By Allison Wedell Schumacher
Early in my college career, I met a woman named Kristine. I’m not going to lie: She really didn’t appeal to me. But we had several classes together and seemed to travel in similar social circles, so I saw a lot of her. And what do you know: She grew on me. We became roommates. We were in each other’s weddings. Our children play together. I now can’t imagine life without her.
My relationship with Kristine taught me an important life lesson: We don’t always like everyone right away. Nor should we feel as if we have to. But with a little effort and an open mind, we can usually get along with the people we interact with every day. And at back-to-school time, that may be a lesson our children need to learn—especially about their teachers.
Of course you want your child to love his teacher—and both conventional wisdom and scientific studies tell us that kids who like their teachers tend to do better in school. But the student-teacher relationship doesn’t always get off to a smooth start.
So what do you do if your child doesn’t seem thrilled with the adult she spends the most time with besides you? I thought perhaps a teacher might have some good advice, so I talked with Janie Cantwell, an elementary school teacher with Seattle Public Schools.
Ms. Janie, as her students call her, has been teaching since 1988. Most recently, she was a K–5 resource room teacher, so she had students from all kinds of different classrooms. But to foster a bond with her students, Ms. Janie does what most teachers strive to do: create continuity. “My main focus is on incorporating the language, vocabulary, and routines that all classroom teachers in the building are using into my class structure, she says.” She also works hard to get to know her students, and they her. For example, everyone—even Ms. Janie—fills out an “All About Me” poster and presents it (or asks an adult to present it) to the rest of the class.
But despite these and other methods, Ms. Janie does have the occasional student whom she doesn’t hit it off with right away. “Most often, that trouble stems from either personality (since I’m an extrovert) or classroom structure,” she says. “I tend to start off with only two rules. We, as a class, build the rest together.” But rarely does the conflict last long.
If the struggle continues, however, Ms. Janie talks to the student’s family, again creating continuity. She finds that if she asks about the rules and customs in the home, that may help her and the student foster their relationship. “It doesn’t take very long for that to work itself out.”
Ms. Janie’s number one piece of advice for parents whose students aren’t getting along with their teachers is this: “Remind them that relationships take time, personal integrity, and commitment to develop.” The great thing about that reminder is that it applies to pretty much all of our relationships, not just the student-teacher ones.
She also encourages parents to “be themselves first” and try to see the situation objectively. Ms. Janie does the same, and she tries to let parents know which perspective she’s coming from at any given time: “I’ll say to them, ‘I’m talking from the lens of a parent, and I want you to know . . .’”
And if your child is struggling with his relationship with his teacher and the teacher hasn’t reached out to you, feel free to make the first move. Continuity works both ways, and Ms. Janie welcomes communication from parents seeking to establish a better home-to-school relationship.
As for pitfalls to avoid, Ms. Janie says one of the easiest traps to fall into is comparing one teacher to another. Remind your child that this year’s teacher is different from last year’s teacher, but highlight the new teacher’s strengths: “No, Mr. Greg doesn’t play the guitar like Ms. Dyanni, but I hear he does really great crafts in his classroom! Let’s remember to ask him about that on the first day of school.”
Ultimately, it’s open communication that will win the day. “I let the students and parents see me both in my strength and when I make a mistake, by naming it,” explains Ms. Janie. “I let them see my process of learning how to grow and change with it. Showing up as a lifelong learner is the best way I know to model how to be a learner, which is what I am teaching.”
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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