About the Author - Maya Thiagarajan, Educator & Author
Maya Thiagarajan spent 17 years teaching high school English, first in the US and later in Singapore. She is the author of Beyond The Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age, a book about how to blend the best of Eastern and Western approaches to parenting and education. Maya has a BA in English from Middlebury College and an M.Ed from Harvard University. In 2017, she relocated to India and started TREE, Teaching Reimagined, a company that helps schools recruit, develop, and inspire teachers.
When I first started teaching, way before I had children of my own, I often thought that parents were downright irrational.
I remember sitting in the faculty room laughing and ranting with my colleagues about all the absurd parents we had to deal with … “Oh and XXX’s mom … let me tell you what she did last year. She’s totally out of control….”
We had parents who were convinced that their children were geniuses; parents who were willing to swoop in and rescue their children from even mildly stressful or distressing situations; parents who made excuses for their kids, parents who argued over grades, and parents who worried excessively for no apparent reason; and the list goes on.
But then I had children of my own.
I remember the time I had to drop off my son at his first play school. He was almost three years old, and he absolutely did not want to go to school. He clung to my leg and sobbed. I could feel my heart rate accelerate and my whole body react with tension and panic. The teacher looked at me sympathetically and said, “This is perfectly normal separation anxiety. Don’t worry, he’ll be fine after you leave, and we’ll call you if there’s any issue.” I looked at her in a state of panic, unable to believe her. I remember thinking that the teacher was heartless and cruel. Sure, she had many years of experience with many children. But we were talking about my child.
Over the years as a parent of two children, I’ve had lots of crazy parent moments. In the process of growing as a parent, I’ve stopped judging parents. Instead, I’m able to empathize with them. What used to strike me as downright irrational, now strikes me as a manifestation of normal parental anxiety and love.
As an educational consultant who trains teachers, I often conduct workshops for teachers about healthy and effective parent-teacher communication. My main goal with teachers is to help them understand and empathize with parents, so that they can work productively with parents for the benefit of the child.
When teachers are able to see a parent’s combative stance as a manifestation of that parent’s own anxiety, they are able to empathize with the parent instead of feeling defensive and angry themselves. It’s this level of empathy that allows for productive conversations.
But I think that there are a number of things that parents can also do to ensure that they have healthy relationships with their children’s teachers. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Realize that you are on the same team with the same goals
If you start to think of your child’s teacher as a partner who shares your goals – for your child’s growth and well-being – then you can approach her with a sense of trust and respect. Realize that teachers care deeply about their students and want them to succeed. Assume positive intent, and treat your child’s teacher like a valuable partner who can work with you to help your child flourish.
2. Realize that your child’s teacher is a professional, who has a very different frame of reference from you. Her perspective is very valuable.
As a parent, you interact very closely with your own children and you are probably well aware of what they can do. However, your child’s teacher has the benefit of working with hundreds or thousands of children over time. If she says that your child may need to be tested, or may need extra support, she’s not trying to stigmatize or destroy your child. She’s just drawing on years of experience with a large sample of children and making astute professional observations and judgements. Trust her professional judgement.
3. Remember that teachers are human too!
If you are accusatory or angry with someone, chances are they will react defensively. This is as much true of teachers as it is of anyone else. If you want a productive conference that will ultimately benefit your child, don’t criticize, attack, or accuse your child’s teacher. Instead, tell her that you are anxious and worried, and then share your concerns with her. Together, you can work to come up with a plan that will benefit your child.
Similarly, if your child’s teacher is doing good work, tell her, or even better, tell the principal at the school! Everyone needs positive validation and recognition for good work.
4. Always talk to the teacher directly, when you have any kind of issue with her.
Many parents, especially at elite schools, often go straight to the principal. They barge into the principal’s office, ready to criticize a teacher in harsh and even cruel ways. This is very hurtful to teachers and it is usually unappreciated by principals. (Most good principals will stand up for their teachers and advocate for them – otherwise they risk having very low morale and low retention rates among their faculty. Teachers at a school have to know that they have the support and backing of their school administrators.)
It is always, always better to first address an issue directly with your child’s teacher. Then, if you are still unable to resolve the issue and you genuinely feel as though you need to advocate further for your child, you can approach the principal (or other appropriate administrators). But always start by directly and respectfully approaching your child’s teacher.
5. Don’t try to rescue your child or make excuses for him or her.
Most parents don’t like to see their kids upset. In some cases, parents will come in and argue with a teacher who is strict or firm about consequences. But this is what I call short-term parenting. It’s really looking only at the immediate feelings of a child.
If you want your child to grow up to be resilient and responsible, you have to let them face the consequences of their own decisions. If they forget to take their homework to school, let them learn the hard way that these lapses have consequences. Don’t rush over to the school with their homework and try to rescue them.
If they don’t get selected for a sports team or a part in the school play that they want, don’t go argue with the teacher. Realize that it’s healthy for kids to experience some failure when they’re young. It builds resilience and an ability to cope with life. Your child’s teacher knows this. Don’t sabotage your child’s ability to develop resilience, coping skills, and self-advocacy skills by always jumping in and doing everything for them or rescuing them at the slightest signs of distress.
To conclude, think carefully about how you can build a healthy, respectful, and mutually beneficial relationship with your child’s teachers. When these relationships are in place, everyone benefits, and your child will benefit most of all!