The Parent-Teacher-Student Partnership

You may have noticed that I have not posted anything new in several weeks. There are two reasons for this. First, I have been deeply immersed in creative writing over the summer due to the slower pace, visits to places that inspire me, and participating in a writers’ group for the past six months. The second reason is that no topics for blogging have emerged from my clinical work recently. Until now.

Last week, I spent a lot of time talking to kids about two different topics. With those lucky enough to start school after Labor Day, I spent time talking about their hopes and worries for the new school year. With those who already had several days of school under their belts, I asked about their schedules, their classes, their peers, and their teachers.

Ten year old Hatsu, a lovely and very bright girl I have enjoyed watching grow up for the past couple of years, provided me with today’s quote and inspiration. Hatsu attends a small independent school that practices “looping” in the lower grades. Looping simply means that the teacher moves up with the students, sometimes through all of the grades and sometimes just for one or two. Hatsu is a new 5th grader and has Mrs. L. as her teacher for the second consecutive year. I know that she did not have a great 4th grade experience due to a less-than-ideal match between teacher and learner. Mrs L. is somewhat “old school,” giving a lot of not-very-interesting homework and frequent tests that require a lot of memorization. She has high standards for classroom behavior and is a tough grader. While Hatsu is a gifted student, she is also very much a free spirit who loves to put her own creative spin on her assigned work. Mrs. L. did not always appreciate Hatsu’s flair, and Mrs. L.’s displeasure was often reflected in Hatsu’s grades.

When I asked Hatsu how she was feeling about the start of 5th grade, she sighed dramatically and told me that she was expecting it to be a “very terrible year.” When I asked why, she mentioned several disappointments, including a close friend leaving her school and not getting her first instrument choice for the 5th grade ensemble. And then she added,

I have no respect for Mrs. L. and neither do my parents. – Hatsu, age 10

Full disclosure: my children have been blessed with a long, unbroken line of great teachers. I have never been in the position, as a parent, where I could not respect a teacher. I can remember clearly as a student, however, complaining to my parents about a couple of teachers who were really, truly terrible, (see Dealing with a Difficult Teacher for more on this) one in 4th grade (this one believed that if a handful of kids misbehaved, then the whole class should be punished; she also made it clear that she thought boys were poor students and trouble-makers) and one in 10th (this one taught History and made outrageous statements about People of Color, “Yankees,” and other groups, such as wealthy families, that she did not respect). At the time, my parents responded in what felt like very unsupportive ways. They would say things like

  • You don’t have to like her or agree with her, but you do have to treat her with respect.
  • She’s the teacher; you are going to have to find a way to deal with her.
  • The best revenge is to do excellent work.

Now that I am old and “wise,” I completely understand why my parents responded in the ways that they did and why their responses were really on point.

  • There are at least two points of view in every teacher-student relationship, and parents typically hear a very one-sided version of events. It is naive to assume that a child can provide an unbiased account, even if the child makes a sincere effort to do so. What if, for example, Mrs. L. said “For this essay, it is very important that you follow the outline in the handout. This is the format the middle school teachers prefer, and I want you to be ready next year.” Hatsu might have heard this as, “There is no room for creativity in this essay. Just stick to the outline.” Those are very different messages.
  • School is about much more than developing academic skills and learning factual information; it is just as much about social and emotional development. Children dealing with difficult teachers (or teachers who are just not a good match for them) have the essential opportunity to practice important skills such as getting along with people they don’t enjoy, following rules they may not agree with, and finding their voices within others’ constraints.
  • Teachers who feel like “poor matches” may be the ones who teach exactly what a student needs. For example, Hatsu naturally excels at the creative aspects of projects, but she is a relatively weaker writer. She is great at coming up with ideas but has a harder time organizing them on paper. She has a keen understanding of math concepts, but tends to make careless errors because she doesn’t attend closely to details. Mrs. L. feels like a poor match to Hatsu when, in fact, she may be the exact right teacher for her at this moment in time.

After Hatsu and I wrapped up our discussion about school, which focused mostly on being open-minded and taking some responsibility for making the best of a less-than-ideal situation, I asked her to wait in the waiting room so that I could speak to her mother alone. Mom was a little put off when I asked about her conversations with Hatsu about Mrs. L. In fact, at one point, she stated emphatically, “I’m not going to pretend to like someone that I don’t.” I confirmed that Hatsu will be in Mrs. L.’s class for the entire year, no matter how unhappy the family is about this. Then, I asked Mom to think about the following question: Given that Hatsu will be in Mrs. L.’s class for the next 9 1/2 months, what is there to gain by feeding into Hatsu’s dislike and disrespect for her teacher?”

