Parents around the country are already bracing to hear the timeless words, "I hate my teacher!" Education expert and former teacher Eva Ostrum was invited on the "Today" show to offer tips to know when to take these complaints seriously and what you can do if a problem with a teacher really exists.
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What the complaints really mean
Growing up, we all had teachers that we didn’t like (and some that we probably only liked after getting used to them or their style). But as a parent, it may not be easy to tell when your child is just venting, or when there are legitimate issues that need addressing. When your child comes home and says “I hate my teacher!” What do you do next?
Responding to concerns requires balance — you don’t want to dismiss your child’s concerns, but you also recognize as a parent that sometimes kids base their reactions on emotion or on peer pressure. They may be saying that they hate their teacher because of frustration they are experiencing in that teacher’s classroom or because other students have labeled the teacher as mean or unfair. You first need to figure out what your child is really saying, and whether or not your child’s concerns have merit.
Determining if complaints have merit
Specific steps that parents can take without much effort can determine whether or not a child’s complaints about a teacher have merit.
Kids speak in hyperbole and also in code. To get beyond the confusion, parents need to get to the hard facts and probe the specific sources of the complaint. If your child says that his teacher gives him too much homework, check the workload yourself: How much does the teacher assign? Look at your child’s assignments and class notes and see exactly what s/he has to do each night.
If your child says that the teacher is too strict, check the rules yourself. Ask your child to show you the teacher’s classroom rules, which are usually posted visibly in the classroom, on teacher handouts, or in class notes from the first day. Evaluate whether or not the rules sound severe to you and ask your child how the teacher enforces them.
Teacher responses to complaints
Students sometimes came into my class prepared to hate me based on what they had heard others say. I had complaints like: “I heard you keep our parents’ phone numbers on speed dial.” “I heard you give so much homework I may as well lock myself in my room right now.” “Last year you suspended kids for laughing.” I was a tough teacher: I gave lots of homework, it was hard to earn an A in my class, and I believed in strict enforcement of discipline. I never suspended kids for laughing, but once the rumor circulated I used it to my advantage!
I realized early on that outreach to parents went a long way towards putting student complaints into context. Parents got to know me independent of what they heard from their children. I remember many saying that they expected a school-marmish woman with her hair in a tight bun based on what their children had told them about how tough and strict I was. My reaching out to them helped them see me as a committed, effective teacher who cared about their children.
The students themselves also frequently revealed as the year went on (or when they came back to visit me the following year) that they valued the high standard to which I had held them in my class.
I had one student — Nathan — whom I taught when he was in ninth grade. He wanted to pass history without putting in any work and requested to be transferred to another class. His mother and I teamed up and both refused to sign the transfer form. On the last day of school, I was giving students their grades for the year and he was sitting on pins and needles waiting to hear if he had passed. I finally told him he had and would therefore not need to go to summer school. He rushed up to me, this big football player, and said, “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but I can’t help myself.” He then threw his arms around me and gave me a big hug. On his way out of the room, he stopped in the doorway, turned to me and said, “If I could pass this class, I can do anything!”
I’ll never forget that moment! It stands out as one of the highlights of my teaching career.
When parents should step in
Going to the teacher is a great idea, especially after you have reviewed your child’s assignments and class notes. Once you have that basic information, then you have the basis for a specific and helpful dialogue with the teacher. A good teacher will want to work with you to make your child’s experience a positive one. I learned as I advanced in my teaching career that students who complained about workload in my first few years of teaching had been right: as a beginning teacher I assigned too much work. No teacher is perfect, and input from parents can help improve teachers’ practices.
Go to the principal if the teacher refuses to meet with you or if, in a meeting, the teacher did not respond to your concerns. Also go to the principal immediately if there are any allegations of improper behavior. I heard a teacher shout at a student once, “You’re so stupid you belong in special ed.” Well, that teacher should have been brought up on charges immediately.
Generally, though, effective educators value constructive feedback from parents and welcome the chance to speak to you about your child. It’s one way for us to improve what we accomplish in the classroom, and help your kids get the best from their educational experience. And don’t wait until it’s time for Parent/Teacher conferences - set up an appointment with your teacher as often as you feel is necessary to keep yourself, the teacher, and your child in the best communication.
In addition to teaching for almost a decade, education expert Eva Ostrum is the founder and CEO of CollegeBroadband.com.
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