“Twenty years after my son graduated from elementary school, I still feel pain when I see some of his teachers and rebbeim,” says Mrs. T. “Although my son is now productively employed and happily married, I still cannot forget the feelings of pain I had many years ago when he was a troublemaker in school…those horrible phone calls that filled me with dread every time there was a new infraction to report. I often felt that the teachers had already labeled him as impossible.”“I have been accused of many things by the parents of my students,” says Mrs. R. a middle school teacher. “Parents have insinuated that their child’s misbehavior is probably my fault because their child has always been fine until he entered my class. They have suggested that I am too old to be teaching and that younger teachers are more equipped to deal with today’s children. It compounds the difficulty of a teacher’s job when we do not have the support of the parents.”
The deep connection between parents and children is a given, and spans all eras and cultures. When one’s child, in whom one is so invested, is criticized – even when the criticism is clearly true – the parents feel hurt and defensive. Teachers, too, often feel victimized. They feel they are doing their best to educate and manage each child, yet parents may be unappreciative and even attack their methods and question their motives.
The parent-teacher relationship can be beautiful and productive or fraught with tension and misunderstanding, largely depending on the quality of the communication between school and home. The same principles of communication that are important in any human interaction also apply to the parent-teacher relationship, as detailed below.
Parental Attitude is Important
Parents can set the groundwork for a positive relationship with their child’s school by adopting the attitude that not everything can be attributed to them. For every parent who enjoys going to a PTA meeting and hearing that their child is doing well, has friends, participates in class and is earning good grades, there is another parent who knows the horrible feeling of hearing the opposite! The first parent walks out of the meeting feeling great. “I am doing a great job!” The second one feels like the school is saying, “Your child is not good enough, fix him!” Both parents need to realize that their child’s situation is not entirely in their control. The parent of the outstanding student cannot claim all the credit, and the parent of the terrible student cannot take all the blame. Many factors contribute to a child’s success in school, and they are not all tied to parenting. Each child is a product of his or her inborn abilities, environment, place in the family, and many other factors. If the school and the parents understood this truth, they could work together more effectively without either side feeling unnecessarily hurt or defensive.
Including the Teacher
Include the teacher in your child’s life. “If something is going on in your life that is affecting your child, it is very important to share that with the educator,” says Mr. K., a teacher in an elementary school. “A student of mine came into class crying every day. I had no idea what the problem was, until I heard from another teacher that his parents were in the process of getting separated. Although the mother had told the teacher of her younger son, she did not think her older child would be affected, so she did not tell me. Once I knew and the child knew that I knew, he was able to turn to me for support and empathy. It made such a difference in my ability to be helpful and understanding.”
Sometimes the teacher and parent together can brainstorm a solution to make the situation better. Listening to suggestions with an open mind is much easier when neither side feels judged. “A child in my class was coming home unhappy every day, although in school he seemed to be happy,” says Rabbi B. “I suggested to the mother that she bring along a snack for carpool. Maybe her son was irritable because he was hungry. To the mother’s credit, she was open to the suggestion, implemented it right away, and the problem was solved. It would be nice if all problems could be solved so easily.”
“My daughter came home from school on the first day very unhappy with her seat placement in the class,” says Mrs. P. “I told the teacher about the problem at the orientation, and the very next day, the teacher changed my daughter’s seat. I appreciated it so much that the teacher just listened without a fuss to my request!”
“I am not a big communicator,” says Mrs. L. “It is hard for me to call the school and make requests. But I was pleasantly surprised at the response of the school when I finally got the courage to take a stand. My daughter Sori, who is in the lower track for most subjects, told me about a conversation she overheard in her class. Sori’s fellow students discussed how, since they are at the very bottom of the school hierarchy because they are in the low track, they were unlikely to get any prestigious jobs in school. I was horrified that these girls have such a low opinion of themselves. I did not want Sori surrounded by girls who felt like that, especially because I work so hard to show her how valuable she is. I requested that she be moved out of those classes for the next school year. To my great shock and surprise, the administrator responded positively to my request and moved her for some of the classes!”
“My oldest son, Dovid, is everybody’s favorite student,” says Mr. P. “He loves to learn and is smart and well-behaved. This makes it very difficult for my younger son, Yitzi, who is not quite that perfect. I always make a point of explaining to the teacher that Yitzi has many good attributes but he should not be compared to his older brother. It helps the teacher put things into perspective.”
