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Conversation, Not Confrontation: One Mom's Advice on Parent-Teacher Talks

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By Mary Beth Castell, M.A.

Q: Based on your experience, what do you think teachers need most from parents to set communication off on a good footing?

A: Most teachers are good, compassionate people. They want to know that a parent is going to be approachable, is going to listen, and is going to be fair. They want to know that you're going to give them a fair shot; not make assumptions about them based on your earlier experiences. That's sometimes hard for parents because they do have past negative experiences with teachers.

In my own situation, we went from a very bad school year to a very good year the following year because I broke down and acknowledged that I hadn't taken the best approach to working with the teacher. Even when you still don't think the teacher is right, you may have to apologize for your own mistakes in order to keep the communication open.

The following year, Jennifer's new teacher caught up with me early in the year and asked, "What do you think will work for Jennifer? What would you suggest?" I told him that Jennifer would know best, and that, if he saw her "wheels spinning," to prompt her to talk about it, and go with her ideas. So she had an entire year of school assignments based on a tennis theme-she really loves tennis and follows the sport.

For example, her class read biographies and reported on them. She wanted to do the Williams sisters (tennis champions, Venus and Serena), and her teacher, knowing that she's really good at "reading" people, asked her to compare and contrast the two sisters-their strengths and weaknesses. So, rather than just having her do the basic assignment, he pushed her to a higher cognitive level. He sees her writing abilities more clearly than I do.

Q: Do you have any other general suggestions for establishing and maintaining good parent-teacher communication?

A: Let the teacher know that you want to take the time to communicate with them and that they matter. Treat them as a fellow human being. Find out something about them. Do they have children? Is this their first time teaching this grade? Do they have a child or family member or friend who struggles with learning? What are their hobbies? Are they on the planning committee in the school building? As with any communication between two people, the more you know about them, the more you can make connections.

Before you have a formal conference with the teacher, you want to find out if they have a background in learning disabilities. That will affect how you talk with them about your child. The last thing is, when a teacher is doing something you like, notice it and take the time to tell them. There are many fabulous teachers that go the whole year without one compliment from parents. I loved it as a teacher, and I do it as a parent.

Comments from readers

"'Although she had taught for six years, Mary Beth says she'd never heard the term 'dyslexia' until her daughter was evaluated.' Are you crazy? How could this woman have taught anywhere for so long and never have even heard the word? Either she's so out of touch that this article has no relevance or she's lying. Either way, her perspective has very little value for the day to day educator. "
"My child's grade 1 teacher wants to have meetings about my child while she is there. The teacher says things like 'Sarah does not know how to count to 30'. After these meetings, Sarah is in tears for days at home. Do I have the right to refuse meeting with the teacher while my child is there? Should I talk to the principal about this teacher. What are my rights, and has this teacher crossed them? This teacher has also said that if I spend more time with my child, she would not have a problem with her speech."