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Addressing student-teacher conflict

It’s a scenario that affects most students at some point in their education – they just don’t see eye-to-eye with a teacher.

According to Dr. Raychelle Lohmann, who holds a Ph.D in counselor education from the University of North Carolina, student-teacher conflict is a more common issue than people may realize.

“A lot of students feel there is a power-differential between the teacher and themselves, so they have a hard time voicing their concerns,” said Lohmann, who has written several books on topics pertaining to adolescent psychology. “They may just sit back and either not say what they feel is going on in the classroom, or they might not talk to the teacher about the issue, because they’re fearful there might be retaliation on the teacher’s part in the form of grading.

“And then, there are other students who might act out behaviourally, because they’ve just had it with the teacher.”

She said there are many ways for parents to recognize when their child has a conflict with a teachers – even if the child does not say anything about it. The student may exhibit signs of added stress, such as frequent headaches or stomach aches before a particular class, or asking to be picked up from school early because they are not feeling well.

“Those are key indicators that something is going on in that classroom,” she said. “You could even look at grades, if a student is not turning things in or the grades are deteriorating in that class, because they’re not motivated to do well. Or, they’re not going to their teachers to find out what they’re missing or not understanding.”

On the flip side, Lohmann said, it is important for parents to avoid trying to “rescue” their child every time they experience such conflict. Especially at the high-school level, she added, it is important for students to learn how to get along with someone they might disagree with.

“[Stepping in] is not teaching them life skills, and it’s definitely not preparing them for the college level,” she said.

“We can’t run in and rescue them every time something goes really bad.”

Lohmann added helping your child draft an email to a teacher, if they are too intimidated to speak to the teacher directly, is one way to initiate communication.

Greg Luterbach, superintendent of Rocky View Schools, said regular communication between families and their child’s teacher and school is key to ensuring things go smoothly.

"Teachers use a variety of strategies to help communicate with families – email, the good, old-fashioned telephone and face-to-face meetings," he said. "I encourage families to start the new school year by learning of the communication routines their child’s teacher employs and then make it a two-way street."

If disagreement emerges, Luterbach added, parents should make it a priority to communicate directly with the teacher.

"Don’t wait for the issue to build up or take to social media to express your displeasure," he said. "Reach out to the teacher, arrange to work through the concern or disagreement together. Often, conflict can be rooted in misunderstanding."

Though it might be impossible to completely avoid student-teacher conflict, Lohmann said, it is important to remember teachers generally want the best for their students.

“For the most part, most educators are in the field because they love what they do,” she said. “They’re there for the kids, and that’s the big thing. I would say 97 per cent of educators are on the same page as the parents and the kids, when it comes to having success in their class.”

She added the onus is on the teacher to establish that comfort level.

“They have to create an environment where the students don’t feel intimidated to go talk to them about what’s going on in their lives,” she said. “Teachers have to do a really good job of letting the students know they’re approachable, accessible and they want the students to be successful in their class.”

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