7 Ways To Bulletproof Your Teaching Career

Many teachers I know live with fear. They fear failing their students. They fear angering vocal parents. They fear the judgment of their colleagues. But above all, many teachers fear a poor evaluation from an administrator that leads to the loss of their job and puts their teaching career in jeopardy.

This fear is why so many teachers are nervous when their principal walks in the room. It’s why they can’t sleep the night before an observation. It’s why they keep a close eye on the economy, state funding, and the financial health of their district. And it’s why so many teachers are afraid to speak up about harmful policies, unrealistic expectations, the misuse of data, and systemic exploitation.

Teachers can never fully bulletproof their careers. Because we work for a government entity that receives funding from the state, we’ll always be at the mercy of recessions and budget cuts. Because we work for other people, we’ll always be vulnerable to petty tyrants, budget-slashing Superintendents, and office politics. Still, there are simple things teachers can do to protect themselves from poor evaluations, dismissals, and layoffs. Here are seven things every teacher can do to make their career as bulletproof as possible.

1. Provide Uncommon Value

You don’t need to sign up for every committee and attend every after-school event to ensure that your principal values you enough that you’re never vulnerable to layoff. You don’t need to be a yes-man or a suck-up. But if you want to bulletproof your career, you should stand out from the crowd by providing uncommon value. When supervisors think of their building without you in it, they should wonder how you’ll be replaced.

Perhaps you’re the go-to person for making the specials schedule and the job would fall to your principal if you didn’t do it. Maybe you’re the disciplinarian, dealing with student misbehavior so the principal doesn’t have to do it all. You could have one major project that you do every year that is valued by the school and the community, such as Career Day or an annual Make a Difference Day project. Become known for one important extra and you’ll make it much harder for your principal to envision a day when you’re not there.

2. Be Likable (or at least not unlikable)

Most people hold the erroneous view that competence is what determines career success. They believe that those who are better at their jobs will be rewarded and those who don’t get results will be dinged on their evaluations. But research suggests that it isn’t true. While everyone would love to work with a charismatic star and no one can stand an incompetent jerk, things get murkier when it comes to choosing between capable assholes and lovable slackers. Professors Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo found that while many employers say competence matters most, their actions reveal the opposite. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, the professors stated:

“Personal feelings played a more important role in forming work relationships—not friendships at work but job-oriented relationships—than is commonly acknowledged. They were even more important than evaluations of competence. In fact, feelings worked as a gating factor: We found that if someone is strongly disliked, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people won’t want to work with her anyway. By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer. And this tendency didn’t exist only in extreme cases; it was true across the board. Generally speaking, a little extra likability goes a longer way than a little extra competence in making someone desirable to work with.”

Researchers have also found that the more likable a physician is, the less likely he or she is to be sued for medical malpractice, and that you’re more likely to get hired if you focus on being liked by prospective employers than if you highlight your skills. People want to work with likable people. If it comes down to laying teachers off, it won’t matter how good of a teacher you are if everyone despises you.

3. Make Students and Parents Happy

The more liked you are by students and parents, the riskier it will be for administrators to let you go. Schools hate negative press, and nothing generates negative press like when students and parents pitch a public fit over the loss of a popular teacher. News organizations eat that stuff up. To bulletproof your career, focus on pleasing your “clients,” the students and parents you serve, to such an extent that they will show up at Board meetings to speak on your behalf. Be the teacher who garners the most parent requests. Be the teacher who, if let go, will engender an emotional response from the community and lead to Facebook rants and news stories. Be the kind of teacher who administrators wouldn’t dare fire because they know what kind of hell will rain down on them if they do.

4. Complain Laterally

I thought about writing, “Don’t Complain” here, but I’ve been a teacher for 20 years and I’ve only met about three teachers who never complained, which leads me to believe complaining is probably rational, unavoidable, and maybe even a healthy way to alleviate stress. Given the state of public education today, I also have to wonder if those who don’t complain are paying attention.

