We asked teachers and principals what they wish parents would do
Be involved (but not too involved!)
Teachers say they see many parents who are over-involved in their kids’ lives and in their school lives, and also parents who are totally absent. Try to aim for the perfect balance! The appropriate level of involvement changes as the
child gets older. In preschool, parents might have almost daily contact with the teacher. By high school, contact might
be confined to the parent-teacher meetings, with the odd email in between. But do let the teacher know if something significant is going on – a medical issue, or a death or divorce in the family, for instance.
Take care of the basics
There are certain aspects of your child’s life that only you as a parent can manage.
‘Parents have to take care of the basics – get the child’s ears and eyes tested, look after things like nutrition, sleep, exercise,’ says Debbie de Jong, a learning support specialist who works primarily in the foundation phase, across many different schools.
These basics gear your child up to learn and behave as best he can. Seriously, teachers say they can spot the sugared-up kid a mile off!
Support what’s happening in the classroom
There is sometimes a feeling that because you’ve handed over many thousands of rands, the school and teachers should take on the whole job of child-rearing, from table manners to ensuring distinctions. A collaborative approach
is more positive, says De Jong.
‘Parents can’t abdicate their responsibilities. It takes a team to raise and love and
support a child. Children learn 24/7. We only have them for a few hours a day. It’s very helpful if parents carry through with what the teachers are doing into the home situation.’
There’s a delicate balance between supporting and smothering.
De Jong says, ‘Parents, please let children be more independent. When they are little, let them dress themselves, pack their back packs. When a child expects everything to be done for him, the impact in the classroom is huge.’
Trust and respect the teachers
The most common plea from teachers is: trust us, respect us, work with us, let us do our jobs. Teachers are educated
professionals who have had lots of experience and seen many children. They have different skills to yours, see your child differently to you, and bring something different to your child’s life.
Teachers feel that parents are often too quick to blame or criticise, instead of working with them in a positive, collaborative way.
De Jong says, ‘Now and then you get a really bad teacher, but on the whole the teachers I see are committed to children. Unfortunately, I see a lot of disrespect of teachers, particularly in the pre-primary phase. Parents can be very aggressive, particularly if the situation is emotionally charged.’
Pick your battles
There are times when it is absolutely essential for a parent to step in immediately and deal with the teacher or the school: if the child is under threat or in danger, for example, or when academics have plummeted.
When it comes to our kids, we’re in emotional territory. Sometimes an issue is more about our own history, anxiety or ego than it is about the child’s wellbeing. We’ve all had the experience of our child being disappointed or hurt, and wanting to go down there and wreak vengeance! But should we really?
Teachers complain that too much conflict (and too much parent-teacher talk time) arises from fairly trivial matters. They tell hair-raising tales of threatened litigation over places in sports teams.
Paul Channon, former school principal and now an educational consultant, gives a tip: ‘Ask yourself, how important is it to the child on a scale of 1 to 10? If it’s a 9 or 10, you probably should get involved, but there are other times when it is better not to get involved. Take your lead from your child.’
Try and keep a sense of perspective and see the bigger picture. There will always be things about a school that niggle at you, but you’ve bought into a package, and if you’re happy that you’ve made a good
choice, you might have to let some things ride.
Use the right channels
The usual protocol is to take your issue up with your child’s class teacher. Schools generally have regular, formalised parent-teacher meetings set up during the year. This is a good time for general discussion about your child and how he or she is doing personally, socially and academically. If it’s urgent, make an appointment. Not every issue requires
a formal meeting. In primary school, when parents tend to have more interaction with the class teacher, you might
have the opportunity to speak more spontaneously.
There’s a place to just say, ‘Would this be a good time to chat about…’ Be sensitive to the fact that drop-off is a busy time for teachers, particularly in the early years, as they are welcoming and settling the children, so it’s not the ideal time to talk to parents. If you have anything contentious or serious to discuss, it’s best to make an ppointment. If your concerns aren’t resolved satisfactorily, there is usually a chain-of-command – perhaps your next step would be to talk to the head of the Foundation Phase or the Junior Primary, or even the principal. According to Channon, schools would rather hear from parents than have them fester silently or fuel the rumour mill.
Oh, and a big plea from schools: don’t use a class WhatsApp group or social media to air your troubles and fan the flames.
Be an ally not an adversary
‘There are different ways of broaching a subject,’ says Channon. ‘A lot of it is in the tone. You can approach the teacher with something like “I’m sure you are as worried about Adam’s handwriting as we are, what can we do to help?” Or you can come in with an accusatory tone, “What are you doing about this problem?”, which will immediately put the teacher’s back up.’
When there’s a difficult issue to deal with, try to take the emotion out of the equation. Channon suggests a cooling-off period: ‘My advice is to sit on that email that your wrote when you were burning with anger at 10pm. Take a look at it in the morning and see if that’s really the tone you want to use. You might win the battle with your angry email, but you will have compromised relationships in the process.’ Be a friend to the school, more broadly. Channon says:
‘As a head, I appreciated a parent who would give us a heads-up to an issue beyond their own concerns, in as dispassionate a way as possible.’
Understand rewards and punishments
Why didn’t Sarah get a prize? Why does Daniel have to go to detention on Friday? Issues around reward and punishment are often tricky for parents and schools to negotiate. It’s hard for parents to see their kids overlooked when it comes to prize-giving or leadership positions, or to see them in the wrong. Channon highlights
the difference between recognition and reward.
‘Every child deserves to be recognised for his or her own talents and contribution, but a reward in the form of colours and prizes must be more selective.’
It’s OK for a child to be disappointed occasionally or to get into a bit of trouble. It’s all part of the learning experience. Parents and schools should encourage children to make choices, and learn that there are consequences to the choices that are made. It’s best to learn at a young age, rather than later when the consequences are more serious. Ideally, there is a value system that the home and school buy into.’
Take a long view
‘This time of life is about building life-long resilience, not about getting colours,’ says Channon.
‘You want to build the work ethic, teach them to cope with disappointment. Praise the effort not the result.’
Step back and look at the long-term effects of your dealings with your child’s school. What are you modelling for your children when you lose your temper, bad mouth a teacher, or lie for a child? What effect will it have if you stand in the way of important lessons he
needs to learn?