By Kathleen Brewer, 5th grade Language Arts teacher & Grayson's mom
Toward the end of last school year, my child began acting unlike himself. To quote one of my colleagues, he had “lost the plot.” He began to behave the way he acts when he's sick. I took his temperature only to find it normal. After two or three weeks, something had to give.
Being a single mom who also teaches, I called in reinforcements in the form of my child's teacher. Maybe she would have an answer...a magic spell...a series of Herculean tasks I could perform that would turn this grumpy, over-sensitive child back into the sweet, sunshine-y boy I know and love. If nothing else, maybe she would have some insights.
My text to his teacher elicited a quick response. She couldn't meet with me that day; did I feel comfortable texting her my concerns?
Maybe it was all in my head, or maybe it was years of my own experiences responding to parental queries, some of them angry, but in my co-worker's texted response, I could swear that I felt the quickly indrawn breath, the tightening of shoulder muscles, the lump beginning to build in the pit of her stomach...in short the “someone’s upset with me” feeling that can accompany an unspecified email from a parent. I need to speak with you.
I realized that by not directly identifying the root of my concern as being my child's changed behavior in that initial text to his teacher I had left room for her to worry about a possible conflict. As I have reflected on this incident and the numerous other parent-teacher interactions I have been part of, I have become increasingly convinced that—working together—we can make Randolph’s parent-teacher teams even stronger.
That led me to think about how I should communicate with my child’s teachers, and how I hope that parents will approach me. Here’s how I plan to handle things in the future.
1. I will start at the beginning.
Right at the beginning of the year, I’m going to make contact with my child’s homeroom teacher/advisor to make sure the team that will care for him this year has pertinent information about him. I need to make sure the teaching team knows that my husband died when our son was four and that, as a result, his grandparents help with a lot of his care. Other parents may need to discuss a difficult divorce situation, a learning challenge, or a food allergy. Sharing what I, as a parent, know about my child will give his teachers a head start as they begin to build a relationship with him.
2. I’m going to introduce myself.
“I’m Kathleen Brewer, Grayson’s mom.” That sounds obvious; we all do this on Parent Night, right? But somehow the introductions get lost when you’re a teacher who is meeting and greeting what feels like —and in some cases is—hundreds of sets of parents. So I’m going to repeat the introduction every time I run into my child’s teachers... at Publix, at Young Voices performances, at community events, everywhere. That way they won’t be scrambling to place me in an out-of-context situation.
3. I’m going to celebrate the good times.
Throughout the year, as my child comes home talking about the fabulous things he did in school, I’m going to make time to communicate with the teachers responsible, so that they know that their time and efforts have had an impact.
4. I am going to ask for more information.
When my child is upset about something that happened at school, or when something happens that concerns me, I’m going to contact the teacher directly to get more information. Since 10-year-olds are not always the most reliable relayers-of-information, I’ll ask for clarification to make sure I’ve got the whole story.
5. I am going to be upfront.
If I decide there’s a legitimate concern, I will make an appointment to talk with the teacher involved. I will state my concern directly, immediately, and calmly. Directly, because the teacher deserves to have me communicate with him or her as an adult and a professional. Immediately, so that my irritation has less time to simmer. Calmly, because both of us have the same end goal: to support and nurture this child.
6. I am going to keep the lines of communication open.
I know everyone who works here has the best interests of my child in mind. I am going to do all that I can to help everyone who meets my child this year learn how to “know, challenge, and love” him as much as I do, and as much as his 3rd grade teacher did.
So what happened after I got that text reply from my son’s 3rd grade teacher? I texted her back immediately with details about my observations of my child's unusual demeanor. She confirmed that she had been seeing in class the same sorts of uncharacteristic behaviors. In other words, he had lost the plot, but we were on the same page. That was the affirmation I had been seeking so together we could figure out next steps.
Although she didn’t have any magic words or miracle pills, she did have a possible explanation for my child’s sudden character change: Had I considered that this might be puberty? <Insert the sound of my jaw dropping in speechless horror.> While I routinely reassure my students’ parents about the changes wrought by puberty, it was humbling to realize that as a parent I was unprepared to face this myself.
We made a plan: I checked in with Vanessa Robinson, the school counselor, and I went to our G.P., who took my son’s temperature, found a fever, and diagnosed a sinus infection. A round of antibiotics (Look! Sometimes there really are miracle pills!), and I had my cheerful child back again.
More importantly, though, I know that through the good times, the challenges, and the mysteries of parenting, I am part of a very supportive parent-teacher network and that we are all in this together.
Kathleen is a passionate reader and writer who loves sharing that passion with middle school students. In addition to teaching 5th Grade Language Arts, she runs the 5th/6th Lunch Bunch book club, co-sponsors the Middle School Craft Club, and encourages an enthusiastic group of middle school knitters. When she is not at Randolph, Kathleen can be found at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, where she serves on the vestry.