As a parent, you know that advocating for your child is in your job description. So when an issue arises with the person who's molding his or her young mind, you're going to speak up. But it's important to choose your words carefully. "As with anyone whose service you depend on, it's in your best interest to avoid coming off as too critical or demanding to your child's teacher," says Suzanne Tingley, a former teacher, principal and superintendent, and author of How to Handle Difficult Parents. "Expressing your concerns in a neutral way usually leads to a more constructive conversation and a better outcome for your kid." Read on to learn which statements, however well-meaning, can land you in the "troublemaker" category. Photo by Thinkstock. "My son says you don't give him enough time to finish his tests. I'd like to hear your side of the story."
Laying out the situation and asking for the teacher's "side" may seem like a diplomatic approach, but to the teacher it reads as an attack, followed by a twist of the knife. "The kicker is the second part because it suggests you are mediating between two equals, like siblings who can't get along," says Tingley. A better tactic: "Jake seems to be struggling with his tests. What are you seeing?" When you start from a place of information-gathering, as opposed to putting the teacher on the defensive, you'll likely get a fuller picture of what's going on, says Tingley. (And you'll save yourself the embarrassment if it turns out your son has been doodling during every test.) From there, you and the teacher can decide on the best way to address the problem.
Related: Get the top 5 questions to ask during a parent-teacher conference.
"Henry is acting out because he's bored in class."
"As a teacher, you spend your life trying to make school interesting and challenging," says Carolyn Bower, a former kindergarten teacher in Bangor, ME. "When someone says class is boring, it means you haven't done your job." The statement also may not be entirely accurate. "Parents often say this in response to a teacher bringing up a behavior problem, when the actual issue is a lack of self-control on the student's part," says Tingley. So instead of starting off with an excuse, find out what's really going on and promise to speak to your child. If you truly believe he's not being challenged, steer clear of hurtful generalizations and mention a specific problem and solution: "Henry seems to have the multiplication tables down. Could we give him something more challenging?"
"My child would never lie. If she says she handed in the paper, she handed it in."
Here, you're implying that the teacher misplaced the paper or is bluffing-which are both places you don't want to go. As hard as it is to hear, "kids sometimes lie when they're feeling cornered," says Tingley. Even if that's not the case with your conscientious student, acknowledging the mix-up and suggesting a solution is the best way to help your cause. Try: "Amanda says she turned in the paper. I don't know what happened to it, but I'd hate to have her take a zero. Can she hand in something late?"
"We're going on vacation for a week. Can you put together a packet of my daughter's work so she doesn't fall behind?"
You may think you're doing the responsible thing, but unfortunately, this typical request is a bit insulting. "You're implying you can replace teaching with a packet of worksheets," says Jan Copithorne, a middle school special education teacher in Highland Park, IL. On top of that, "it's a lot of extra work to anticipate everything that will happen in class over a week and put it together for one child." Because kids miss so much when they're kept out of school, Copithorne advises against pulling them out for an extended period, unless there's a truly important event or a family emergency. If you're set on your plans, ask the teacher for a general overview, like what chapters will be covered in each subject, and accept that your child will need to play catch-up when you get home.
"I know my son doesn't want to take your honors class next year, but he needs it for college so I'm insisting he sign up for it."
Some kids need a little nudge; others know their limits. You probably have a pretty good idea where your child falls, so be honest with yourself, then ask for the teacher's opinion-not her endorsement-about signing up for advanced classes. "No teacher wants to see a student forced into a place he doesn't want to be," says Tingley. (And no parent should, either.) "What often happens is the kid who isn't yet ready for the challenge ends up getting demoted to a regular class, which then feels like a failure," says Tingley. Karen Patterson, a high school language arts teacher in Upper Arlington, OH, has also seen students who sign up for too many high-level courses "absolutely self-implode." Sometimes, "a kid may love and want to take advanced history and language arts, but Mom is making him take advanced math too," says Patterson, who advocates a less-is-more approach, pointing to the benefits of a lighter workload: more time for extracurricular activities, which also look great on college applications.
Related: Find out what 6 things children need most.
"Why do you give so much homework?"
Your daughter has been up late every night working on a book report and presentation, both due in the same week for the same teacher. So naturally this is the first thing you want to blurt out at the next parent-teacher conference. The reason you shouldn't is because you are in effect saying, "You don't know how to do your job" and "Why don't you care about my child's well-being?" says Tingley. Instead, phrase your question this way: "Julie's been having trouble getting everything done. Are other kids having trouble, too?" Referencing the rest of the class depersonalizes things and can provide you, and the teacher, with some helpful perspective. For instance, if everyone is struggling, the teacher may realize that her expectations are too high. (If she doesn't, feel free to take your concerns to the principal.) If instead it sounds like your child is the exception, discuss getting her some after-school help or moving her to a different class.
"Matt has had so many after-school activities lately, he couldn't finish the reading."
In the hierarchy of your child's life, you and his teachers are the bosses-and you'd never tell your boss you couldn't do your job because you were busy with trombone lessons, right? "Young children tend to have a lot of activities, but when they get to middle school they can't be booked from 3:00 to 9:00 every night and keep up with their work," says Copithorne. As a general rule, plan on your first grader devoting about ten minutes per night to homework; for each subsequent grade, add ten more minutes, says Tingley. So a fourth-grader might have 40 minutes worth of work, while a high school senior has two hours, which should still leave enough time for a few of your child's favorite activities. "Students who do sports and clubs are typically more engaged in school," says Tingley. "So it would be a mistake to take them out of everything."
Related: Try these tricks for managing your time well.
"Dear Mrs. Jones: Why did you give Emma this grade?"
Email is a wonderful tool for communicating with your child's teacher. But it shouldn't be used for firing off every question that pops into your head, particularly when there's a better way to go about getting the answer. "A full-time teacher might have 110 kids, and their parents are all emailing, too," says Patterson, who sometimes receives messages like the one above after posting grades. With many concerns, including those about low grades, talk to your child first. If she can't provide an explanation and is old enough, have her bring it up with the teacher in person-the best way to communicate when a question requires a lengthy response. "Especially at the high school level, kids should be taking on some of this responsibility themselves," says Patterson. If your child or you doesn't receive a satisfactory answer, by all means, send a (non-accusatory) note: "Can we talk about what Emma can do to bring up her science grade? I'm also available by phone if you prefer." In other words, think before you (cyber) speak.
"My daughter and her friends don't speak to Beth because she's not in their group anymore. That's not bullying; they have a right to choose their friends."
No parents want to believe their child is being cruel to other kids, so when a teacher brings up an issue like bullying, it's tempting to play it down. And yet, "teachers don't make those calls lightly, so when we do, we need parents' help in reinforcing lessons," says Bower. This can be trickier with girls than boys, since female altercations tend to be more insidious, says Tingley. But you can help "stop the stuff you see." Ask the teacher what behavior she has witnessed in the classroom and talk to your child about why whispering behind another student's back, or passing notes about her, is wrong.
"I spoke to the principal about how you failed half the class on that last test and she said I had to take the matter up with you first."
"If you really want to tick off a teacher, this is the way to do it," says Tingley. "There's nothing more annoying than when someone brings an issue to your boss before you've had an opportunity to correct it." As a parent, you might be inclined to do this if you don't feel like dealing with a teacher you dislike or if you're upset about something, such as an unjust grade. Still, unless something truly egregious has happened, like a teacher threatened your child or grabbed him roughly, it's the wrong move. "There are certainly problems that warrant the principal's attention," says Tingley. "But in most cases you should follow the chain of command."