What we need to tell our teachers

The way you approach the teacher can have a significant effect on the result of the conversation.

Teacher with students (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Teacher with students
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ruth’s grandmother just passed away, Rachel’s parents are in the middle of a nasty divorce and Andy is being tested for cancer.
Should their teachers be informed of their situations? On the face of it, the only logical answer seems to be, “Of course.” Why then, is communication of this sort far too infrequent? Why are many parents reluctant to share helpful information to teachers? Are there any pitfalls in doing so? These are important questions to explore, without assigning blame to anyone for their choices.
The more a teacher knows about trauma and drama in a student’s life, the more he can be flexible in the way he treats that student. However, sometimes information can be seen as an excuse for not doing work or providing additional information that the teacher needs to know.
Some information may influence a teacher to become indecisive – “Oh, Daniel’s parents are getting divorced. I wonder if it is better to expect him to do his homework or should I cut him some slack?” Some information (along with inappropriate parent behavior) can anger a teacher enough to make life worse for her student. I remember one time when I was assisting in a school near my home in San Francisco. The school was presenting a science fair to the community and all students were required to do a science experiment. One parent came in and told his son’s teacher that his son would not be presenting because he was joining the father on a yacht trip for a week, and would learn more science doing that than by participating in the fair. Needless to say, the teacher was angry. Rightly or wrongly, she failed the student in science that semester.
There are other possible dangers when parents inform teachers of home situations. For example, some students try to use it to their advantage: “You can’t send me to a time out because my Bubbe is sick,” “I can’t do any homework for the rest of the year because I sprained my ankle.”
Other times the student might be embarrassed when a teacher knows something of a personal nature and may act out to cover it up. There is also the slight but possible chance that the other students might find out about it.
Sometimes a teacher will say, “Let’s be kind to Avi today because he is going through a hard time.” While by far most children will show more kindness in such cases, a few might not. And a final danger is that if there are major political or religious intolerance issues on either side, the meaning of the information might be misunderstood.
All of these potential dangers can be significantly reduced when parents and teachers both consider the good of the child as their goal. The first decision parents must take is what information will be helpful to the teacher. Secondly, parents must decide whether to include the school in what is going on with the child.
Finally parents need to prepare the best way to present it to the teacher. Each of these questions is fairly straightforward. Any information that can help a teacher understand your child better is worth sharing. Any changes in family life should be shared if relevant to your child’s ability to learn and act appropriately.
Sometimes small things can be shared, like a sibling’s bar mitzvah, which might only be a temporary, minor disruption. The best guideline is: If you see any changes in attitude or behavior at home, it is a good idea to talk with his/her teacher.
Chronic illness is a must for the teacher to know. Acute illness may also be shared if the effects might be interfering with learning.
Sometimes certain medications might result in behavior change. If you are uncertain or uncomfortable in communicating with your child’s teacher, remember in most cases it is wiser to do so. Teachers can and will adjust to your child’s needs most of the time, but will never help if they don’t know anything about it.
If the situation is embarrassing to share, use your judgment, but remember that when you enlist the teacher in the process, your child has two of the most important institutions in his life, home and school, supporting him.
Talking with teachers can also help in a different way. I can recall two examples of incidents when parent talking to a teacher had a significant impact on the child.
One, a child who was doing poorly totally changed her learning habits when the teacher/parent discussion lead to the child getting glasses for an astigmatism.
The second, far more serious, led to the discovery of a brain tumor in time for effective treatment. Whether or not you tell your child that you are talking about him/her with his teacher depends on the relationship between you and your child and your child’s relationship with his teacher.
In general I believe in telling children about any communication you might have with their teachers. Discuss openly why you want to have a conversation and what you hope to accomplish.
Ask your child if he has any concerns about it and listen to what he says. Work to resolve any issues that your child brings up, but do not sneak behind his back if there seems to be major resistance. If your child has a good rapport with his teacher, then it will probably be helpful to share your intent with him. If that relationship is very rocky, then it might be best to talk to the teacher without telling your child, but hopefully this will be a rare occurrence.
The way you approach the teacher can have a significant effect on the result of the conversation. Be straightforward.
Explain your concerns about the home events that worry you. Do not sound as if you are making excuses for your child. Do not tell the teacher what you want done until after you hear what the teacher might say or ask.
Early in the conversation, ask the teacher what she thinks. Develop a plan of action that both of you agree to in both the home and school. If you disagree, work hard to find common ground and build from there. Remember that you are allies trying to reach the same goal; helping your child through a stressful time. You cannot do this if you become opponents, each trying to do it your way by imposing your will on the other.
Most teachers really want to help when things at home are affecting their students and are receptive to your needs and the needs of the child. Work together, develop a plan and help your child during these difficult times.
The writer is the director of the master’s program in behavior disorders at David Yellin College in Jerusalem.