All that said, nobody really likes a complainer. That includes principals. And if principals have to decide who gets kicked off the island first, you can bet they’ll want to remove the complainers. The paraprofessionals and janitors in your building don’t want to hear about your teacher problems either; they have their own, and some of them are worse than yours. So when you complain, do it laterally. Complain to your colleagues. You’re in this thing together, after all, and sometimes it’s nice to know that you’re not alone in your frustrations. In this way, complaining can actually bring coworkers together.

5. Handle Your Business

Most principals will tell you that they are there to make your job easier. They might encourage you to enlist their help to remove any barriers you’re facing to effective teaching. They may even work with the staff to develop a list of behaviors and consequences, some of which will include office referrals. You might interpret this to mean they want teachers to send students who break certain rules to them.

Be careful, and before you write a student up, consider the situation from your principal’s perspective. They are busy. They have a lot of problems to deal with. When you send them a student, you are giving them more work to do. You better have a damn good reason. While good principals will say all the right things, the reality is that no principal looks forward to having misbehaving students in their office. They especially resent it if those students seem to come from the same teacher. And they really resent it if that teacher sends her problems to the office when they’re hardly even problems. Deal with the swearing, mild disrespect, and occasional interruptions of your lessons yourself. Handle your business. Issue your own consequences as much as possible. Call the parents yourself. To the greatest extent possible, avoid sending problems to your principal.

6. Disagree in Private

I once worked with a teacher who would regularly question and criticize our principal during staff meetings. I never understood why. Of course, teachers regularly disagree with their principals, and sometimes, policy decisions must be questioned. But doing so publicly, in front of every other member of the staff, is counterproductive. While it may gain you the respect of your colleagues, it puts your boss on the defensive, a position that’s likely to cause him to dig in even deeper to save face. Publicly calling out the boss also puts the teacher and principal in an adversarial position, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when the principal, who is in possession of the full spectrum of human emotions, looks for ways to even the score. Teachers don’t want to be called out in front of their colleagues, parents, or students. If we’re going to be criticized, we want it done privately. Do the same for your principal. If you have a problem with her decisions, ask for a meeting, send an email, or make a phone call. Don’t unnecessarily make an enemy of the person who’s doing your evaluation.

7. Ask for Feedback

You don’t need to be a great teacher to keep your job. That much is obvious. In most cases, you don’t even have to be good, especially if you’re likable and don’t cause additional problems for your principal. What you should do, especially if you’re not yet one of the better educators in your building, is show that you’re trying to get there. You needn’t sign up for a bunch of conferences or constantly mention the professional articles and teaching books you’ve been reading. All you need to do is ask for feedback. Invite your principal into your room. Ask her for her honest opinion about what she observes. Ask to visit other teachers in the building to learn from them. Ask for book recommendations. Show you’re invested in becoming better at your job. I don’t know a principal alive who wouldn’t want to give such a teacher another year (or five) if they were willing to work on their craft.

Two Alternatives and Their Dangers

You could also be a suck-up. Plenty of people are. You could bend over backward to make your principal happy. You could compliment her during staff meetings. You could send him a thank-you card whenever he offers feedback on your teaching. You could volunteer for every extra bit of work the district tries to squeeze out of teachers, and you could even squeal on your colleagues in your quest to curry favor. You could ingratiate yourself with obsequious behavior.

All that might work, but the dangers are many and the payoff isn’t worth it. You’ll alienate your colleagues, most of whom you will be working with for far longer than you’ll be working for your principal. You will likely end up lonely, which is a bad thing to be in this profession. And for what? To hold onto a job that you likely would have kept anyway? Education is the one field where sucking up to the boss really doesn’t get you anywhere. You won’t get paid more and you won’t get a promotion. You’ll just get to keep doing the same job you’ve been doing, except just about everyone will hate you and talk behind your back.

Alternatively, you could follow the advice in this article, which suggests being a huge pain the ass (because supervisors tend to fire weak people who won’t pitch a giant fit if they’re let go), faking a heart attack or seizure, and claiming discrimination. The only problem with these strategies is once you’ve protected your job, you still have to live with yourself.

