Teachers, Don't Make Me Be *That* Parent

11/24/2015 03:04 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2016

When I was a preschool administrator, one of my greatest frustrations was the parent who came to me after spring break to complain about a situation with a teacher. By then, there was little I could do to help other than work with the adults to achieve a decent ending to a yearlong bad situation for the child. I had already rehired the teacher for next year. Why did that parent wait so long?

Looking at this phenomenon again through the eyes of parents, I finally get it. Most parents want to be understanding, supportive, and liked by their children's teachers. They don't want to be branded as complainers, pushy, or demanding. In short, they want to be nice. Unfortunately, being nice can end up hurting the person who matters most, their child.

As a former teacher and administrator, I am almost always in the teachers' corner. But when a teacher forces a parent to become *that* parent by neglecting to communicate and by failing to welcome and encourage parental input, I have to ask: Why has the educator chosen to be *that* teacher? You know what I mean. The teacher who yells at the children. The teacher who assigns a ridiculous amount of homework. The teacher who doesn't seem to like your child. The teacher who doesn't return your emails or phone calls.

I could probably write 100 of these stories, but instead will share one, that of a family with a child in special education classes. It's already Thanksgiving week, and his parents, who were hoping to avoid being seen as *that* parent, are worried.

For the child in special education, this school year is beginning to feel like a rerun of most of his educational experiences. The year began well enough, with the teacher telling his parents there would be weekly email updates and the parents offering to share information from the child's private therapists to help the teacher. In addition, the child's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) called for consultants to come in to help the teacher develop strategies for the child's learning. It seemed like all of the pieces were in place for a good year.

Emails arrived the first two weeks reassuring the parents that the child was adjusting well to his new school environment and classroom. Then silence. The parents communicated that they were willing to do whatever was needed to work in partnership with the teacher. More silence. Don't be too pushy, they told themselves. No news is good news, right? So they waited for their formal fall conference.

That conference was similar to most fall conferences they have attended for their child with special needs in public school. The teacher focused entirely on behavior and what plan she had implemented to address it. The parent who attended knew the child could be challenging, felt badly that the child was difficult, and was grateful that the teacher was trying. The teacher described what she thought worked well. There was a "quiet room" where the child could go to regain control, and that seemed to help. In fact, he became so calm he sometimes fell asleep.

The parent went home to share the information with his spouse. But wait. What is the "quiet room"? How often and long is he there? Why is he there alone when he has a classroom aide assigned to him? Is there a written behavior plan? Why have no consultants specified in the IEP come yet? And by the way, is he learning anything?

Still wanting to be reasonable and cooperative partners in their child's educational experience, the parents reached out to the teacher requesting a follow up conference. One. Two. Three emails. Each one polite. Each one simply asking to talk. Silence. So now it's Thanksgiving week. The parents know how school calendars work. No meeting will take place this week or before Winter Break. School schedules are just too busy during the holiday season. Maybe January?

Now they have become *that* parent. They will have to send copies of everything up the chain of command. To the principal, special education liaison for the school, head of special education, and maybe the superintendent. They are angry and rightfully so.

This is not a unique tale of one teacher's poor communication and lack of collaboration. The child is in sixth grade, and this has been the parents' experience for all but a couple of years of his time in school. Until they make a fuss, until they go over the teacher's head, nothing will happen for their child beyond behavior management. By the time they are sitting at the spring IEP meeting, hearing once again how little progress their child has made that year, they are totally *that* parent.

Reflecting back on my frustration as the administrator who often told upset parents in late April or May, "I wish you had come to me sooner," and then had to work with a teacher who had already signed a contract for the following year, I get it. The parents feared coming to me in the fall would make the teacher dislike them. Even worse, she might dislike their child. And I'm sure there were other parents over the years who didn't bother to complain at all. But they should have.

Most teachers love working with children, but some of these same dedicated educators are reluctant to work with parents. After all, some parents do make unreasonable demands or have unrealistic expectations. As an administrator, it was my job to emphasize the importance of communication to my teachers and to deal with parents whose expectations were beyond what was fair for the teachers to manage.

Now that I am neither teaching nor running a school, my job is to encourage parents to speak up sooner. To be polite but be persistent. I understand the child in you wants the teacher's approval, wants to be liked. But now your job as parent and advocate trumps all of that. It's Thanksgiving. If your child is doing well in school and your child's teacher has kept you in the loop, be thankful. If not, it's time to be *that* parent.