Mom was ready with a retort. She argued that joining with her daughter helps Hatsu feel supported. She believes that any attempt to challenge Hatsu’s perspective will leave her feeling unheard. I encouraged Mom to consider a middle ground that might sound something like this:

I understand that Mrs. L. is not your favorite kind of teacher and that you wish you had a teacher who is more fun and creative. Still, she has been teaching for many years and I trust that she wouldn’t be teaching at your school for so long if she weren’t good at her job. Let’s think together about what you might do to have a better year with Mrs. L. Any effort you make to improve your relationship with her will help make it a more enjoyable year for you.

I brought Hatsu back into the office and modeled what Mom could say. Not surprisingly, Hatsu came up with two excellent ideas immediately. She suggested that she could meet all Mrs. L.’s requirements for assignments and then add extra creative touches. She also suggested that she continue to pursue her creative interests during her free time. I am confident that there are many other ways that Hatsu can have a great year in 5th grade even if she doesn’t have her ideal teacher.

When parents criticize teachers or join in their children’s negative comments, they risk ruining the opportunity to partner with their child’s teacher(s). Any parent who has had a child who struggles with one or more components of school life – academics, study skills, peer relationships – knows how valuable good relationships with teachers are. It is impossible to take a child’s side one minute and partner effectively with the teacher the next. A collaborative approach, in which child/student, parents, and teachers are all on the same team working toward shared goals, much more effectively sets the child/student up for school success.

For Hatsu and her parents, this may mean a meeting (or several) with Mrs. L. in which Hatsu expresses her frustration in a respectful way, the family listens to Mrs. L.’s point of view, and then everyone works together to come up with ideas that support the shared goal of Hatsu having a successful and enjoyable year in 5th grade.

Hopefully, Hatsu is at school this morning thinking about our discussion last week. She certainly demonstrated in my office that she is capable of thinking flexibly and more positively about another year in Mrs. L.’s class. I am confident that, if Hatsu and her parents take a more collaborative approach, it can be a great year. And I can’t wait to see what Hatsu does with her first project: This Is Who I Am. She was planning to write a poem and make it into a photo montage slide show.

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About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Children of all ages, Elementary/Lower School, High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Parent-Teacher-Student Partnership

  1. KPadgett says:

    I LOVE how you dealt with a situation where you responded to a dislike of a teacher but did not totally agree with the child, yet taught her how to respect the teacher. What a positive and refreshing way to look at a situation that was not the best.

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  6. Heather A Covert says:

    And what do you do when the teacher really is toxic, lazy, and so tenured that she just doesn’t give a shit any more?

  7. Dr. Sayers says:

    That is really a tough scenario. You might find something of help in the post titled “Dealing with a Difficult Teacher.” However, if the situation is really bad, you will have to take over and work your way up the school district hierarchy, especially if your child is young (elementary school age). With older kids (middle and high school age), it may be most helpful to focus on supporting him/her through the challenging experience rather than to risk making it worse by taking on the teacher and higher-ups. I am really sorry you are and your child are in this situation and wish you the best. Thanks for reading.

  8. RR says:

    My daughter is in 4th grade and having a rough year. She is a type A student who puts a lot of pressure on herself. Her teacher demands very high standards from her students. This combo has caused my daughter to completely shut down. She’s too afraid of making mistakes in her work that she won’t even try. She won’t eat and is developing phobias. She is seeing a counselor and a naturopath. My 9 year old shouldn’t have to spend her free time at the doctor! I’m seriously considering switching schools and have 2 tours scheduled tomorrow. I don’t know what to do! If she stays in same school she will have same teacher next year.

    • Dr. Sayers says:

      This is really tough, and I am sorry your daughter (and you!) are going through such a difficult time. I’m assuming you’ve tried to talk to the teacher and his/her direct supervisor without any improvement in the situation. If that’s the case, it might be helpful to bring the counselor into the conversation. In my experience, teachers sometimes don’t change their ways b/c they don’t really know what to do differently. When I make specific suggestions about how to decrease the pressure the student feels, create a safe space in which the student can take risks and make mistakes, and reward effort and risk-taking instead of perfection, many teachers will make changes that go a long way in reducing the stress and anxiety the child is experiencing. If you’ve tried all that and there is still no improvement, then a change of schools might make sense. But, it’s important to keep in my that, as you pointed out, your daughter is “a type A student who puts a lot of pressure on herself” and is “too afraid of making mistakes in her work that she won’t even try.” These factors will follow your daughter to the next school. Before taking such a drastic step which in and of itself may cause more stress because anxious kids do not like change, talk to the counselor and make sure that he/she is teaching your daughter strategies for coping with the worry and the physical symptoms of anxiety. Not every counselor is trained to provide the type of therapy known to be most effective for childhood anxiety (cognitive-behavioral therapy). If not, look for a psychologist with this expertise. Hope that’s helpful. Good luck to you and your daughter.

      • RR says:

        Thank you so much for the quick response. Her counselor is great- she actually has experience treating other kids who have had trouble with this teacher! Like I said, I have school tours scheduled tomorrow and then a meeting with the principal and teacher on Monday. I know everything will work out as it’s meant to, but it’s still hard to watch my daughter suffer. Thanks again!

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