Bulletproofing Is Actually Pretty Simple

I know a principal who summarized much of the above with a simple story he told me. This principal has a teacher in his building who is a former professional athlete. His classroom is regularly the loudest one in the school. Walk by his room, and you’ll rarely see kids sitting quietly at their desks. The other teachers in the building complain about his classroom management and insinuate that they believe he’s not the most effective educator. But his principal told me, “I love him. He’ll never get a bad evaluation from me because students love him, parents write me letters that say, ‘My kid has never liked school and he loves it this year,’ and he never complains about anything.”

Principals are people too; it behooves teachers to remember that. Principals don’t want to hear about your problems. They don’t want to solve all your problems. They don’t want to be criticized in front of others. They like teachers who are likable. They appreciate teachers who make their job easier. They want to keep teachers who students and parents like. Bulletproof your career by being the kind of teacher you would value if you were the principal.

What Kids with Low Self-Esteem Say

 

A guest article from Chris, publisher of TeachingWoodwork.com

 

When the children in your class look in the mirror, do you think they like what they see?

What do they think about the world around them?

Do they think they are loved and valued or do they feel judged and inadequate?

It is normal for a youngster to lack confidence at times. However, if a child persistently struggles with feelings of worthlessness and incompetence, then there is a huge problem. They could be dealing with low self-esteem.

Low self-esteem is debilitating to young people. It makes them have a negative image of themselves that is completely removed from reality. They harbor harsh opinions and beliefs about themselves that when they persist long enough, cripple their lives.

Low self-esteem eats away at a child’s happiness. It creates fear and expects failure. Indeed, it can be physically, emotionally and psychologically debilitating.

While some signs of low self-esteem are easy to sport, others could be a bit obscure. However, the language that the youngster uses could be the clearest indication that they are suffering from low self-esteem.

Examples of Things young People say when suffering Low Self-esteem

‘I don’t deserve it.’ ‘I am not worth it.’ ‘I am stupid.’

Shame is a constant small voice at the back of the mind of a child who is dealing with low self-esteem. Shame makes them feel that they are:

  • Not worthy.
  • Not smart enough
  • Not slim enough
  • Not good looking enough
  • Not rich enough

Simply:

  • Not enough!

Shame induces the feeling of worthlessness in young people and crushes their self-esteem because they judge themselves by impossible standards.

‘I am such a loser.’  ‘I always knew I couldn’t do this.’  ‘This is so hopeless.’ ‘I do everything wrong.’ ‘I will never learn.’

Young people with low self-esteem are pessimists at heart. They only see hopelessness, and they are overly critical of themselves. Even before they try something, they already know that they cannot do it. Pessimism will make any young adult perceive a negative outcome when you and pretty much everyone else see it much differently.

Because of low self-esteem, you may also find they constantly make fun of themselves and uses derogatory words when talking about themselves. This is because they believe that other people constantly think about their shortcomings all the time. Hence, they feel it is better to make fun of these drawbacks themselves before the people around them bring them up.

Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.  Sorry.

A young person with low self-esteem will apologize for everything. They will almost apologize for breathing. They are always saying sorry. They will apologize for small things, for big things, and for things that are not even remotely their fault.

Someone bumps into them on the street, and they apologize; they sneeze, and they apologize; they don’t have a pen when you request for one, and they apologize…

They genuinely feel that everything that goes wrong is their fault. This is because they have a biased view of themselves. They are entirely unaware of their worth; as such, they only see their shortcomings and not their gifts and talents.

Low self-esteem also makes people believe that it is their responsibility to keep everyone else happy, hence the reason they keep apologizing. Apologizing continually is a way for young people with esteem issues to buy acceptance from the people around them. They fear that if they fail to apologize, other people will think negatively of them.

‘It’s not a big deal.’ ‘I was just lucky.’  ‘It’s God’s blessing.’ ‘I don’t know how it happened.’

Every child at least some point will work their tails off to achieve something:

And yet,

They will not take credit for it, accept praise or compliments. This is a clear sign of low self-esteem. The child has such low self-esteem that the idea that they have achieved something positive, or that they have portrayed a unique skill is unfathomable. It simply doesn’t gel with their negative self-image.

