Many of us can look back and easily recall the names or at least the faces of some great teachers from elementary school onward who helped mold and shape us into the people we are today. But unfortunately, a few of us might also recall a teacher who caused us some undue stress. A student-teacher conflict can be tricky to address, and something parents and teachers are reluctant to explore. But if all parties approach it with an open mind, it could make for a happier student and a happier classroom.
Christa H. Johnson, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Lancaster and Dauphin counties. She explains that in her experience, while most elementary school students have positive feelings about their teachers, there are several reasons why they might feel negatively. “The most common is when students perceive their teacher does not like them, or treats them unfairly,” she says, adding that the unfairness could be either real or imagined.
It is important to note that fair is not always equal, and teachers sometimes know things about other students that we may not. So, while it might not seem fair to Noah that his teacher marked down his homework for being late while Brianna was given an extension, the teacher might have done that for a reason Noah was not aware of, such as Brianna’s mother being in the hospital — the kind of information teachers would not share with other students or parents.
This perceived lack of fairness is a recurring theme that Shelly Flesch, School Counselor at Leib Elementary School in the Dover Area School District, also shares. She provides more specific examples, saying that students can develop negative feelings toward their teachers if they feel they are being singled out frequently or have been embarrassed by the teacher in front of their peers. “Sometimes students feel like their teachers don’t like them,” Flesch says. “Sometimes it is because of negative things the parents say about the teacher and then that carries over into school.”
Although it may not be a teacher’s intention (and very likely is not) to single out a child in a way that seems unfair, the child’s feelings are still valid and real. It may help to view it in the same way as a child who says to his mother that she always favors his brother over him. Even though the mother may not agree that she does that, and she might even make every effort to treat both of her boys the same, to the child that perceived favoritism still feels very real. This happens in the classroom, just as it happens in families. Children sometimes think their teachers enjoy the company or personalities of other students more than they are liked themselves, for a variety of reasons.
Richard Focht, Jr., a school psychologist for the Lincoln Intermediate Unit #12, says that in his 17 years as a school psychologist, he has encountered situations that have resulted in students feeling negatively toward their teachers. He cites a lack of empathy from teachers as one of the main reasons.
“Students want to know their teacher cares about them as an individual,” Focht says. “Research long supports the importance between a student’s achievement and the relationship that is forged with their teacher. When a teacher makes an effort to learn what Johnny likes, about his family, and about his goals, or a simple ‘Good Morning Johnny,’ these efforts communicate to Johnny that his teacher cares. From my experience, this caring ignites a student to work and to try harder in achieving the academic and behavioral expectations in the classroom.”
What parents can do
“For elementary students, I recommend that they talk to their parents or caregivers first about their feelings toward the teacher,” says Dr. Johnson. “I also recommend that parents ask for specific examples from their child to better understand the situation. It is important to distinguish if your child simply does not like an aspect of the school experience versus there is a problem that requires action.”
Flesch says that she encourages parents of her elementary school kids to come in for a team meeting to discuss their concerns; then, they’ll bring the student into the meeting to help resolve the matter. “We also encourage the teacher to spend some quality time with that student to develop a more positive rapport. The teacher, counselor, principal, intervention specialist and parent are all a part of the team.”
An open line of communication where all parties, including the child, feel treated with respect will go a long way toward building and maintaining strong relationships between students and teachers. Building a team where teachers and parents work together and include the child in age-appropriate ways will help students feel heard and understood and also build stronger conflict resolution skills for the future. Focht recommends that for younger students the adults try to resolve the issue themselves, but as children grow they should become part of the process.
“They have a better sense of how this process works and can share critical information needed in resolving the issue,” explains Focht. “Furthermore, students tend to take more ownership in solving the conflict since [they have] been a part of it…”
In other words, conflicts with teachers may continue to arise as our children get older, but their responses to the situations should evolve as they mature and gain more responsibility.
Stephanie Giese is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Central Penn Parent. She lives in York with her husband, Eddie, and their three children.