School is Weeks Away: How to Talk to Teachers Well

By Alex Newman

Ontario’s new sex education curriculum slated to take effect this coming September – and it’s not just an Ontario issue of course – has stirred up strong reactions in parents who are concerned about what their children would be exposed to.

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The subject has taken the blogosphere by storm as parents determine the best course of action. In the normal course of your child’s 12-plus years at school you’ll encounter many other issues and concerns – from policies on vaccinations, sex education or testing, to personal issues of bullying or bad behaviour.

We asked a number of parents and educators for suggestions on how to effectively communicate concerns to school authorities, regardless of the issue.

1. Identify first who you should talk to

“Best to speak with the person who’s in closest contact with your child,” says Laura Berends, who teaches elementary school in Toronto’s Flemingdon Park. “Going to the principal first doesn’t foster the close connection you want between parent and teacher. And if it’s something better handled by the principal, the teacher will direct you there.”

Even for curriculum matters, Berends finds it best to talk to the teacher. They can help you understand it better, and while they don’t have the authority to alter curriculum, she says they have some creative flexibility. “Teachers make decisions all the time around curriculum – what to cover, when, how. Conversations with parents help to inform a teacher about her students so she can make those right choices for her class.”

Sometimes, the first stop should be the principal, like when Stratford, Ont., parent Bruce Whittaker was registering his eight-year-old son who was not operating at his grade level. Although Ontario has a policy of not holding children back, Whittaker went to the principal, who placed him in one grade lower, then discussed it in-depth with the board. “In the end everything worked out,” Whittaker says.

When my own daughter’s anxiety disorder erupted near the end of Grade 9, I went straight to the guidance counsellor, who was able to intervene on her behalf. She asked all eight teachers to make special accommodations (such as one-on-one presentations and altered seating near the door) until we were able to line up proper medical help.

Kevin Gietz, superintendent of Palliser Regional Schools in Alberta, says there’s a definite process starting with the teacher. “You need to engage in that conversation and if not satisfied, then go to the principal. Ultimately if you’re still not satisfied, come to the superintendent, and then on up to the board of trustees. When it comes to individual situations, such as expulsion or special ed, those can be appealed to the Ministry of Education.”

2. Do the research before loading your emotional gun

Hot button issues can give rise to emotional, knee-jerk reactions. Doing research gives a broader perspective, as well as time to cool down.

Download the 50-page sex education curriculum, for example, which has both good and bad parts to it, according to Dr. Warwick Cooper, pastor of counselling & family ministries with People’s Church in Toronto. “Parents can make an informed decision once they read the document for themselves.”

There’s also a wide range of blogosphere discussions you can tap into. In A Christian Parent’s Guide on the Eganville Baptist website (www.eganvillebaptist.org), the writer answers some major concerns with relevant excerpts from the curriculum.

Susan Fish, a writer from Waterloo, Ont., finds that writing out her feelings on an issue helps her “blow off steam, and sort out what’s at the core of the issue … what I’d like to see happen, what I need to ask for.”

3. Opposition doesn’t equal enemy

Fish admits, “It’s easy to see the school as a monolith, but I start by assuming teachers are doing what they can. There’s some deadwood, for sure, but the majority really do care, and even if you have moral or pedagogical differences, most are not bent on destroying our children’s faith.”

In fact, the education act states that teachers are to “inculcate by precept and example respect for religion and the principles of Judeo-Christian morality and the highest regard for truth, justice, loyalty, love of country, humanity, benevolence, sobriety, industry, frugality, purity, temperance and all other virtues.”

In a TED talk, Joseph Grenny, a renowned change expert and Christian, says attributing “problems immediately to bad motives … [results in] less than a 6 per cent chance you’ll come up with healthy solutions.”

Just sending your children to public school signals to Berends that “You are entrusting your child to my care. Parents need to do their part to trust the teacher, and talking with the teacher can assure parents their child is being cared for. It doesn’t mean you don’t ask questions, but if you are coming to the classroom with a shield, that’s not productive.”

Fish tries to approach issues with teachers as if they’re “partners in this child’s development, and that I’m there seeking info, and clarification.”

