“What do I do when I am unhappy with something that is happening in my child’s class or at my child’s school?” is the question I get asked most when people find out that I am a teacher. This is often an awkward conversation for me because, well to be quite honest, if I only hear one side of the issue, I don’t have all the information. But I do genuinely want to help and so, if I can see where the reality of the classroom may intersect with their expectation as a parent, then I will gently try to educate the questioner on the reality of teaching in a public education setting. However, sometimes, from what they tell me, they may have a valid issue that needs to be brought forth. I will often listen and then encourage parents to go and discuss the situation with the teacher if it is a classroom issue, or administration (Principal, Asst. Principal or other designate) if the issue is a school issue. It is better to clear the air than to stew about situation and let negative feelings fester. However, the idea of going to talk to a teacher or administrator can be difficult for some people to do. They will ask how they should do it. So, the following is basically what I tell them.
How to effectively advocate for your child:
A. Talk to the teacher directly.
1. Don’t do it while you are still mad. Wait 24 hours to give yourself time to calm down, and to see if it is still important. If you still feel the need to approach the teacher, then do it before 48 hours has lapsed. This is because issues are harder to address the farther you get from when the issue happened. Remember this is just a guideline, but has been quite effective for me.
2. Before going into speak with the teacher, know what it is that you want. What end result are you asking for? Do you want the teacher to acknowledge something? or Do you want the teacher to change something? or Do you want the teacher to monitor something?
3. Before forming a conclusion, be sure to hear the teacher out, and see if there are facts that your child may not know or has not shared with you. Also, give your child’s teacher an opportunity to investigate a situation if that is needed.
4. When you go to speak to the teacher be respectful, stay calm and polite. It may help to start with what you like about your child’s classroom experience before mentioning your concern. When you do speak about your concern, make sure that you stick to the facts, and try to leave emotion and judgement out of it. For example avoid saying things like, “well you should…” or “that little hoodlum…”
5. Focus on YOUR child and how they are being affected. Even if you believe that other children are also being impacted, remember that it is their parents’ job to advocate for them. Also, it diminishes your argument to use non-specific examples or to discuss situations where you likely do not have all the facts. Focus on what you know, see, or hear yourself, or what your child tells you. Try not to bring into the conversation what your child tells you someone else said, or what you might think about someone else’s situation. The teacher will not, for privacy reasons, be able to discuss other children or their circumstances with you.
B. Speak to administration.
I have worked with a number of professionals who would never recommend going above a teacher’s head to speak to administration. I, on the other hand, think that this can actually be a very helpful tool. Administrators often have more time to speak to parents. This allows for them to take the time to listen for more detail and to explain things in more detail. Having a person who is one-step removed from the situation can help to mediate the concern. I have seen good administrators be quite effective in getting teachers and parents to look beyond their respective feelings and work toward a satisfactory conclusion.
What to remember when you speak to an administrator is not at very different from what you need to remember when speaking to your child’s teacher:
1. You need to remember to stay calm, be polite, and be clear in your own mind, but also with the administrator, about what do you want the outcome of your meeting to be?
2. Explain to the administrator why you feel it is important to resolve the issue or concern, and let them know how you have tried to resolve the issue with your child’s teacher already.
3. Focus on how the issue is affecting your child and try to avoid speaking for the whole class or other parents. If other parents have discussed concerns with you, encourage them to discuss the issue with, first the teacher, and then with administration if needed.
4. Be sensitive to the fact that the administrator is likely not going to have firsthand knowledge of the situation. They too may need to investigate before coming to any conclusions.
C. Call the School Board or School Board Trustree (elected official for the School Board)
Every school board will have a leadership hierarchy. If you do not know who to call, call the school board directly and ask them who can help you meet your objective. The people you talk to initially may try to dissuade you, and refer you back to the school. Remember to stay calm, stay focused, and be precise. Once again tell them:
1. Why the issue is important to you.
2. How it is impacting your child.
3. The steps that you have taken to resolve the issue at the school level.
4. What you expect them to do or what a successful outcome would look like.
5. And always be calm and polite.
Effective advocacy is the responsibility of every parent, and the right of every child. Generally, the best outcomes happen when schools and parents work together and sometimes that might mean having a conversation that one or both parties are uncomfortable having. However, the goal for both parties should be creating a fair, respectful, and caring environment for your child, and all the others in their classroom and school community.