As the mother of a dyslexic son, I cannot count the number of times I've found myself crazy upset when my child would report feeling hurt or shamed or unfairly treated by a teacher. When teachers speak damaging words or make unfair decisions about our children, it can spur us into impassioned action. In most cases, action is good. But the nature of that action matters. It matters a lot.
Parents of children with complicated learning profiles frequently tell me stories of their children being incorrectly labeled lazy, careless or unintelligent. Hoping to leverage my teacher perspective, they ask for advice about how to respond to decisions they perceive as unfair. Often these conflicts are further complicated by their child's retreat from school and loss of general confidence. The upset parent's sense of urgency and frustration is understandable. However, after many years teaching I can say with certainty that venting at or sending snarky emails to a teacher -- or, worse yet, taking frustrations to an administrator before talking directly to the teacher -- is a mistake. At best, those responses will be ineffective. At worst, they can damage the very important relationship between teacher and student. Even when a teacher appears insensitive or disengaged, it is always in your child's best interest to assume a teacher's good intentions and channel your frustration into designing ways to support your child and teacher in the classroom. Here are six things you should do:
When a child first reports a problem with a teacher, try to assess the issue and see if there is a way to help them solve the misunderstanding or upsetting situation directly with that teacher. After hearing your child's problem, consider asking the child to talk to his or her teacher about it. Children may need your help planning, practicing and previewing potential teacher responses. In particular, children in the early grades may need help communicating with their teachers about problems and/or challenges in the classroom. However, students are never too young to take their issues directly to their teachers.
Teachers are much more likely to extend assistance to a child who asks for it. When a child talks with his or her teacher, it gives the teacher an opportunity to better understand that child's experience. Additionally, the child will be communicating that he or she is trying and cares about his or her work. Teachers will typically move mountains to help a student who makes an effort to talk to them. Through direct conversation, your child will be engaging the teacher on a personal level, and therefore a teacher will be more likely to employ a greater variety of measures to help him or her succeed.
You are the only one who knows if your child is staying up late to get work done, not having time to pursue other interests, or melting down out of frustration or humiliation. Don't hide this information. Teachers can't make adjustments if they don't know the whole picture. Consider sending a nonjudgmental email or placing a phone call to let the teacher know what it looks like at home. Giving teachers a glimpse of what kind of adult support is required outside class also helps them adjust workload expectations. Let teachers know if your child requires books read aloud, papers transcribed or any other kind of heavy parental involvement.
As in conflicts of any kind, there are two sides. Before expressing any concerns, it is best to lead with curiosity when you speak to the teacher. Ask questions about your child's situation before drawing any conclusions. It is likely that you will learn important information by listening and communicating respect for the teacher.
Teaching students with learning challenges is usually more labor-intensive. Anyone who denies this is probably being evasive. For example, dyslexic students can be challenging when their deficits require ongoing adjustments and accommodations in a regular classroom. But this difficulty is not necessarily due to the child's lack of work ethic or intellectual curiosity -- or an inability to understand the concepts. A teacher might have to identify how to teach spelling differently or help your child find adapted spelling strategies. In writing-intensive classes, a teacher may have to become your student's scribe, figure out a way to get him or her composing on a keyboard or make adjustments related to time.
However, teachers (including myself) frequently say that students with learning challenges are some of the most satisfying students to teach. Having students who learn differently in one's class also acts as a litmus test for best practices. Every student benefits from lessons that break concepts into smaller parts, connect to big ideas and have objectives that are transparent and thoroughly outlined. Students with learning differences cause teachers to reflect more deeply. Teachers have to wrestle with important questions like: "What am I really trying to teach with this activity?" They also have to distinguish between the skills they are asking the students to apply (i.e. handwriting or spelling) vs. skills that the activity intends to assess (i.e. inquiry skills or comprehension of information). Teachers frequently report that struggling students push them to improve and evolve their teaching practices.
Teachers are human. A little appreciation goes a long way. Remembering to acknowledge special things they do for your child makes them much more likely to go out of their way again. Even if you feel like something is an entitlement or a basic expectation, resist communicating that. Showing appreciation for the teacher and exhibiting awareness that your child is not the only student in the class will go a long way toward establishing understanding. Teachers who feel appreciated are much more likely to put in the extra time and effort that may be critical to your child's academic success.
When possible, offer support that will make the teacher's job easier: gather information, help your child stay organized, provide a supportive environment for homework and support school policies and classroom rules. These actions will extend support to your child's teacher while building invaluable goodwill.
Finally, a confession: as much as I care about all my students, I still possess blind spots and occasionally I make decisions that unintentionally cause them distress. Therefore, I need and welcome thoughtful feedback from parents and students in my class. Next time you find yourself strategizing about how to fire your child's flawed teacher, consider exploring ways to strengthen the partnership between home and school instead. Your child will be much better served.