We're in the learning business.

I am personally struggling right now with a situation involving a child of a friend, who does not attend my school, who has had a difficult start to the school year. He says his teacher is “mean.” She has kept him in from recess on multiple days because his handwriting exercises weren’t satisfactory. She uses the word “bad” when describing his work. Stickers can be earned- for 10/10 work. When asked if he is greeted with a smile each morning, he says no. When asked if his teacher ever smiles, he responds, “Sometimes, if she’s reading a funny story.” She told the class they were going to start taking tests “just like college students.” His love of learning is being suffocated. He cries before school. He is anxious.
He is six years old.
These are the facts as I know them, reported from the boy’s parents. He is not a student at my school, but I’ve known him all my life. I know he is a creative, artistic, hard-working, honest, intelligent, imaginative, empathetic, enthusiastic child. He aims to please. He is every teacher’s dream.
So. I am a principal. The thought of him, or any child, being subjected to this type of treatment in a primary classroom, or any classroom for that matter, is devastating to me. It disappoints me. It infuriates me, and I want to do something about it.
Every administrator will eventually encounter a concern or complaint from a parent regarding the way his/her child is being treated by a teacher. Or about the teacher’s rules. Or homework policies. Or grading system. Or projects. What to do?
Like many in my PLN, I’m fascinated about the buzz surrounding a father’s simple observation on his daughter’s Meet the Teacher night and the ensuing discussions/explosions about how parents should or should not insert themselves into the facets of their child’s educational experience. Teachers, administrators, and parents chimed in on Will Richardson’s post that reflected on Alec Couros’s tweet and detailed his own frustrations with his children’s schools. Lee Kolbert’s post proceeded to delineate the ways in which she must “suck” as a teacher because she sets clear expectations for behaviors in her classroom.
Does any parent want less than the best for his child? In my experience, no. This simple fact has helped me tremendously in dealing with disgruntled, angry, upset, confused, and scared parents. I listen to concerns, no matter how ridiculous I may think they are. I entertain heated conversations so long as they remain respectful.

My young friend’s mother cried to me on the phone, “I send him to that school for 8 hours a day. He is in her care for 8 hours. How can I feel comfortable allowing him to get on the bus each morning when I know he is so unhappy?”
Simple. She can’t. She needs to make her voice heard. Legitimate concerns have to be brought to the teacher’s attention. So while I resist the urge to email my thoughts about this particular teacher to the school’s principal (and believe me, I’ve already crafted that communication in my head ten times over), I encouraged my friend to request a conference with the teacher directly. I told her I’d support her in any way I could, and that if she didn’t get a positive response, that I’d help her move to the next level.
Why? Am I out to get the teacher? No. I’m out to help the student. If my young friend would walk through the door of his first grade classroom feeling as though he was appreciated, that his work was valuable, and that he was cared for, the struggle to perfect his Zaner-Bloser “M”s might not be such a struggle at all.
Every school needs a well-established system for involving parents, one that is structured, public, and accessible to all. Parents need to know that their voices ARE important. I encourage my teachers to continue developing strong relationships with parents, and vice-versa.  If a parent calls me on the phone or emails me about a classroom issue before he/she has contacted the classroom teacher, I inform the parent that I appreciate the contact, but please call the teacher to discuss this, because he/she is so much more knowledgeable about that particular issue than I am.
More often than not, parents call me directly because of the incredible emotion they are feeling about the situation. That can scare a teacher, but sometimes I think teachers are so caught on the defensive that they fail to remember that the parent’s involvement in their children’s education SHOULD be emotional. We should ALL be emotional about the education of our children.
My school’s home-school communication forums were somewhat lacking when I arrived three years ago. In the past three years, I have seen teachers go from monthly or zero communications to weekly posts on their classroom webpages; beautifully designed, informative, and student-created monthly newsletters; more email communication; increased phone calls to parents and teachers providing parents with their personal cell phone numbers so they can be reached after school hours; a school newspaper with articles published by students; monthly newsletters from the principals office and principal webpage updates; a school Twitter account (still catching on, but we’ll get there); hundreds of parent and family visitors for school breakfasts and events with our students; and greater attendance at parent-teacher organization meetings. That doesn’t happen by accident. You have to want it to happen. You have to make it happen.
As a teacher, I worked with many students whose parents were also teachers, and I made sure to step up my game when it came to communicating with them. Why? Because I knew they knew what they were talking about. I considered that they were judging everything I did in the classroom, every project their child was assigned, every test score, and every newsletter I mailed home. They kept me on my toes, and I appreciated their feedback.
No teacher wants to hear that her classroom isn’t the ideal place to learn. But in a profession where it’s so easy to fall into “complacency mode,” we have to encourage our teachers to rethink what they do on a daily basis, and to take suggestions from well-intentioned, knowledgeable parents, colleagues, and administration under consideration. I will do the same.
I have faith that my first grade friend will see an improvement in his daily school life after his parents meet with his teacher and openly discuss their concerns. Together, I believe his parents and teacher will brainstorm ideas about how to reduce his anxiety and support his learning.
We’re all in this together. In my mind, there are very few instances where communicating your thoughts respectfully with a teacher or principal can be detrimental. Even if no action is immediately taken, constructive criticisms will make people think and will help them learn.
After all, this is the learning business, isn’t it?