Young people that are grappling with low self-esteem don’t handle compliments well. They will say that they were just lucky or that they were only in the right place at the right time. Indeed, they will believe it. They have, unfortunately, blown their failures out of proportion so much so that it is deeply ingrained in their identity.

Now,

How do the students in your class react to your compliments? Are they proud, pleased and accepting of your praise or do they look uncomfortable and try to dismiss what you say? Do they deflect praise? Do they believe that they deserve to be acknowledged for their achievements?

A well balanced young adult might show modesty when they receive compliments, but if you realize that they genuinely distrust every compliment they are given, a deeper problem is at play.

‘It just happened.’ ‘I just ……’ ‘I only …’

Are there any young people in your classes that are defensive to a fault, believing everyone is out to get them? The moment they hear a ‘no,’ or a ‘but,’ they clam up. A young adult with low self-esteem finds it very hard to hear anything that they perceive as criticism because it reinforces their low opinions of themselves. They are touchy and take even light-hearted conversations to heart. They will strive to defend themselves even when the situation does not call for it.

Low self-esteem makes people hyper-vigilant that they will interpret any phrase, even a compliment, as a reproach. They will immediately begin to make excuses or explain themselves. Unfortunately, they will never grow if they do not learn how to accept constructive criticism.

If you notice that the young adult’s defensiveness is unhealthy, you need to have a discussion with them about criticism. Let them also have the right perspective: that some criticism is well intended to help them improve, while other types of criticism simply reflect poorly on the critic and they are best ignored.

‘Probably.’  ‘Most likely.’ ‘I may be right, but I am not sure.’  ‘I don’t know what to choose ….’ ‘Maybe …’

A child with low self-esteem finds it very difficult to make decisions. For them, it is more convenient to follow other people’s leadership. They find it challenging to speak for themselves or give their opinions. They also continuously question themselves.

Indeed, they would rather not have to make any decision about anything; at all. If they have to make a decision, they stress about it tirelessly, questioning and doubting themselves all the way. They also have a great fear of being wrong; so they instead use uncertain terms to ‘protect’ themselves.

‘I thought differently, but I agree ……’  ‘Everyone thinks so…’ All these phrases indicate someone who fears to express their personal opinion. They would rather agree with the views of a less incompetent person than risk expressing theirs.

Also,

They never argue!

Unfortunately, these young adults will never have an identity since only informed personal opinions make one a personality.

 

We cannot downplay the importance of high self-esteem for young people: having a good sense of self-esteem helps them to try new things, solve problems, take healthy risks and form meaningful relationships.

Our role in all of this

We cannot overemphasize the role of teachers in the formation of healthy self-esteem. Right from when the children are small, making them feel safe, valued and accepted makes them believe in themselves.

As they grow older, as teachers (and parents) keep encouraging them to try new things and utilize their skills, their self-esteem soars. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, self-esteem may come more easily to some children than others. The good news is that even if a particular young person’s self-esteem is low, it can be remedied: with your help.

The problem-solving process starts with identifying the cause of low self-esteem. Once you have determined the cause, rectifying the situation is the easier (and even fun) part.

 

Read More from Chris: How to Build Self-Esteem in Children

 

Christopher teaches woodwork at the high school level and also runs the website TeachingWoodwork.com. He is passionate about helping the people (parents and teachers) around young people. You can see his latest projects and how he builds self-esteem in young people on his website.

 

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4 Important Ways to Help a Grieving Student

4 Important Ways to Help a Grieving Student

A guest post by Meghan Belnap

 

As a teacher, watching over the mental and emotional health of your students can be difficult. Students who face tragedy are often in need of comfort and extra support, but it can often feel as if your options are limited in regards to how to help. 20 percent of all kids will grow up experiencing the death of someone close to them by adulthood. Even though helping a student through grief is the primary responsibility of parents, rather than teachers, students will look to their teachers as authority figures for guidance and sympathy. Here are just four big ways that you, as a teacher, can help your students through a painful loss. 

