Today’s teacher’s corner is brought to you by the Little One, who apparently has a rough day at school. Some classmates seem to be difficult and today everything escalated, their class teacher cancelled tomorrow’s recess* and she complained bitterly that both the English and the P.E teacher had called them “a bad English/P.E. class”. Now, of course, that gets the mama bear mode activated, but luckily my brain kicked back in and I asked what exactly did the English teacher say? “Well, we were all a bit overenergetic and it was very loud and he said this had been the worst English lesson ever and he didn’t enjoy it at all.”
As you can see, that’s quite something different. The teacher hadn’t called them “bad”, he’d given them feedback about that particular lesson and let them know how he felt about it.
And what did the P.E. teacher say? “He said he had to be stricter with us than with other classes, because he knows that many of us like to do sports, but some kids always misbehave when he is talking and therefore we don’t get to do a lot of sports.”
As you can see, in both cases the teacher said something very different from what the kid reported back to me. That’s not because she was lying, but if you take the “communication model” that says that all messages have an affective component and that whatever message the sender is trying to convey may be absolutely lost by the recipient, it’s clear what happened: a pretty sensitive and ambitious kid who thrives on a teacher’s praise felt unfairly criticised and the emotional response made her unable to actually understand what was being said. We talked about what each teacher said, and that she had admitted herself that they didn’t behave during the English lesson and that the P.E. teacher was actually on her side. It made her feel a lot better. To understand the criticism, but also to understand that if the teacher talks about kids who misbehave and she didn’t misbehave, the reprimand wasn’t directed at her (funny enough, that’s so often the case: the kids who do behave are sad and upset while those who caused the trouble don’t feel like this has anything to do with them).
We also talked about how she can tell a teacher if she thinks their comments were unfair or hurt her, and how she can address that she feels it’s unfair that recess is cancelled. It’s important that she can stand up for herself, and she knows I’ll have her back when it’s justified, but from experience I also know how quickly those situations escalate when parents don’t talk these things through, but just believe their kids verbatim. Next day you have some upset parents on the phone or, even better, in school, demanding to talk to that horrible teacher NOW. The teacher in question doesn’t even know what they’re talking about, because the incident the parents are talking about bears no resemblance to what happened, the parents decide the teacher is accusing their kid of lying and before you know it you’re sitting there for an hour trying to untangle who said what, tracing back communication, doing heavy meta communication and reestablishing some goodwill, if you ever manage to calm down mama and papa bear at all.
So please, parents, if you’re reading this: talk to your kids. Find out exactly what was said, and not just what was felt. They will learn how to solve such problems from you, only while strongarming while being wrong will often work in a school setting (after all, if we give your kid detention and you decide it’s bullshit, we can’t call the cops on you, and I don’t want to, and it’s your kid to fuck up anyway), it will not work in a work setting. You can’t send mummy to your boss because you thought they were mean. No, you also can’t send your union rep, claiming that your boss called you lazy when in fact they said that the department was behind schedule.
But also, do have their back if their teacher did treat them unfairly. Assume the best at first, but I’ve been in schools for long enough and I know that some teachers are mean bullies who will take it out on the kids whose parents will always agree with the teacher.
*That’s, of course, not legal. “Collective punishment” isn’t allowed in our school system, but I guess I’m the only parent who knows that in that class and I won’t tattle. I absolutely encourage the kid to challenge the teacher, but I’m not going to be that parent either who completely undermines the teacher’s authority. They’ll live spending one recess in class. Should this be repeated, we can talk.
P.S. That’s also why I think the communication mantra “criticise behaviour, not people” is half bullshit. People will still understand “you are X”. At best you can have some meta communication later.