It’s right around report card time. If your child’s school has marking periods divided into quarters then you probably just finished wrapping up parent teacher conferences. If the school goes by trimesters then you’ll be heading off to conferences in the near future.
Hopefully, you and your child’s teachers are on the same page when it comes to their education. Unfortunately, there may be times when parent and teacher will disagree. If you’re anything like me, it makes your blood boil when you learn that your child is being dismissed, overlooked, misunderstood or disrespected by a teacher or administrator. As a parent, educator for the past twenty years and creator of parent education and empowerment workshops, I have a unique vantage point in this arena. I’ve literally been on both sides of the table and I can honestly say being on the parent side gave me an entirely different perspective.
Let me start by telling you what does not work. Yelling. I’m laughing as I type this but yelling absolutely does not work. I’ve sat in meetings with other professionals secretly wishing I could pull the parent aside, give them a big grandmotherly hug and whisper you have a good point but they’re not hearing you because you’re belligerent. I’ve also had to remind myself as a parent in said meetings of the same. So, how do you tactfully advocate for your child at parent-teacher meetings?
- Always remember that teacher and administrators are fellow humans.
When I was working within the public school system, I’d be out shopping and run into a family. You’d think they’d seen a ghost. There’s usually a double take, followed by whispers and perhaps pointing. I’d usually break the ice by jokingly reminding the child and his/her family that yes, teachers shop too. I tell that story to remind you that school personnel have emotions and are a summation of their own personal experiences, strengths and shortcomings. By and large, teachers teach because they love children and want to see them succeed. At the same time, being a parent of one, two or eight children can be overwhelming. Imagine being the authority figure for a class of twenty-five. That too, is a lot of pressure and is extremely overwhelming. Don’t view school personnel as the enemy. Rather, strive to have them understand your child by lending them your unique perspective as you are the expert of your child. Which leads me to #2.
2. You ARE absolutely the expert of your child.
Never underestimate your power as a parent. Parent-teacher conferences, child study team meetings and academic/behavioral intervention meetings are nerve-wracking. Many parents feel uncomfortable speaking up for their children in meetings at school. Some parents even feel as if they are being scrutinized or criticized in meetings and sometimes they are being judged. We agreed that school personnel are humans and sometimes humans who don’t yet have all of the information, judge. You know your child’s birth story, you can attest to their journey of meeting developmental milestones and you are with them when they are working independently at home to complete homework assignments. These are the questions that school psychologists and learning specialists explore when determining how a child learns and/or processes information. This vital information can only come from a parent, guardian or another adult who regularly interacts with the child outside of school. See, you ARE the expert of your child.
3. Your being the expert of your child does not mean that the teacher is not the expert of teaching.
While I want to send you into the next meeting feeling confident and empowered, let’s also meet with the understanding that teaching is a profession. Boards of Directors monitor corporations, hospital administrators oversee doctors and school administrators supervise teachers. Going into a meeting claiming that your child isn’t learning because the teacher can’t teach is counterproductive and disrespectful. At the same time, each and every teacher is not a master teacher. Nevertheless, we likely wouldn’t be bold enough to put down one of our doctors. The same rules should apply to the professional educators who sacrifice time, money and much more to partner with our families to ensure that our children are not only good students but also productive citizens.
With all of that said, the key is to realize that, parent included, there are a team of experts seated at the table when a meeting is called to discuss a student’s progress. Attempt to develop a mutually respectful working relationship with your fellow team members on behalf of your child.
4. Teaching and learning aren’t always an exact science.
My educational background is in educational psychology which is the science of how people learn and retain information in combination with the study of how to implement teaching and behavior modification strategies in order to foster student success. A mouthful, right? To help exceptional learners, teachers partner with child study team members largely comprised of learning specialists, psychologists and social workers. In order words, sometimes there’s no straight answer to the question of why is my child struggling in school. There definitely is an answer, but like most things in life finding the answer may take us on a journey. My advice is to plan for a long-term, systematic approach instead of expecting a quick-fix.
5. Keep a detailed journal.
All of the other experts at the table will come equipped with notes, data or other pertinent information related to the progress of the student. In the case of behavioral challenges, the child study team will probably request the teacher take note of the type of behavior and its frequency. You don’t need to have a binder full of information. You need to have neither a high school diploma nor college degree to jot down some notes and talking points to cover in the meeting. No pressure. The idea is that we all forget over time and when it comes to something like identifying academic challenges we must look at patterns. So, keeping a detailed journal, even if on sticky notes, will prove to be helpful in developing a solid plan to get your child back on track.
6. Educate yourself about the issue.
Do you speak Greek? Me either. Imagine being in a room of people at a restaurant who only speak greek. You have a severe food allergy You’re incapable of telling the wait staff that you have a deadly allergy. Putting myself in that scenario would be extremely uncomfortable for me. At a minimum, I would have to have google translate ready to go on my phone and my EpiPen in my purse. I wouldn’t expect to hold a full conversation, but I’m not going to set myself up for a disaster either.
As the expert of your child, take just a few moments to become familiar with some of the jargon you might hear in a parent-teacher meeting so that you don’t feel like everyone else in the room, but you, is able to participate in the conversation.
In my numerous conversations with parents about advocating for their children, there lies one common theme amongst the parents of private, public and charter school children. Parents tend to distrust their own judgment and are likely to be more defensive if they feel powerless. When we educate ourselves, we empower ourselves.
7. Ask lots of questions.
Once you’ve educated yourself about the issues your child may be experiencing, ask as many questions as needed until you feel like your concerns have been addressed.
8. Know your rights.
You have rights as a parent. Your child has rights too. If your child falls into what is called a protected class, such as a learner with special needs, then there are additional laws in place to assure that they receive a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible.
9. Don’t be afraid to say no.
As your child’s biggest advocate, it is okay to go against the flow and trust our well-informed gut. Sometimes, we just know that a decision that we’re being asked to make is the wrong decision. It is okay to insist that your support team work with you to come up with a more suitable solution. However, that means that you may have to stand on a firm “no, that will not work for me.”
10. Be the glue.
My daughter had two back-to-back concussions earlier this year. Although I’m well versed in the effects of traumatic brain injuries in children, I was ill prepared to immediately jump into action when my daughter went from memorizing three-page speeches to not being able to remember one line of text from one day to the next. I had to have several serious talks with myself to not allow my emotions to get the best of me. It took six months, her pediatrician, a team of neurologists and physical therapists, daily conversations with the school principal and my reading everything I could get my hands on regarding multiple concussions in teens for me to be able to advocate on her behalf when one of her teachers insisted that her concussions should have no bearing on how she was being graded. I had to be the vessel to keep all parties on the same page. Otherwise, the school would be doing one thing, the doctors would be recommending another and my daughter would have been caught in the middle.
If you want to minimize things “falling through the cracks”, you must be the glue.
As parents, we have to advocate for our children. We know them best and we want what’s best for them. Instead of finding yourself in a position where you’re going toe-to-toe with the teacher and principal, I encourage you to leverage school personnel as your team of fellow advocates that will help your child win. The first step toward student success getting all stakeholders on the same page. And, if all parties aren’t on the same page, we must equip ourselves to with the education and tools to relentlessly work toward our end goal of providing our children with the best education possible.