Making sure basic needs are met

When children, teens, and young adults experience grief, they can often become withdrawn and lethargic, lacking the energy or even motivation to meet many of their basic needs. Eating, especially, can be hard for them to make a priority, as anxiety caused by grief can constrict the stomach and make food unappealing. One way you can check up on these students is to talk to the cafeteria staff to see if the student is getting lunch. Consider keeping some light, easily digestible snacks in your desk to offer them before or after class if you find they are neglecting to eat at lunchtime, and be aware of any extreme weight loss that may necessitate action from the parents. 

Consult with Parents and Guardians

Being able to openly discuss their feelings is a major part of the grieving process, but children and teens can feel worried about bringing up depressing or uncomfortable topics. Make sure that the student knows your office hours when they can come and talk to you if they need a compassionate ear, and make sure they are aware of the services offered by your school counselor. If you notice them feeling overwhelmed during class, discretely allow them to step outside or to the school counselor immediately. It can also be greatly beneficial to consult with the parents to get their perspective on how their child is handling the loss and what can be done to help them. Whether it is the passing of another student or a family member, each child deals with death a little differently and may need unique accommodations. 

Giving parents counseling information

When a student is grieving the death of a loved one, their parents are often going through a similar process and may not be aware of the resources they have for their child’s grieving. Giving parents phone numbers, addresses, and pamphlets for local psychiatrists and counselors can help ease the burden on the family and provide the student with professional guidance. Grief counseling for young adults has become more widely available as rates of suicide in teens has increased. Services like these can help a grieving student find comfort, educate parents on healthy coping mechanisms and emotional outlets, and even detect signs of depression and anxiety that the student may be repressing. 

Homework extensions and test makeups

Another way teachers can help grieving students is to provide alternative assignments. While their formal education is important, it can often take a back seat when the student is overwhelmed from the grieving process, and the last thing they need is for that grief to create further stressors through falling grades. Extended deadlines, make-up days, and a pass on quizzes can help a teen keep up with the workload and maintain decent grades. A little leniency, particularly early in the grieving process, will relieve stress from the student and make them aware that the authority figures in their lives make their mental and emotional wellbeing a priority.

As a teacher, there are limited options for how you can get involved in the personal lives of your students. This does not mean that there is nothing to be done, however. The simple act of directing a student to professional aid and showing a little extra compassion can go a long way in ensuring that the student is able to make their way through the grieving process in a healthy manner. Whether they want to admit it or not, students of all ages are greatly affected by their teachers, and they will appreciate even the little gestures of compassion you show.

It’s a Miracle All Kids Don’t Hate School

The other morning one of my students picked up a banana from the bowl of fruit set out for breakfast. From across the room, I heard her say, “I hate school,” which was an odd thing to say for someone about to eat a banana. I cringed. I want students to enjoy being in my room and to have a positive school experience. When students don’t like school, I take it personally.

But the more I thought about it, the more I questioned how much ownership I should take. I didn’t love school, and I chose to work in one. My daughter, who does very well in school, balks at getting up in the morning. If you ask her if she likes school, she’ll shrug. Lots of kids will tell you they don’t like school, even those who seem to like it just fine once they’re there.

Teachers, of course, are supposed to feel bad when students hate school. We’re often blamed for failing to engage them. We’re told we need to make learning more meaningful and fun. If kids don’t like school, it’s probably because we’re not allowing our students to move enough or collaborate enough or create enough or choose enough. We teachers talk too much. We’re boring.

Certainly, there are times when those are valid criticisms. Teachers can help make school more appealing to their students. But they’re fighting a steep uphill battle. Because the truth is that students have two very good reasons to not like school.

They’re Required to Be There

I’m not one of those people who thinks we should abolish compulsory education. On the whole, it does far more good than bad. But let’s be clear: Requiring something never makes that thing enjoyable. I struggle to think of a single thing I am forced to do that I enjoy. As a child, I hated taking baths, going to bed, attending church, and eating many of my mother’s dinners (they were fine, I was just a picky little shit). As an adult, some of the best parts of my life are bathing, sleeping, and eating my mother’s food. The difference was that when I was a child, I was forced to bathe when I didn’t want to, go to bed earlier than I wanted to, and eat things I didn’t want to eat. As an adult, I get to choose. It’s the best thing about being an adult.