6 Replies to “We're in the learning business.”

  1. Loved your post. Have you read the book by Nancy McEwan called ” Dealing with parents who are angry scared or just plain crazy” it has a catchy title but I found it helpful. She mentions a lot of the points you made.
    Akevy

    1. Akevy, I have not read the book you mentioned, but it certainly has peaked my interest! I will definitely check it out. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful comments on my posts!

  2. Your post is such an excellent resource for the discussion that has been going on regarding Will and Lee’s posts.

    We expect parents to just “get” what our school or classroom is about–having been in the classroom and then being a parent, my view has shifted a great deal. It’s bewildering to try to understand the philosophy of a particular classroom, and the more teachers your child has in any given year, the more challenging. Having a communication process in place as a school that helps build community around a school philosophy, and having teacher communications as well does help pave the way for a better environment for all.

    It is work for teachers and sometimes that might seem like an “add-on” but I think it’s very critical in a child’s education to have everyone working as a team–the more we understand one another, the more we can work in concert.

    1. Carolyn, I appreciate your perspective as a teacher and parent. I agree it is not easy to develop relationships with parents, but it is absolutely critical. The partnership between home and school cannot be overemphasized. I know sometimes it is easier for our teachers to develop rapport and have discussions with children as opposed to adults, but the extra work we put into building trust with parents and community members will ultimately benefit our children. Thank you so much for your comment!

  3. I’m also aghast and have spent the past few hours wanting to rescue this child from what appears to be a very insensitive teacher. (Of course this may not be the case.)

    Based upon my 16 years’ experience as a K-5 principal, I think your friend should write a letter to the principal explaining her concerns and requesting to meet ASAP with the teacher, in the 1st grade classroom, with the principal sitting in as the advocate for the child.

    If at the end of the discussion everyone comes to an understanding as how best to proceed for the benefit of the child, fine. If not, positive steps need to be taken by the principal to protect this child. One option, of course, is to place the child with a different teacher.

    Hopefully the principal is a good listener, has a good relationship with the teacher and will be able to plan strategies to help his/her teacher. Possibly there are personal matters with which the teacher is dealing (such as health problems, family illness, mental health issues, etc.). A supportive principal should be able direct her to the appropriate community resources.

    Irregardless, the principal needs to spend time in that first grade assessing the situation and helping that teacher. The sooner the better.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Richard. I agree the principal’s role will be key in resolving the issues my friend is experiencing, although the optimist in me is hoping that together the parents and teacher can first work out a solution. I do believe this particular teacher would benefit from increased support in her areas of need, which certainly the principal can provide!

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