When Teachers and Students Clash
Q: My 9th grade, 14-year-old daughter can’t stand two of her six teachers this year. As I head into parent-teacher conferences, I don’t know how to approach them. Usually she gets along well with all of her teachers; this year is different. I can’t tell if it is her or if it is the teachers. Do you have any suggestions?
A: First of all, it’s great that you actively participate in parent-teacher conferences. Many teachers report less than 25 percent participation, and most parents come to hear how great their kids are rather than ask how they can help their kids in school. Even fewer come to let teachers know what a difference they are making in their child’s life or to give them examples of how their child is learning from their assignments.
Parent-teacher conferences create an opportunity for you to talk to your daughter about the problems she is having with her two teachers, as well as talk to her teachers. The more detail you get from your daughter, the better prepared you will be for the conferences. Find out what she likes and dislikes about each class. The fact that you two communicate about her relationships with her teachers sets an excellent foundation for trying to change the situation.
You also know your daughter. Does she exaggerate and embellish things, or does she usually understate, or minimize issues? Is she historically accurate when assessing situations or is she easily hurt, often misreading others? Could this change in relationship with her teachers relate to a new school environment or a developmental change? Knowing your daughter’s personality will help you as you approach both talking to her and to her teachers. Her teachers might like help in understanding your daughter’s personality as well.
You know your daughter traditionally has had good relationships with her teachers. Have you heard some unfamiliar grumblings about the class, the teacher, or other students in the class already? First, think back to what you’ve heard about these two classes and see if you can remember a pattern. Follow up on issues such as teacher expectations, level of course work, classroom set-up or behavior of fellow students as you and your daughter prepare your pre-conference list of questions for each teacher. Write these down. It models active parent-teacher involvement, as well as giving you an opportunity to think through what your daughter says is happening in each class, and your goals for both the class and the conference. It is important that you have your daughter’s input. You may want to add questions of your own later.
Ask your daughter what is going well in the classes she likes. What is creating problems for her in the other two classes? You can listen for the same patterns as you did earlier. We all have preferences for how things work and what helps us learn. This year, these differences between the classes may end up giving your daughter more information about her strengths and areas for growth.
With a 14-year-old daughter, you want to take the role of coaching her in handling issues when possible. As you listen to her, hopefully you will discover how other kids in her class are handling the teachers where she struggles. Listen for strategies that other students might be using in the class. Some of these strategies may be setting up individual conferences with the teacher or asking the teacher what they need to do to improve their grades, or simply trying to do their best while maintaining a positive attitude. Would any of those coping methods work for her?
If anyone reports being bullied in these discussions, whether it be by a fellow classmate, an older child, or being verbally abused by an adult, be sure to listen carefully to exactly what happened. Misuse of power and authority may need to be addressed by the school.
Think about being open and curious regarding the teacher’s assessments of your daughter’s strengths and areas for improvement at the parent-teacher conference. Your language can reflect the goal of learning being a process where all of you have a role. You want to support both the teacher and your daughter in making the most of the class. Some parents and some teachers did not always have good experiences in school as students. They may be fearful of a parent-teacher conference becoming adversarial and argumentative. As long as all parties want the best for the student, then the parent learning from the teacher about what he/she sees in the classroom can only help. If you get a widely different view from the student’s perspective, it might be appropriate to ask if another conference can be held with the three parties — you, the teacher and your daughter — to come up with a plan. Everyone wants a successful learning experience.
Teachers rarely are disrespectful to their students, but if that is your daughter’s interpretation, keep it in mind when you listen to the teacher’s evaluation of how she is doing in the classroom and how she could improve. After listening to that teacher, ask if she could help you understand why your daughter feels afraid in the class and perceives her to be overly critical or judgmental of her in front of others. The question alone may stop the behavior. The teacher may not have realized how his or her comments were being taken.
Again, take notes regarding your daughter’s strengths and areas for growth in each of her classes. Repeat any steps you and the teacher agreed upon with the teacher before leaving the conference. Share these with your daughter alone after the conference and get her thoughts about what she hears. Make sure you don’t overwhelm her with ways she needs to change. Be sure that your daughter isn’t responding to unintentional pressure from you about her school achievements. In fact, make sure she knows she has all the skills she needs to do well in every class. Then remind her you are there to help. You might want to follow up the conferences with the teachers by sending them a note thanking them for their interest and attention they give to their profession and to your daughter. Keep the lines of communication open so they know you are on their team as everyone works together to help your daughter succeed. Good luck!