In high school, I read a fair amount, mostly Stephen King. Once I got to college I stopped reading. The reason was simple: I was required to. There are books I was assigned in college that I didn’t read but later enjoyed when I made the choice to read them on my own. The difference wasn’t the book; it was the freedom to choose.

As a teacher, I have read a number of professional books, but if my school decides to do a book study and I’m required to read even a single chapter, I’ll put it off as long as possible and then resent it when I do read it.

My former district hosted an ice cream social on the last day of school every year to honor retirees. Almost everybody complained about it. It’s not that we didn’t like ice cream or retirees. It’s that the district required our attendance when we had other things we wanted to do.

There’s a really simple way to make an enjoyable activity unenjoyable and something people resent doing. Force them to do it. Take away their freedom to choose. Want to make them really dislike it? Make them do it for seven hours a day for 180 days, year after year. I love Disney World.  But I’d like it a whole lot less if you made me go there five days a week between September and June, year after year.

Almost Everything is Contrived

Almost everything done inside a school is contrived. Very little of it reflects the real world. Think of the reading you do and compare it to the reading we ask students to do. I read primarily for two reasons: to learn things I’m interested in and for entertainment. Now consider the reasons your students read:

Because you told them to.

To answer questions.

Because they have a reading response entry due.

To prepare for a discussion.

To get better at reading.

The standards practically require inauthentic tasks. We’re all going to learn how to reduce fractions today. Why? Hell if I know, but it’s in the standards and you might need it someday (or worse, you need it to pass the contrived test the state devised to see if your teachers are doing a good enough job teaching you contrived things).

Yes, there are moments where students can do authentic tasks, but they are few and far between. You find an article in your local paper and students write letters to the editor. People in the real world actually do that (of course, most of us who read such letters think the writers are quacks with nothing better to do, but still). You have an actual problem in your classroom with storage, so you have students design a cabinet. A group of students saw something on the news and you decide to guide them in some research and have a class discussion about it.

There are opportunities to connect to the real world, but they also require you to be constantly aware of those opportunities and be willing to scrap your carefully prepared plans and possibly ignore the standards everyone expects you to teach. They also mean deviating from whatever cruddy program your district is forcing you to use, so you better keep such lessons on the DL.

Teachers can mitigate this natural resentment of contrived and mandatory things. They can try to bring authentic tasks into the classroom. They can inject fun into their day. They can provide students’ choice to give the illusion of genuine freedom. They can build relationships so that students want to be there to be around people they like. But they can never change the two fundamental truths about school to which students are justified in rebelling against.

The next time you hear a student say she hates school, don’t feel so bad about it. Don’t feel guilty, like you’re somehow personally failing her. Be thankful that all students don’t feel the same way. Because to hate contrived things that you’re forced to do is a natural human reaction. It is, frankly, exactly how we should want freedom-loving people to respond.

 

*If you’re curious, the banana-eating student’s declaration of hatred was in response to a well-meaning food service worker writing the phrase, “I love school,” in marker on the banana’s peel.

The Best Parent-Teacher Conference Advice

I don’t remember much from the year I spent as a student teacher. It was in a fifth-grade classroom. The kids were mostly well behaved. When I took over lead teaching, I had the idea that I would run a classroom where students didn’t need to raise their hands. My mentor teacher looked at me askance, but to her credit allowed me to fail on my own. Most of the time, I was trying to keep my head above water. I learned most by failing, but there were a few things my mentor teacher did that I took with me to my first job. Some of the most enduring lessons were on how to conduct parent-teacher conferences. After 18 years in the classroom and an estimated 450 conferences, here are my five best pieces of advice:

Let the Parent Go First

Here’s how my mentor teacher put it before the very first parent walked in on our first night of conferences: “Always start by asking the parent if they have anything they’d like to talk about.” Most parents will come in and be content to hear what you have to say. But there will usually be a couple who have a burning issue they’ve been waiting to address with you. If you start in with your prepared remarks, or student artifacts, or the progress report, these parents will not be listening. They’ll be thinking about what they want to say, just like you do when you’re pissed off in a staff meeting and can’t wait to vent while your principal blathers on about something you care not a whit about.

