Q. What is the best way to approach a teacher when she uses negative comments in the classroom and doesn’t  admit to using them?  My son told me the teacher called the kids in class “pimple heads” and never praised them for doing anything well in class. The teacher has also called certain kids “immature,” and said they’re not ready for fifth grade. I really don’t like labeling, so I asked the teacher if she could focus on correcting the behavior vs. calling them “immature.”  She didn’t think anything was wrong with her approach and said she would not do anything differently based on one parent complaint. I mentioned that our job as teachers at home and school  is to build our kids’ self-esteem so when they do make mistakes, we don’t put them down.  Now, my son has it in his brain that he is “immature.”

How can I approach a teacher about her negative comments or behavior?  I am a social worker and have read parenting books and taken workshops on behavior modification so I know what is effective in terms of helping children improve their behavior. Also, is there a book you recommend on how to speak to teachers for parent conferences and other situations that come up during the year?  – Victoria, of Lomita, Calif.

A. Communication is challenging at all levels. As adults, we’ve found ways to armor ourselves and deflect comments that are harsh, said in frustration, or misdirected. However, when our children experience this kind of perceived negativity our instinct is to protect and defend.

Author and psychologist Wendy Mogel has written two books that remind me of other lessons my kids and grandkids benefit from – The Blessings of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus. I can’t change a teaching philosophy but I can work with my children to help them be aware of areas where they can grow and learn.

Start with writing prompts

A place to start is with your child’s awareness.  This will take some sorting and sifting.  Conversation prompts or writing prompts you could use with your son might look something like:

  • “What seems to make Ms. Smith call you a “pimple head”? Is she trying to make a joke and get you to pay attention?”
  • “Do you think Ms. Smith is frustrated because you don’t seem to be listening?  What clues might you be giving her?  What are you doing when she says this?  Are you reading quietly, talking, or joking around?”
  • “How can you figure out what clues or signals you are sending your teacher?  What clues or signals does your teacher send you that help you know your actions need to change?”
  • “What prompts Mr. Jones to call you “immature?” Is he frustrated with something that is happening in the classroom?  What is that something? Are you in your seat or learning center when this happens?  What have you been doing when this happens?”
  • “What do you think “immature” means?”

Plan for parent-teacher conferences

Before you go to the parent-teacher conference, decide what your purpose is. Do you want to change the teacher?  Do you want to work with your child to help him navigate the system?

However flawed the system might be it’s what we have to work with. I would love to see your child’s teacher use specific vocabulary for classroom management and other areas of assessment. That’s a useful and specific goal. I would also like them to know you are working with your child to help him learn to ask clarifying questions and to be aware of his actions and how those actions affect the classroom climate.

Our kids will get teachers who are at different places in their ability and experience. Helping your child learn how to navigate the system is a great gift.  There will be a few skinned knees, but mastery of any skill – including self-reliance – means taking some tumbles and learning how to get up and carry on.

More information

Read this EdNews Parent post about how to make the most of a parent-teacher conference. And here’s another excellent tip sheet on asking the right questions of your teacher during conferences and conversations.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.