August 17, 2001

Take charge of your child's education by forming a better relationship with the teacher

By Ylonda Gault Caviness

Math had always been Brent's favorite subject. So last year when the seventh grader began grousing about class and laboring over his homework, Cherylynn Miller Grier knew her son had a problem. She arranged a meeting with Brent's teacher. "Don't worry," she was told. "He'll be okay."

Throughout the next semester Grier tried helping Brent herself, but to no avail. He still wasn't making the grade, and his teacher continued to down-play her concerns. As her son's grades sank, Grier's anger and frustration rose. During their fourth meeting of the school year, with Brent nearly failing, Grier says the teacher told her "they're all struggling." "I was like, `Hello?' Had I not pushed, she'd have assumed C's and D's were acceptable," says Grier, who finally ended up hiring a tutor for Brent.

Such an experience is hardly unique. As we're far more likely to be working moms, it's difficult to stay on top of our children's education, especially when it means leaving work early for school conferences and juggling much-needed overtime with PTA meetings. Feeling dismissed or patronized by our children's teachers only adds to our angst.

Educators' casting children of color as social and academic underachievers is commonplace. And while we cannot undo generations of racism and ignorance, when it comes to education, we can save our children one at a time, says James P. Comer, M.D., professor of child psychiatry at Yale University and author of Waiting for a Miracle and other books that examine the links between academic success and common prejudices. "For some, seeing a minority face automatically signals `low expectations.' That's why we have to act as advocates for our kids," Comer says. And one of the best ways to do that is to develop a relationship with your child's teacher.

Don't wait for a problem or a school-scheduled conference. A few weeks into the school year, arrange meetings with all the teachers who come into contact with your child. Comer offers the following guidelines: Understand that you and the educator should be allies working toward your child's education process; don't take the position that your child is always right; make sure the teacher knows you place a high value on education and you expect your child to excel.

Use this getting-to-know-you time to introduce yourself and to share some of your insights about your child. For example, is he a self-starter or does he need to be pushed? Does he seem to respond better to team projects or to individual study? Convey to the teacher that you can be used as a liaison or resource. Let her know that she should feel free to call you with any questions or concerns. And make it clear that you aim to be a partner in your child's education. Most important—and this is the part where many parents drop the ball—follow up. With periodic phone calls, letters and class visits, remind the teacher that you are a concerned and active parent. "Your very presence can overcome that whole low-expectation cycle," Comer explains.

Grades and other measures of academic performance are the most common parent concerns, but there are other reasons to get involved with your child's school. Let's say your child is being unduly teased or harassed by other students. It may be necessary to meet with the teacher as well as with the parents of the offending children. Maybe your child's grades aren't suffering, but he feels that he's not being called on often enough or that the teacher is ignoring him. In many classrooms today, "average" kids get lost as teachers laud the brightest students and hover over those who are struggling. You might need to talk to the instructor and come up with ways to boost your child's participation.

Sooner or later you'll need to address a prickly issue or two with your child's teacher. But try to pick your battles carefully: You don't want to bum-rush the instructor over your child's every perceived slight. Listen to your little one, checking for both her verbal and nonverbal communication. If she's really worked up, try saying something like, "I can see you're really angry. But try to slow down and tell me exactly what the teacher said (or did) to upset you." Then before you go in demanding that the teacher be disciplined, remind yourself that the message you want to send your child and her teacher is "Let's work together to resolve these issues."

Waiting until there's a problem to meet with your child's teacher can undermine the effective collaboration that you desire. Usually, when you feel your child has been wronged in some way, your instinctive reaction is one of anger and blame. Even if these feelings are justified, they almost never work to bring about a positive change. Winning a battle of words with your child's teacher doesn't mean you've won the war. Remember, your child is the one sitting in the classroom day after day.

Finally, teach your child to be her own advocate, not by encouraging her to be disruptive or combative in class, but by empowering her with strong communication skills. Perhaps the next time she's displeased with her grade, you might encourage her to approach the teacher after class to discuss ways she might improve. Then she can also enjoy a better and more productive relationship with her teacher.




* Talk to your child both before and after you arrange a parent-teacher conference. Keep in mind that his getting the most out of his education means a three-pronged effort from him, his teacher and you.

* Take copious notes, jotting down meeting dates and agreed-upon action. This is helpful not only to refresh your memory but also to bolster your position if you ever have to go over the teacher's head.

* Try to be sensitive to your child's social life. If at all possible, try to arrange meetings before or after school, so as not to embarrass her by seeming like a permanent fixture in the classroom.


* Resort to yelling, name-calling or any other unprofessional conduct. In addition to eroding your own credibility, you will only make life tough on your child when the teacher takes out her anger on your kid.

* Leave a meeting without coming to some kind of resolution. For instance, if the teacher says, "I'll work on it," make sure she articulates her strategy.

Know When to Step In

"How was school today?" is often met with the hackneyed "Fine" and other one-word responses from your kids. And some children are just plain hard to read. So how do you know if there's a problem? Grades and report cards are an obvious clue. But, says expert James P. Comer, M.D., if your child exhibits these traits, you should talk to her teacher:

* Moodiness or irritability

* Headaches or stomachaches

* Withdrawn or sullen behavior

* Acting out or misbehaving

* Appearing anxious or feigning illness when it's time to go to school

* Changes in her social circle

Reprinted from Essence Magazine, August 2000

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