'Check yourself' and other tips for parent-teacher relationships in the new school year

"Queen Bees and Wannabes" author Rosalind Wiseman shares tips for parents.

ByABC News
August 15, 2017, 12:55 PM

— -- Rosalind Wiseman is a 20-year teaching veteran, New York Times-bestselling author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes” and other books that explore the dynamics of parenting and education. She’s also the founder of Cultures of Dignity, an organization dedicated to the emotional and physical well-being of young people.

Wiseman is the mother of two teenage boys who, like any parent, has faced ups and downs with her sons’ teachers over the years.

“I don’t think you can be a parent and, at some point, not get frustrated or have some kind of conflict with somebody who is teaching your child,” Wiseman told ABC News. “That’s absolutely common.”

Wiseman’s own sons are beginning this school year in two new schools after being at odds with a high school teaching figure.

Author Rosalind Wiseman is seen in this Nov. 4, 2010 file photo in Washington D.C.
Mark Gail/Washington Post/Getty Images

“I believe strongly in my children having really difficult experiences and getting through them,” Wiseman said. “But when any child can't focus in school, doesn't feel safe in school, and if it's killing the love that they have for their passion, then you need to take them away.”

The new school year can be a stressful time as students and their parents adjust to new teachers, or it can be a time for positive adjustment if everyone involved keeps an open mind, experts say.

“The truism in teaching, especially in the beginning of the school year, is saying to parents, ‘Don’t believe everything that your child says about me and I won’t believe everything that your child says about you,’” said Wiseman, whose bestselling “Queen Bees and Wannabes” was the inspiration for the hit movie “Mean Girls.”

Mark Ginsberg, a psychologist and the dean of the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, also advises parents not to jump to conclusions at the start of the school year.

“I think it’s really important to give a little bit of time, give it a chance because often times what seems not to work could, in fact, be a perfect match,” Ginsberg told ABC News. “Be careful, be prudent, be cautious and give it a little bit of time.”

Amanda Uhry, the founder and owner of Manhattan Private School Advisors, which helps place students from preschool to college, said she uses a simple piece of advice to remind parents of the priorities in each school year.

“We try to really make clear to parents, ‘You went to sixth-grade already, this is not your experience,’” she said. “Parents need to begin to understand what’s best for the child is not always what’s best for them and vice versa.”

'That teacher is totally unfair’

If conflicts arise during the school year, parents can start the conversation by having their child define what "unfair" means if the child comes home with that complaint against a teacher.

"What happens is that parents listen to their children, or listen to other parents, and they don’t remember that there is probably another side," Wiseman said. "Very often parents can have self-righteous temper tantrums and you have this thing in your head of, ‘I’m going to go down to that school and I’m going to give that teacher a piece of my mind.’"

She added of her own personal experience, "Time and time again as a parent I've had the experience of my kids being outraged by something 'unfair' a teacher did and then I find out later, well, my children contributed to the problem. I always try and remember that when I hear a complaint from my child. Always."

Cathleen Rea, a psychologist in private practice in Newport News, Virginia, said she often sees conflict between teachers and parents boil down to a simple lack of communication.

"Parents take their kid's perspective and don’t step back to see the other side, or parents and teachers are not taking the time to talk with each other," Rea told ABC News. "So the teacher cannot take the parents' expertise on their youngster and the parent can’t take advantage of the teacher's new and different way of doing things or looking at things."

Rea said she encourages parents to "build a bridge" by asking, and really listening to, the teacher's perspective. Children can also be included in those meetings, according to Rea.

"It's not a bad idea to sit down with the youngster because that’s teaching and modeling problem-solving skills," she said. "By listening and asking for different views and perspectives on your youngster and the tasks that have to be accomplished, that builds trust."

High expectations vs. humiliation

Wiseman said both of her sons endured a teacher who they found lived up to her reputation of being boring and strict with students. Wiseman, however, did not intervene.

"I wouldn't want to be in her class but it's really important that my child, children, be respectful to her, learn to be in her class and not get the best grade if they can't handle her rules," she said. "It was boring and they can have that once in a while."

She continued, "In comparison, we've also had a teacher, a coach, in our lives who consistently humiliated one of my children and other children. That's not acceptable. That is where you get involved as a parent."

'Check yourself'

Uhry, the school placement adviser, said she has noticed her clients will demand changes with their child's teacher or school as if they are the boss.

"The people we work with are going to these very expensive schools, $50,000 a year, and they figure they’re not a parent anymore, they’re a client," she said. "That’s really not right. The teacher is in charge."

A parent's strong reaction -- at home and at the school -- can have lasting effects on both the parent-child and parent-school relationships.

"My experience with kids is that if the parent freaks out and makes a huge scene at the school, then that child is much less likely to tell the parent anything because they're so embarrassed and they're just mortified that their parent has done this," Wiseman said. "It's important to focus on saying [to your child], 'I'm really sorry. Thank you for telling me and together we're going to figure out what's the next best step.'"

Wiseman recommends parents have a "check yourself" moment before reaching out to their child's teacher or school leaders about an issue.

"People get so self-righteous and so angry, when we say people should communicate better, it means don't be self-righteous," she said. "If you feel that feeling of, 'I'm going down to the school to be the mama bear parent,' check yourself."

Get involved

Ginsberg encourages parents to be an active participant in their child's school so they can develop productive relationships with their child's teachers.

"Go to the open house night and take advantage of opportunities to meet the teachers and have a chance to get to know them," he said. "Teachers are people too and teachers respond to broader relationships that are bilateral, that are two-way."

Parents should also always remember that they are working with, not against, their child's teacher, according to Ginsberg.

"Realize that parents and teachers are on the same team and they’re after the same things," he said. "Teachers are after the very best for their students and parents are after the very best for their children."

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