4. Speak with respect

“You can’t influence people you alienate,” says Cooper. “Just being Christian will likely alienate some people already. You can’t do anything about that, but you can do something about your rhetoric.”

Or as Grenny puts it, “The way you show up in these moments is the greatest expression of your Christian walk.”

Since Berends has been on the receiving end of complaints, she says tone of voice makes all the difference. “If you come in and demand that something be done about this thing you’re upset about, the teacher feels put on the spot. Teachers are at fault too for putting up walls, but if parents are calm, open minded and willing to listen, those walls can come down.”

But you won’t be taken seriously if you overreact or take things personally. In an interview with pastor Heather Larson (https://vimeo.com/105587982), Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels suggests learning what “flips your emotional switch,” and then taking a break – for a moment or a day – to regain your composure.

He also says the first ten minutes of any discussion, especially difficult ones, set the tone. “Be aware of words that are incendiary and aware of words that build up. Regard each other as builders of a team, with every interaction either building or dinging the relationship.”

It’s normal for parents to get emotional about their children, says Gietz. “But take time, 24 hours even, to cool off before approaching the school. Or write an email and don’t hit send. If I’m working with parents, I listen while they get the emotion out, then I try to identify the root concern. In our school board we talk about being hard on the issue, but easy on the people, because at the end of the day we have to assume that everyone is there to help the child move forward.”

Timing is equally important, Berends adds. Rather than grab a teacher at the end of a busy, tiring day, email or write in your child’s agenda to schedule a time to talk.

5. Think outside the box

When the open concept layout at her children’s school created multiple problems, family doctor Judy Thompson brought out her medical trump card.

“Five classes on an open concept floor was loud, and hard for kids to learn. The school tried coping by staggering class schedules. The principal wanted to renovate the entire floor and create individual classrooms, but was getting nowhere with the board. I asked the principal if health effects had been considered – all open like an airplane, and teachers and students getting sick because of increased infection spread.”

Thompson then sent along medical journal articles, which provided enough evidence to prompt the board to approve renovations.

6. Get involved before issues come up

Schools are more receptive to involved parents. Whittaker sits on the council for his eldest son’s high school, and is surprised by how few parents are involved at this level. “We’re missing a huge opportunity to bring parents and administrators together to collaborate on the futures of our youth.”

Getting involved also gives parents a hand in making changes in the early stages. Janet Foord, president of the Canadian School Boards Association, is a mom of four and was a Saskatchewan school trustee for 27 years. School councils, she says, are “amazing resources.” One Saskatchewan school board had noticed several disturbing trends – high rates of absenteeism and addictions – so they invited local councils, made up mostly of parents, to discuss their observations and possible solutions.

Gietz says the board of trustees of Palliser Regional Schools relies very much on the school councils to let them know what’s happening at a grassroots level. “The board is sensitive to the fact that parents are the first educator, and if they’re asking for something reasonable, we look at whether we can accommodate it.”

7. Strike an ongoing positive note

“One thing that really creates currency in school,” says Fish, “is that when things are going well, don’t hold back on commenting. I’ve sent letters to trustees glowing about a teacher who did an amazing thing for my child. Having an attitude of appreciation for the school system goes a long way, especially when it’s time to make your concerns known.”

8. Parents are primary influences

Studies show that school only partly influences your children. The rest of the work depends on parents. There’s much going on in school that parents won’t like and over which they have little or no control. “That’s when you need to be teaching your children right and wrong, and train them to be on guard, while still respecting the teacher,” Berends says.

9. Take the long view

Learning to moderate your approach with the school doesn’t mean conceding to the culture. In fact, Hybels says it’s precisely at these times that Christ wants us showing up.

“There’s a struggle for sure,” says Cooper. “And it’s one for the hearts of our kids. The relationship between parents and teachers is really key. Understand there are some things you can change and others you can’t. I believe God is calling people to do that, but He also equips you with the necessary grace to speak out with boldness.”

Alex Newman of Toronto is a senior writer for Faith Today. This article first appeared in the May/Jun issue of Faith Today. 

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