Parent Teacher Conflict

February 20, 2007 12:00 am
 (Bryant Anderson/The Daily Triplicate).
(Bryant Anderson/The Daily Triplicate).

By Karen Wilkinson

Triplicate staff writer

After Theresa Bering's 9-year-old daughter returned from school and repeated a questionable remark her third-grade teacher made to the class, she was fuming.

The comment the teacher made — "If kids don't learn to read and write, they'll grow up to live in cardboard boxes" — was "inappropriate," Bering said.

"I have a problem with someone addressing my child in that manner," said Bering, noting that the teacher could have used "some other inspiration" to encourage her students to read and write.

But Bering's headache didn't start there.

When she missed her daughter's parent-teacher conference earlier this school year for a medical emergency, the teacher was "real snotty about it," Bering said. "This is the straw that broke the camel's back for me."

And "she's just made little snide remarks throughout the year," Bering said. "I'm mad because I feel like I'm powerless, because it's a teacher.

"I'm sure there's a lot of parents who feel this way."

She's right — similar disputes are common, says Del Norte High School Counselor Gwen Turner.

"It happens (and) it's pretty regularly throughout the year," she said. "We're always fine-tuning what's working and what's not."

But parents have more power than they may realize.

The first step to resolve an issue is "to start with the teacher, unless it's something so egregious that it's something that can't be worked out," said Jan Moorehouse, Del Norte County School District superintendent.

Realizing that conflicts can occur for a variety of reasons, Turner recommends calling and e-mailing teachers, attending the one-on-one conferences and even popping in to chat with a teacher during a prep period (note that most teachers have preps, but not all do, so check first).

"Often the case is just communicating and having a dialogue (that) clears the air," she said. "It's always an eye-opener (and) there's always going to be at least two sides to the story."

When that didn't work for Bering — she met with the principal and even had him sit in during the meeting she rescheduled — she insisted that her daughter be removed from the classroom and placed with another teacher.

"I'm one of those parents who just deals with it," she said.

And that's the best approach, Turner says — being proactive to keep tabs on children's grades, attendance and behavior by remaining in constant contact with teachers.

"I think the best advice is before passing judgment, to contact the teacher (and) principal and really listen," said Mike Mealue, who teaches at Del Norte High teacher and head the teacher's association.

The No. 1 concern he and other upper-grade teachers hear from parents is about grades.

"And from my experience the students will tell parents ‘I don't have any homework and I'm doing fine,' and the parent finds out otherwise eventually," Mealue said.

Sometimes progress reports don't end up in the hands of parents, he said, adding grades can be accessed online in that case.

"That parental involvement is an important factor," Mealue said.

In lower-grades, issues tend to arise when parents hear opposing stories from their children and school officials.

"The parent gets a different story from the student than what may or may not be the truth because they don't want to get in trouble at home," Mealue said.

Most disputes are resolved at the school level, Moorehouse said, so seeing administration involvement is very rare.

"That means that either people are swallowing their unhappiness — and I'm not seeing that — or they're resolving it at their level," she said.

If parents don't feel a resolution has been reached after exhausting all other options, however, a formal complaint can be filed with the school district.

A letter can be written to the school site — which will be kept confidential — or district staff member.

But in most cases, a simple phone call or sit-down meeting is the best answer, Turner says.

"Often you're going to see a good outcome," she said, adding that she tells students who may be struggling that if there's anything they have control over, it's their schooling.

"Education is a gift you give yourself that you open again and again."

But it also takes committed teachers, students and parents willing to work together. And as Bering has recently realized, sometimes it's best to go with one's gut.

After switching her daughter to a new teacher, she's confident that her third-grader's marks will improve with "someone who puts a little more faith in her."

And as for the comment about possible future prospects, Bering did her job as a parent.

"I sat and spoke and explained she will still make something of herself, even if she doesn't get the best grades," she said.

If there's a conflict

•Contact teacher – By phone, e-mail or in person, most conflicts can be resolved with a little communication, school officials say.

•Contact principal – If going to the teacher doesn't work, the school principal can be brought in as a mediator to help mend issues.

•File a formal complaint – After all other options are exhausted, a letter can be written to the school site or district. The director will try to resolve the issue within five working days, according to Del Norte County School District's policy.