If a parent walks in with student work in her hand, you can bet that’s what she wants to talk about. Start your conference with these words: “Hi, thanks for coming! Now, before I get into what I’m going to say, is there anything you’d like to discuss?” Then shut up and listen.

Show That You Understand Their Kid

You spend seven hours every day with your students. Their parents spend less. More than wanting to know how their child is doing in school (they usually know) and whether or not they behave during class (they have a pretty good idea about that, too), parents want to know if you get their kid. They want to know if you respect their child enough to get to know them and accept them for their differences. They want to know if you see the children in front of you as individuals.

Say at least one non-judgmental thing that shows you understand each child.  Even if your observation is a less-than-desirable characteristic, the fact that you’ve noticed their kid is important to parents.

Be Honest 

A former colleague interviewed for a teaching job with another district but didn’t get it, even though she thought it went well. During the call where she learned she wasn’t getting the job, she asked what she could have done differently. She was told she was a “model candidate” and received no constructive feedback. She asked what she could do to improve and was basically told nothing.

People crave feedback. We don’t mind being told hard truths if it will help us get what we want. Parents want their children to succeed, and to do so they need to know what their children can do to make that happen. Telling parents that their child “lacks motivation” when in reality they don’t do any work in the room at all is a disservice. Reporting that a child creates a lot of “interpersonal conflict” is hiding behind jargon. Just say they don’t play well with others and that in most of the cases, you’ve observed their child to be the instigator.

Don’t be a jerk, but do be honest.

If Jimmy doesn’t focus on his work and gets little done in class, say so. If Susan acts without thinking and her impulsivity regularly interferes with others’ learning, let the parents know. If Quentin is reading behind grade level and you’ve witnessed him on many occasions doing everything he can to avoid reading, explain to his mom and dad that he’s not going to improve unless he actually reads.

Parents can’t help their kids get better if they don’t know what to work on and you’re in the best position to know what they need to work on, so tell them.

Describe, Don’t Diagnose

Teachers aren’t doctors and shouldn’t pretend they are. We don’t know the causes of what we’re seeing and even if we’ve seen it ten times before, we should stay in our lane. If pushed by parents — I sometimes have parents who come right out and ask if I think their child has ADHD–stick to what you have observed.

“He has a very hard time focusing. He rarely finishes assignments. Yesterday, he completed the first three problems in three minutes, but then completed only one more over the next fifteen minutes.”

“He doesn’t get work done and he bothers others during work time.”

“Whenever he doesn’t get his way, he throws a fit. Other students have noticed and they avoid him.”

Telling parents what you’ve seen puts you in the position of simply being a reporter. If pressed, stick to that role. You can even add, “I’m just telling you that this is what I’ve witnessed in the classroom.”

Let There Be No Surprises

A good way to have a disastrous conference night is to never tell parents anything until they’re sitting right in front of you and then unload all the bad news at once. They feel ambushed, and you come across as unprofessional. You have all the knowledge, you’ve kept it to yourself, and then you’ve sprung it on an unsuspecting victim in a public place where they can’t just get up and storm out without looking like horrible parents. Save yourself a lot of trouble by letting the parents know, at the earliest date, about any problems their child is having at school. If a parent is surprised at any point during the conference, then you haven’t been communicating enough. If you’ve dropped the ball in this regard (and I have), admit it.

Say: “I’m sorry. I should have called,” or  “I should have sent home more student work.” Ask them how frequently they would like to be updated going forward. Then promise to do better.

A good conference is about the teacher first listening to any concerns the parents may have and then communicating the information parents need to know so they can help their children succeed. Do the above, and your conferences will be productive.