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.