- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2000

A few weeks after school started in September, Gail Vaella began noticing some disturbing behavioral changes in her 9-year-old daughter.
Sarah had just started third grade at a school on a military base near Austin, Texas, where the Vaellas live. Normally a cheerful girl, Sarah began having crying fits nearly every day. She would forget her books, lose assignments and struggled to keep up in school.
But the most worrisome sign of trouble was Sarah's reaction when the family's pet parakeet died.
"Sarah asked me if God made it die because she has been bad in school," Mrs. Vaella recalls. It was at that point that Mrs. Vaella began in earnest to talk with school officials to see what might be causing the problem.

Detecting problems

Many children like Sarah exhibit changes in behavior when things are not going well in school. Some will even tell their parents everything is fine while internally blaming themselves for difficulties they are having in school. It isn't until a report card comes home with failing grades that some parents discover there are problems.
This is way too late in the process, says Ginny Markell, president of the National PTA and a high school teacher in North Clackamas School District near Portland, Ore.
"Communication needs to be ongoing," Mrs. Markell says. "Our recommendation has been that teachers and parents touch base every four weeks or so," she says. Don't wait until there is a problem to have a conversation with a child's teacher, she says.
Parents should update teachers on any changes that could affect a child's behavior, such as a new baby or a death in the family. And teachers should make sure parents understand their style of teaching, grading and expectations for appro-
priate behavior in the classroom, Mrs. Markell says.
The most common source of friction between parents and teachers policies on grading is much harder to solve when there is poor communication.
"A big part of that [friction] is parents not understanding the method by which scores are obtained," she says. Some teachers place a great weight on classroom participation, while others might judge by tests and homework assignments. Whichever it
is, the method should be made clear at the beginning of the year so there are no surprises when report cards are delivered.

The child's fault?

It didn't take a report card for Cheverly resident Andrew Reiner to know he had a problem with his son's teacher six years ago. After breezing through preschool, kindergarten and first grade, Mr. Reiner's son began flunking out of second grade.
According to the teacher, it was the child's fault because he was failing to meet the classroom standards.
"Our kid was not an easy kid," Mr. Reiner acknowledges, and the teacher was probably overwhelmed by trying to cope with 40 children on her own in a cash-strapped public school. But the school was not sympathetic to parents' concerns about the rigidity of the teacher's instructional methods, he says.
"Every day when my wife picked him up, my son would complain about how miserable he was," Mr. Reiner says. Eventually, the boy was switched to another teacher, but she was even less equipped to handle a large classroom. "By the end of second grade, my son was convinced he was stupid."
The Reiners solved the problem by deciding to home-school their son along with his younger brother. Both are happy and the oldest is making straight A's on standardized tests.
"We worked as best we could with the school system, and we were very involved," he says. "But home-schooling ended being the best choice for us."
Other families decide to stick it out when they hit a difficult teacher, hoping that the child will survive. A Prince George's County mother of three children, who asked to have her name withheld, encountered a hard-to-please teacher in third grade at a private school in the county. The teacher had high academic standards and wanted everyone in the class to perform at their best level.
"My daughter was getting massive amounts of homework. She would be doing two hours of homework at night and four to five hours on the weekend, and she was only 9," the mother says. A meeting with the teacher yielded little help. "She thought that my child was the problem she just wasn't buckling down to work."
Surviving difficult teachers
Complaints from other parents led to a meeting with the principal, but no changes were made. Since the school had only one teacher per grade, the mother's two sons also had to endure a year with the same teacher.
In Sarah's case, the school switched her to another teacher, but only after multiple meetings with both the teacher and principal, Sarah's mother says. Instead of offering ideas on how to help Sarah keep up with her school work, the teacher saw the problem as a lack of discipline, Mrs. Vaella adds.
"The biggest mistake I made was talking to the teacher at the beginning of the year about Sarah's difficulties," says Mrs. Vaella, a stay-at-home mother who regularly volunteers in her daughter's classroom. Sarah suffers from a sleep disorder and was taking medication that doctors concluded later was interfering with the girl's ability to concentrate in school.
At first, the teacher was sympathetic, but within a week she was chastising the girl for falling behind in her work and taking too long to make decisions, Mrs. Vaella says. "I tried talking with the teacher, but she told me, 'Oh, Sarah's just playing games. She needs to learn responsibility.' "
Even though Sarah has a new teacher, Mrs. Vaella fears her daughter will have a hard time making it through the year. "Sarah just feels terrible about herself."