Whose Responsibility Is It?
Sometimes there is a difference of opinion about whose responsibility it is to solve the problem. “I was shocked at the reaction of a mother of one of my students when I told her that her daughter was not doing her homework,” says Mrs. L. “Instead of taking the responsibility and promising to make sure her daughter did her homework, she put the ball in my court. The mother replied, ‘When the weather is nice, my daughter wants to play outside. You are the one assigning the homework so it is your job to enforce a consequence if she doesn’t do it. If there is a consequence when she does not do the homework, she will do it on her own and I won’t have to fight with her about it.’”
“My son did not behave well in school, and I was constantly getting calls from the school about him,” says Mrs. T. “It was so difficult for me. It was obvious that the school put the responsibility for his behavior on my shoulders. Every day when he came home, I had to talk to him about the calls I had gotten that day and impose a consequence. Sometimes I would tell him that he couldn’t go outside to play. The misery of the school day spilled over and made our home life more stressful.”
Treating the Teacher with Respect
“A lot depends on how you treat the teacher,” says Mrs. K., a mother, grandmother, and wife of a teacher. “Speak with respect and understanding. Nobody responds well to critical attacks. Never go to the administration without first trying to work things out with the teacher.” She recalls, “One of my children was not doing well in her schoolwork so we had her tested. I approached the principal with the conclusions of the test, but he responded negatively to my request for any extra attention. He said, ‘Any extra time spent on an individual student is a big problem in our schools. We have to squeeze so much information into such a short period of time because of our dual curriculum,’ he said. I then approached the teacher, and she said, ‘No, problem, I will be happy to help implement the recommendations.’ The teachers are the ones who are in the trenches, and they are the ones who should be initially approached with any issues.”
Mrs. K. recalls another anecdote. “My son came home and complained that his teacher called him a derogatory name in front of the whole class. He was very upset and did not want to go back to school. I called the teacher, but instead of accusing him of calling my son a name, I said, ‘I do not know what actually happened, but this is what my son heard.’ I made it easier for the teacher and did not back him into a corner and force him to defend himself. The teacher was receptive and the situation did not happen again.”
Treating the Parent with Respect
Just as the parents must be careful to treat the teachers respectfully, the administration and teachers have to think about how to approach parents when there is an issue with their children. One mother described how terrible she felt when she and her husband were called to a meeting to discuss one of their children. They were expecting to meet with the administrator who had called the meeting, but to their horror, there were eight educators at the meeting. Each educator reinforced the others in their opinions about their daughter’s deficits! The parent felt helpless, because she wasn’t prepared for such a big meeting. Sharing who would be attending the meeting with the parents in advance would have made them feel respected and minimized unnecessary stress.
A special educator, Mrs. O. explained how she and her staff deal with parents. “First of all, it is very important to know the child well and to show the parent that you understand their child and know their personality,” Mrs. O says. “It feels much less threatening to the parent to speak to a person who has taken the time to get to know their child and can show that they appreciate his or her strengths.” She continues, “We make the meeting very low-key, and we emphasize the positive aspects of the resource room. When we want to work with kindergarten children, we emphasize how much it easier it is to start when the children are younger because they like to come and there is no stigma involved. Also, when we test children early, we can sometimes work with them before they even notice that they are not catching on as fast as the other kids. We can work on the issues before they are affecting the child’s learning.”
Another point that Mrs. O makes is the value of talking to parents and discussing the problems with them. “I am always amazed, although it has happened already many times, how one piece of information from the parent can be the missing piece of the puzzle that changes the whole picture! Sometimes, by questioning the parent, we can see that the problem is really occurring both at home and at school. We had one child who would do well with reading at the beginning of the day, but as the day progressed, her reading worsened and she began to make more mistakes. It was very strange. While schmoozing with her mother about what goes on at home, she mentioned that her daughter played games with her younger sister. I asked if her daughter usually finished the games. Was she always winning or always losing? Suddenly the mother perked up and mentioned. ‘You are right, she always plays enthusiastically in the beginning but after a while she gets tired and doesn’t want to finish the game.’ Now we saw that the problem was occurring both at home and at school. We could now suggest testing to try and pinpoint the problem.”
The parent-teacher relationship can be beautiful and productive or fraught with tension and misunderstanding. Ultimately, we’re all in this together, working toward the same goals. Keeping the gates of communication open and consulting with each other when necessary will enhance our ability to do the best for our precious children.