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Given all the time they spend with students, teachers can be powerful parent allies. They see children in many contexts, observing patterns and spotting problems.

Being human, teachers vary in inclination and ability. The demands on their energy exceed the supply, so they prioritize as best they can. Not every teacher connects with every student or parent; some aren’t all we might wish. Still, it’s worth trying to build a working relationship.

Teachers are professionals, paid for their work. Parents don’t owe them anything. Still, most of us want our children to have caring, engaged teachers who touch hearts and change lives.

There’s no universal approach to working with teachers. But after years of teaching and parenting, I’ve observed some principles that help facilitate these relationships.

Be present

Attending parent nights and conferences creates a connection and demonstrates your commitment to education. If you can’t attend, send a note or email just to say hello. You never want all of your contact to just be related to concerns.

Volunteering, even once, is a powerful relationship builder. If you can’t volunteer, you might ask about donating supplies or participating in other ways.

Remember emotional dividends

In general, the more a teacher does, the less he makes per hour. Of course, teachers don’t go into education for money. They teach because they love children, are passionate about a subject and want to make a difference. Consequently, they often respond to emotional dividends.

One of the most motivating things a teacher experiences is feeling successful and appreciated. This can be done with a quick email acknowledging extra effort, or a longer note detailing how she made a difference. It’s difficult to overstate the power such notes have to energize and motivate, and that’s ultimately good for your child.

On the other hand, many teachers routinely work at such a high level that we sometimes forget they are already going well beyond job requirements. It is dispiriting to receive complaints, not for wrongdoing, but simply for not going even farther beyond what is required.

A teacher I knew spent years running an extracurricular program, investing immense time and effort almost every day of the week. It wasn’t a job requirement but provided an important outlet for students. At one point, the  thought he’d found a solution for a difficult problem and implemented his idea, but quickly realized he hadn’t anticipated some consequences.

This was not a breach of law, ethics, or decency. And despite some hurt feelings, nothing was irreparable, nor was there any impropriety. In fact, some parents felt he’d done nothing wrong.

Still, people who’d rarely, if ever, communicated appreciation now found time to write angry, personally charged emails.  Instead of extending the benefit of the doubt, people ascribed malice to what was a sincere mistake.

He acknowledged the mistake, tried to explain his thinking, then worked to correct it. Soon, the students moved on. Sadly, though, some the angry words and accusations weren’t easily erased. Years of happy memories and relationships ended because of one minor blip, leaving the teacher wondering if any amount of dedication or good work could outweigh a momentary error.

Question before intervening

This experience brings up a painful reality: Teachers are human. Given how many minute-by-minute decisions teachers make, often with little time to reflect, mistakes are inevitable. Teachers constantly consider an enormous range of questions: whom and how to discipline? Which students don’t understand? What’s the best facial expression when giving correction? On and on. All day, every day.

Parents naturally feel protective, wanting to react decisively when we perceive threats to our children. However, not everything is a threat. Many circumstances aren’t ideal but aren’t necessarily dangerous. Difficulties allow children to practice empathy, resilience and problem-solving. Intervention can have deleterious effects on a child’s growth.

Our own investment in the situation may lead us to error at least as much as the teacher. Thus, before contacting my child’s teacher, I’ve found it useful to pause and ask myself some questions. Did the teacher truly fall short, or did she simply do something I didn’t like? Was he sincerely trying? Was there any danger of lasting harm to the child?

When a friend’s child struggled in a class once, my friend restrained herself, refusing to intervene. She insisted the child work it out and approach the teacher for help, even when the child’s grade dropped. My friend didn’t intervene until the teacher rebuffed the child’s efforts to get help. Only then did she engage, not to challenge the grade, but to communicate her concern that requests for help appeared unwelcome, a much longer-term problem.

Approach the teacher first

If you must address a concern or problem, start with the teacher. Don’t go to the principal first and don’t discuss your frustrations with other parents. You can always escalate later, but you can’t go back. It’s important to give the teacher a chance to explain — or apologize — before going up the chain of command. Often, an administrator will refer the parent back to the teacher, and complaining to other parents risks creating a situation that can quickly spiral out of control. It also can create mistrust and push the teacher into feeling defensive.

In the earlier example, a few parents did withhold judgment. They were upset, but they contacted the teacher directly. They met, he explained his thinking, they explained their reactions, and then moved forward, maintaining the relationship.

Ask questions

Remember that the goal is to facilitate a productive outcome. Angry messages might feel gratifying in the short-term but rarely lead to positive solutions. Don’t make demands or use absolute language. This is rarely effective and risks shifting the emphasis from the concern to your response.

Try a brief, courteous email. Explain that you need help understanding something. Outline the concern, then ask to talk soon at the teacher’s convenience, by phone or in person. This allows the teacher time to think, increasing the likelihood of a thoughtful response. Allowing the teacher to choose the meeting acknowledges her tight schedule.

Don’t demand an immediate reply. You deserve a timely response, but realize they have other obligations. They may also need to gather information or confer with others. Never call them at home. It’s important to observe professional boundaries.

When meeting, start with questions. “Can you help me understand x?” allows the teacher to explain, provide context or apologize. More than one parent has complained, only to discover that there was more to the situation than they realized, perhaps even some degree of culpability on their part. Children frequently repeat something out of context, forgetting important details.

Pick your battles

Some problems require a parent’s response. However, complaints have diminishing value. A colleague once received emails almost every night from a parent, complaining about everything from teaching philosophy to grading policies. The administration eventually directed the teacher to stop responding. That is an extreme example, but complaining often, or about minor matters, dilutes the impact.

Meanwhile, some people complain so rarely that their concerns carry extra weight. The parent I mentioned earlier — whose child was struggling in a class — had great success in addressing her concern because the teacher and administration knew her to be supportive, positive and entirely reasonable. Her previous restraint had given her tremendous credibility.

Respect policies

A teacher (or school) might have a policy you find frustrating, even maddening. Truly unfair policies require parents to advocate for their child. However, there’s a gap between annoying and unjust.

Matters of preference are probably not worth fighting. A teacher needs the latitude to do his job the way he feels is best. That includes the freedom to set his own policies.

If you must challenge something, start privately. Be polite; you can always escalate if needed.

As parents, we often worry that a bad grade, disciplinary action or class placement will damage our child’s future. In reality, that is highly unlikely. Intervening too much may cause greater problems for a child than a overcoming an obstacle.

My son and his friend were once sent to detention based on what they felt was a misunderstanding. I felt the outcome was unfair and was inclined to fight this decision. The parents of the other student responded differently. They noted that detention posed no harm and felt the teacher was acting in good faith. They also recognized that if they wanted an ally in raising their child, they couldn’t pick and choose when to validate the teacher’s honest efforts. Ultimately, they felt their son was better off losing a few hours than learning that they would bail him out of trouble. Their answer may not be the right one in every situation, but I admired their thoughtful, restrained approach.

Teachers are professionals, owing every student their best efforts. At the same time, they are human, with all that implies. With care, a parent can leverage that humanity to forge a strong, productive partnership with the other adult who is most invested in their child’s success.

Braden Bell is a teacher, writer and director from Nashville. Bell is an author who blogs and writes a newsletter with reflections about parenting adolescents. Follow him on Twitter: @bradenbellcom.

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More reading:

Four mindful back-to-school questions to build emotional intelligence

I worried that my son’s teacher didn’t see him as a child with autism

What I wish I had done to get more out of parent-teacher conferences