Our experts (all teachers or school psychologists themselves) report on ways to approach teachers that will get their attention, and the ways that won’t.
Find the right time to speak to the teacher. Always ask the teacher if she has time to talk at that moment, or better yet, when it might be convenient for her to do so. If a conference is not coming up soon, ask if you can make an appointment for a brief conversation. “Don’t expect to have an extended conversation during drop-off and pick-up,” advises teacher Susan Becker, M. Ed. “Mornings and after school can actually be quite hectic times. The teacher may appear free but she’s not.”
Write short, effective notes. If you want a quick response, keep your correspondence brief. Nobody (particularly teachers) has time to read more than one page, and a short paragraph will probably get the fastest response. Be specific about the issue and ask for guidance. For example, you might say, “Lucy’s been having trouble with the math homework recently. She struggled for 30 minutes and then we stopped. Can we speak on the phone for a few minutes at your convenience about how to help?”
Make sure your message gets to the teacher. Handwritten notes, leaving occasional messages on teachers’ voicemail or sending emails (if allowed by school policy) are effective ways to communicate. Sometimes mailing a note to the school can be the most reliable way to get information through, for parents who do not take their kids to school. But don’t be upset if you don’t get an immediate response. If you don’t hear back after a few days, make sure your teacher got your communication, particularly if you sent it via your child.
Come prepared to conferences. Make a list in advance of what you want to discuss. Let the teacher know you have some questions and be specific: give concrete details that paint an objective picture of a problem. Instead of sweeping comments like “Denzel is having a terrible year,” offer tangible data, like “at least three days a week, Denzel melts down while trying to do his math homework. He says ‘I don’t understand’ and ‘I’m stupid.’” This way you can collaborate with the teacher on solutions.
Discuss what matters most. Your teacher wants to know about how best to teach your child, so share what your child loves to learn about as well as any struggles he may have. This way, you can look at the whole picture of your child together. “Instead of focusing just on grades, focus on what your child loves, how he learns, and what he struggles with. Think of specifics you can offer the teacher to help her teach your child and listen to what he has to say,” advises Michael Thompson, Ph.D. “If you have a report card to review, use it to brainstorm together how you can both support your child’s learning, instead of dissecting each grade. Ask how your child functions in the classroom as a person. Does he make friends? How does he resolve conflicts?”
Supply data. Teachers will find comments from previous teachers useful, and giving this data is a non-threatening way to address issues. You might say, “Last year, Johnny’s teacher noted he was struggling with attention issues. He was tested and this is how we are handling it.” Or you might explain, “Betsy was put in a special reading group last year by Mr. Miller because he evaluated her and thought she needed more advanced books.”
Accept your differences with your teacher. Recognize that your teacher may have a different style from you, but that doesn’t make her a bad teacher. “Some teachers will be older and seasoned veterans, others will be younger and more idealistic. There are lots of differences in styles of communication and educational philosophy. You will need to really listen to your child’s teacher to get a sense of who he is,” notes Dalton Miller-Jones, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Portland State University and an advisor to the Portland School district.
Ask what you can do to help. When discussing a problem your child may have, ask your teacher for specific ways you can help at home. Ask her to define what your role should be in the problem-solving partnership, making sure the teacher, parent, and child all play important roles.