers often considered him a distraction to others because he tended to be the first to finish his classwork.

"Teachers would get annoyed because he would be talking and he would be fidgeting and he would be moving around," says Beuermann-King, who lives in Little Britain, Ont.

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Meanwhile, teachers would often underestimate the abilities of her younger son, now 18, because he was reluctant to participate in class. Beuermann-King recalls being surprised when he received a report card saying he couldn't read when she knew he could, in fact, read very well; he was just afraid to do it at school.

It can be easy for parents to take these kinds of teachers' assessments to heart, she says.

Beverly Beuermann-King has butted heads with her children’s teachers on multiple occasions.

"We get our parental backs up and we want to step in and protect, as opposed to looking and saying, 'Okay, what is it that the child is doing that may not be facilitating a good relationship? And what is it that the teacher might not understand about our child?'" says Beuermann-King, who now offers advice on how to navigate parent-teacher relationships through her workshops as a stress and wellness specialist.

The parent-teacher relationship can be littered with land mines. Parents may feel teachers treat their children unfairly, or that their parenting methods are under attack. Teachers may feel parents jump to their children's defence too quickly, failing to trust them and treating them as adversaries.

Yet, the quantity and quality of parent-teacher interactions can make a difference in how well a child fares at school, according to researchers at the University of Missouri.

In a study published earlier this year in the journal School Psychology Quarterly, professor Keith Herman of the university's College of Education and his team noted teachers' perceptions of parental involvement were an indicator of children's academic and social success. Herman says previous research has suggested one could predict students' long-term outcomes, such as high-school grades and whether they graduate, based on how highly their teachers rated their parents' involvement in their education.

Herman explained he found teachers tended to rate parents' involvement as low and of poor quality when the teachers had infrequent contact with parents, particularly those of children who had academic and behavioural problems or came from racial minority and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. When children were doing well in school, teachers were more likely to say parents had high-quality involvement, even if they saw the parents infrequently.

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"The teacher is making a judgment about the parent, secondarily about the child, and this likely influences their daily interactions with the child," he says.

Herman suggests teachers be given opportunities to reflect on their potential biases and that parents ensure they interact with teachers where possible.

"For a parent, if a child is struggling at school either academic or behaviourally, having a presence and showing up tends to be well-received by teachers," he says.

But beyond simply being seen around the schoolyard, how can parents develop a positive relationship with their children's teachers?

Parents should consider themselves as members of the school community, says Jim Brandon, associate professor and associate dean of professional and community engagement at the University of Calgary's Werklund School of Education.

Brandon, who has had decades of experience in public education, says parent-teacher relationships have changed dramatically since he first became a principal in 1977. Back then, parents and students often deferred to educators as authority figures. But since, he says, schools have moved toward a relationship-based model, where parents, educators and students are considered partners and are on more of an equal footing.

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While this means "conflicts and differing viewpoints are more on the surface," he says, it also means "more opportunities for respectful problem-solving."

For Joe Grabowski, a science and math teacher in Guelph, Ont., and founder of the science education website Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, the first few weeks of a school year are typically the most critical for establishing parent-teacher relationships.

He recommends that parents attend school open-house events, sign and return forms that are sent home promptly and take time to introduce themselves.

"Even if it's a 30-second, 'Hey, how are you doing? I'm so-and-so's mom or dad,' I think that's really important," he says.

Teacher Joe Grabowski advises against communicating with teachers only when something bad happens.

Grabowski adds parents should check in periodically throughout the year, taking advantage of opportunities such as report-card nights and parent-teacher interviews. He advises against communicating with teachers only when something bad happens. If all interactions are about negative things, both parties will likely encounter each other with dread, he says.

When concerns or conflicts do arise, Grabowski encourages parents to speak directly with teachers and to hear them out. One of the worst things parents can do is to immediately complain about a teacher on social media, he says, noting that when he has heard of this happening to colleagues, the teachers have inevitably found out about the negative online comments.

"That can sour a relationship so, so quickly," he says.

A common roadblock to developing positive parent-teacher relationships stems from parents' own personal experiences with schooling, says Danielle Fullan Kolton, staff officer of professional and French language services at the Manitoba Teachers' Society.

If parents have had poor experiences in the past, those may colour their assumptions about how a teacher will respond, says Fullan Kolton, who holds workshops on managing difficult conversations.

"They might be intimidated, they might be leery of even going into a school," she says.

When dealing with conflicts with a teacher, parents sometimes get wrapped up in their emotions, which often include fear or lack of control, she adds. "When those conversations get stuck on emotion, it's hard to get to the actionable ways to make it better."

Fullan Kolton recommends parents bring up their concerns with teachers in person, where possible. She advises against doing this over e-mail, since it can be difficult for teachers to decipher a parent's tone in an e-mail.

And when engaging in difficult conversations, she suggests parents focus on their end goal. Consider what the child needs and how to express those needs.

"The idea isn't to win the conversation," she says, noting parents should keep in mind that teachers have the child's best interests at heart.

For Beuermann-King, navigating the parent-teacher relationship was not only about learning how to approach her sons' teachers. It also meant recognizing when not to intervene and encouraging her children to learn how to respond to conflicts with teachers on their own. This involved asking her children to consider their teachers' point of view, helping them to find words to express themselves and asking them to consider what steps they'd like to take.

"In an effort to help our child to be successful, sometimes we step in too soon," she says. "If we're problem-solving on their behalf, they learn that somebody else will always take care of it for them, instead of giving them the skills and confidence to address them themselves."

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