How do we solve a problem like Ms. Coughlan?

The public schools in Chicago are going into their fifteenth or sixteenth week of school, and I’ve been feeling a little behind. Some of it absolutely has to do with buying a building, moving, and becoming a landlord (landlady? landperson?). The bigness of a move and the shift from being a renter to an owner is a much bigger deal than I initially realized. But something’s been off beyond that. And it has to do with how much time I’ve been spending on my students’ parents.

Yes, you read that right. Not the students, but their parents. And honestly, it’s not all the kids’ parents. Really it’s one set of parents who are very, very intense. And I’d say calling them intense is nice. Because I think — were I in another profession — it would be called harassment. I mean, would you be emailing your doctor or attorney — or hell — your handy man or car mechanic on a daily basis, questioning their every move despite their regular updates? And then regardless of their responses, would you then go to their bosses — behind their backs — to complain about how they’re not doing their job?

But let’s rewind. How has it gotten to this level? Well, without going into too much identity-revealing detail about the child, it essentially has to do with the parents — on a fundamental level — disrespecting me and living in a deep level of denial. You see, early on in the year, probably around week four or five of school, I reached out to the parents, expressed some observations and concerns, and presented a plan to support their child. The parents agreed, said it was a great plan and appreciated it so much, please move forward. Then when I clarified my plan with my administrators I realized that I had skipped an important step in the support process, and so I had to reach out to the parents again, let them know our support plan would be delayed about 10 school days, and then we could resume. Upon hearing that these supports were now more official — aka not off the books and not done “just between us” — they freaked out and refused the supports. Because — obviously — Harvard and Yale and Northwestern are all monitoring third graders’ support plans.

So, I complied with their wishes and never implemented the plan. However, their child continued to exhibit the same concerns, and the child has continued to free fall. And here we are:  the child has an F in a core class and Cs in the other two. And it’s all my fault.

And as this whole exhausting, distracting, unnecessary fiasco has proceeded I began to lose myself in the drama and the conflict. I also started to hypercritically monitor myself and question my every move. It got to the point where I had to ask my colleagues if what I was doing in my classroom was even teaching. The voices of criticism and self-doubt, and the shrill demands of these overly protective, overly demanding parents got that strong.

I’ve been working in the field for 11 years and I’ve been teaching third grade specifically for 7 years now, but I don’t think that I’m on autopilot by any means. I don’t shy away from questioning myself, consulting with other teachers, listening to parents’ concerns, or making changes to my routines and methods. But the place I got to — doubting myself on a fundamental level — was unwarranted because I wasn’t doing anything wrong. If anything, I had done everything right and I’d been doing a damn good job the whole time, and was wasting my precious time on a set of parents who weren’t showing me respect as a professional or even as a person. Granted, their passive-aggressive tactics show they’re acting from a place of fear and denial and I feel for them in that sense, but I have to draw a line somewhere. I’m not going to let someone’s fear of their child “needing support” take over my professional life and throw my teaching into a tailspin — at least, not anymore.

So we’re scheduled to meet next week to discuss, well, whatever it is they need to discuss. Again. Thankfully there will be someone there mediating. But I’d like to leave you with a few tips to live by, especially if you’re a parent of school-age kids. I  mean to share this with the utmost care and respect, so please read on with an open mind.

Tips for dealing with “difficult” teachers:

  1. Remember that this teacher is responsible for your child as well as up to 30 other children. The teacher has to make sure all children are learning, and it can be a difficult task to keep track of 30 lives simultaneously and for multiple consecutive hours. Please recognize this is hard, and they’re doing their best.
  2. Remember that this teacher is not any other teacher your child has had before. Their previous grade level is over, and with a new grade level come new challenges and higher expectations. Your child may need some time adjusting to these changes. Good thing you’re there to help them!
  3. Remember that even though the teacher is responsible for your child’s learning, it’s never too early to teach your child strategies for self-advocating. Ask your child about the class procedures for getting teacher help. It may be as simple as raising their hand or asking a neighbor. Also, simple phrases like, “Can you please help me with this?” and “I’m not sure what to do, can you help me?” are music to most teachers’ ears. Encourage your child to be a risk-taker and ask for help.
  4. If you notice that your child is uncertain about what to do on homework assignments or looks confident and then fills out everything wrong, remember that you can ask the teacher for support and clarification. Asking sooner rather than later is everything. 
  5. Remember if your child’s teacher is telling you about ways your child is struggling, they have no ulterior motives — other than to share information with you and find some ways to work together. Even if your child never acts the way the teacher describes at home, school life and home life can be very different in the child’s eyes, and what the teacher is saying is mostly likely true. Please take the teacher’s feedback in good faith.
  6. Remember that teachers want solutions, not problems. No teacher wakes up in the morning planning ways for their students to fail or struggle. It’s quite the opposite. Teachers are driven and impassioned by their students’ success and growth. Nothing makes a teacher happier than seeing their students happy, growing, and learning. Those are the moments teachers live for. 

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