Patti Bacchus: Don't be "that" parent when it comes to back-to-school teacher conflicts

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      When I chaired the Vancouver School Board (VSB), my phone number was posted on the district website. I got a lot of interesting calls and did my best to respond to them promptly and respectfully.

      The calls were often from distressed parents who were having a problem with their child’s teachers or school, and they didn’t know what to do. Then there were the ones who knew exactly what they wanted me to do about it: fire the teacher! Oh, yes, there were more than a few of those.

      Including the father who called me one year during the second week of school. He was outraged that his son’s new teacher had grouped kids of different ages (it was a split class) and sent one group to work on a project in the school hallway. He was outraged and listed off all the things he believed the teacher had done wrong. I listened carefully. All the things he was furious about struck me as totally normal and appropriate things for a teacher to be doing. He wanted to know why I wouldn’t immediately take action to have the teacher fired.

      I took a deep breath and asked if he’d even met the teacher. He had not. I suggested he call the school and ask for an appointment to meet with the teacher so he could ask them about the things he was concerned about—and listen to their explanations—before demanding they be fired. I never heard from him again, but I heard from several like him over the years.

      I had my share of frustrations—and a few misunderstandings—with teachers and administrators when my own kids were in school. It’s hard handing your kids over to the “system”, and when things don’t go well, first impulses can be to cast blame or make demands. That seldom leads to a good outcome, however. I learned quickly that there are ways to solve problems and ways to get known as a problem parent. Don’t be that parent.

      Focus on the child

      When conflicts about school escalate, they usually end up in the school-board offices. In the most extreme cases, they can end up before the board itself, in a formal review hearing (I’ll explain more about that later). I dealt with these as a school-board chair, and they all had one thing in common: they were disputes between adults that had stopped being about students (although that’s where they’d started).

      We each have our own baggage about the school system, and when parents get into battles with that system, it’s often more about their own (unmet) needs and experiences than it is about their child. This isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of legitimate school or classroom issues parents need to address and get resolved; it’s that most of the ones that escalate and get messy really aren’t about the kids.

      I’ve had many upset parents on the phone who rail on at length about how someone at the school or district office spoke to them, dismissed them, or whatever, but when I’d ask, “What’s the outcome you’re looking for in terms of your child?” they weren’t even sure. I always tried to refocus the conversation to what was happening with their child and what would improve their school experience. That’s what all the adults should be focused on.

      Be direct

      Don’t start making calls demanding people get fired because you or your child are having an issue with their teacher. Speak to the teacher directly. If it’s something fairly straightforward, you may be able to resolve it with a phone call. If it’s at all complicated, call and ask to make an appointment to discuss it in person. In most cases, a face-to-face, respectful conversation can resolve the issue and clear up any miscommunication.


      Emailing the teacher and copying their boss, their boss’s boss, and the chair of the board, on the other hand, is not an effective conflict-resolution strategy, despite its unfortunate popularity as a tactic. It just ticks people off, makes you seem like a jerk, and distracts focus from whatever it is your child needs to succeed in school. Email is generally a poor way to resolve conflict and is best avoided for anything beyond simple communication of information.

      Respect that schools are busy places at the beginning of the year and that you may need to be patient to get an appointment. If your issue is with the school administration or a decision a principal or vice principal has made, I advise the same approach: ask to speak with the person you’re having an issue with before escalating to the next level.

      At this time of year, I’d often hear from parents who wanted a say about which teacher their child got or whether or not they should be placed in a split class. Most schools can’t accommodate those requests and many parents don’t understand how split classes work and that they’re not detrimental to student learning.

      Parents also used to phone me because they were frustrated about how long it was taking for their kids to get assigned to their class and find out who their teacher (or teachers) would be for the year. Organizing classes and timetables is complicated, and schools have to comply with class-size and composition limits and sort out kids who’ve moved in or out of the school community during the summer.

      It seems like a big deal at the time, and I went through that with my own kids, but a few months from now, a wait of a week or two will be mostly forgotten and won’t be an issue at all. If it takes more than a couple of weeks to get classes assigned, then go ahead and complain to your school trustees, because I guarantee you that teachers and school principals are feeling just as frustrated about it as you are.

      If your child has special needs or something specific that would make a placement unworkable, that’s something that should be discussed with the school before the start of the year. Once students are assigned to classes, it’s difficult to make changes without a very good reason (and, no, just because Emma’s best friend got put in the other class isn’t reason to ask to have Emma moved).

      A stepped process

      If you’ve met with the teacher and your school principal and you still don’t believe your concern has been adequately addressed and resolved, the next step is to take it up the chain to the school district office. In many districts, there are directors or associate superintendents who supervise school principals. You need to find out which one has responsibility for your child’s school (you can find out by calling your school district office). Call them and explain the problem and ask them to assist you in resolving the issue.

      If that still doesn’t work, you can ask to meet with your district’s superintendent of schools (although don’t be surprised or offended if they refer you to an associate or deputy superintendent). If that still doesn’t get the problem solved to your satisfaction, you have the option to file what’s called a “Section 11 appeal”.

      Section 11 of The B.C. School Act says parents can appeal school or district decisions that “significantly” affect their child’s education, health, or safety (it’s a wide net, but the key is significantly). The School Act requires each school district to have a formal appeal procedure that parents can access, which allows them to ask the elected school board to hear their case.

      You should be able to find your district’s process on its website or by calling your school-district office.

      In reality, very few disputes make it to the appeal stage, as they’re usually resolved at the school or district level. If you run into a problem that you just can’t get resolved and you believe you have a strong case, it’s an option to consider.

      Don’t hesitate to be your child’s advocate

      Don’t be the parent who demands teachers be fired because you don’t like the way they looked at you or what they had or didn’t have your child make for Father’s Day, and don’t complain about which teacher your child gets or whether or not they’re in the same class as their best friend. But do be your child’s advocate when it comes to making sure they’re getting the support they need to succeed in school.

      You can do that by asking their teacher how you can support them in meeting your child’s needs and accessing any services they may need. That might mean making an appointment with your school’s principal to argue about why your child needs the support of an education assistant or other specialist. It could mean writing a letter to the school board or government asking for more funding for staffing, resources, or whatever it is that would make it easier for your child’s teacher to teach your child successfully.

      School parent advisory councils (PACs) and district parent advisory councils (DPACs) are also often able to provide advice on navigating the school system and resolving problems. The VSB’s DPAC used to have an excellent parent advocacy program that provided training to parent volunteers who were available to advise any parent on how to resolve disagreements they were having with their child’s school or school district. I’m pleased to see they’re working on getting the program going again by training new volunteers who can assist parents in being effective advocates for their kids and resolving problems and conflicts.

      It’s fine to advocate directly to school trustees (most school districts list trustee’s phone numbers and email addresses on their websites), but keep in mind that they can’t—or shouldn’t—get involved in individual student issues. They can, however, direct you to the appropriate staff person or process to assist you.

      I remember how hard it was to hand over my little kindergarteners to the “system” and how important it was to build positive, respectful relationships with those who were teaching or supporting them at school.

      Knowing the right way to resolve problems or conflicts is a great way to support your kids’ learning and their school experiences. Let teachers know you’re on their side when it comes to supporting your child and all the kids in the class. Be that parent.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.