Taking action

Sorting out the truth in teacher-child conflicts is one of the most difficult challenges a parent faces during a child's education. When problems boil up into a huge controversy, it is important to avoid taking sides or to give children the message that the parent can "bail" them out of a bad situation, Mrs. Markell says.
"Most of the time it is a lack of understanding about the school's policy and curriculum that leads to the discussion about bad teachers," she says. But she acknowledges there are some teachers who do not belong in the classroom.
Removing those teachers can be a long, difficult process in public schools. The teachers unions, which represent most public school teachers, have set up rules that protect teachers from immediate firing, particularly those who have tenure. Thomas Sowell, a syndicated columnist whose work appears in The Washington Times, says many educators "are themselves the most fundamental obstacle to improvement."
He says "iron-clad tenure" rules harm
students by subjecting them to teachers who need to be
removed from their jobs.


Mrs. Markell says schools generally use a "peer review" when complaints about bad teachers arise. Principals observe the teacher's work and when appropriate, send the teacher to counseling.
On the other hand, she notes, there are some excellent teachers whose personalities may clash with a child's or who use a teaching method that is not compatible with a child's learning style.
It is a difficult balancing act, because in the best-case scenario, parents and teachers work together to train and educate children. When parents and teachers develop an adversarial relationship, it is important to maintain a respectful attitude so that children do not adopt an unduly critical attitude toward educators, she says.
"I think every child can learn," Mrs. Markell says. "I think problems arise when there are conflicts about behavior. Teachers may not like a certain behavior, and I think sometimes we cloud the message that it is just behavior, not the child, that we don't like," she says. "But the reality is that you are a teacher, and they are a child, and you are responsible for teaching that child."

Books

"Bad Teachers: The Essential Guide for Concerned Parents," by Guy Strickland, Pocket Books, 1998. Written by a teacher, this book provides useful tips for parents who are navigating difficult situations with teachers. The author says there are many teachers who do not have children's best interests at heart; his advice is tailored to help parents get to the heart of problems a child is having at school.
"Inside American Education: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogma," by Thomas Sowell, Free Press, 1992. This book, which offers a scathing indictment of American public education, provides a good context for analyzing problems parents may be having with their child's teacher. Instead of imparting knowledge and building cognitive skills, schools are focusing too much on building children's self-esteem and promoting social harmony, Mr. Sowell argues.
"Nurturing Our Children to Succeed: A Guide for Helping Parents and Teachers Understand and Address the Emotional and Academic Challenges," by Susan Lipper, Building Self Images Inc., 1999. The author is a teacher who offers ideas for making sure children get the education they need as well as reinforcement for their efforts.
"Counseling Toward Solutions: A Practical Solution-Focused Program for Working With Students, Teachers and Parents," by Linda Metcalf, Center for Applied Research in Education, 1998. This book describes a method for dealing with students' behavioral problems.
"How to Live With Parents and Teachers," by Eric W. Johnson, Westminster Press, 1986. Aimed at the young-adult reader, this book gives some helpful advice on learning to live with rules.
"Making the Best of Schools: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers and Policymakers," by Jeannie Oakes and Martin Lipton, Yale University Press, 1991. The authors draw on their experience as teachers and parents to offer suggestions on guiding children through the school system.
"Survival Kit for Teachers and Parents," by Murtle T. Collins, Goodyear Publishing Co., 1993. This is a handbook that covers 161 common problems and issues that come up in school. The book provides ideas for resolving problems and includes legal advice for the worst-case situations.
"What America's Teachers Wish Parents Knew," by Judy Privett, Longstreet Press, 1993. From the teacher's perspective, this book offers ideas on getting the most out of the school system.

On line

Visit www.familyeducation.com to find one of the most extensive and longest-running bulletin boards on dealing with "bad teachers." Parents can share their ideas for coping with difficult problems. This Web site is a portal designed for educators, parents and students and is supported by advertisers of education-related products. For general information on education topics, visit www.education-world.com, a site supported by the American Fidelity Assurance Co. While the information is somewhat superficial, the site offers an extensive list of links to other, more useful sites. Smarterkids.com's site (www. smarterkids.com) provides some useful tips on dealing with problematic relationships between parents and teachers. Although the Web site is primarily a retail outlet of educational products, the resource staff includes experienced teachers who can respond to questions from the public about school problems.

Organizations

The National PTA, 330 N. Wabash Ave., Suite 2100, Chicago, Ill. 60611. Phone: 800/307-4782. Web site: www.pta.org. The Web site offers some general guidelines for promoting good communication between parents and teachers.

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