Practical Strategies to Resolve Teacher-Student Conflict

Teenage is a tricky period in your child’s life, when things can possibly go wrong between him and his teachers. Here are some tips for handling such difficult situations in a constructive way.

By Neha Makhija  • 11 min read

Practical Strategies to Resolve Teacher-Student Conflict

“In my world there are no bad kids, just impressionable, conflicted young people wrestling with emotions and impulses, trying to communicate their feelings and needs the only way they know.”- Janet Lansbury

Turmoil and chaos are characteristic accompaniments of adolescence. Yet your tantrum throwing, moody child is still your most valuable achievement. Imagine your happy-go-lucky daughter who is the life of every party and the favored child in all family gathering starts to avoid school on certain days. You let her skip school till you realize that there is a pattern to all this seemingly defiant behavior.

Armed with your sleuth skills you find out that it’s the day she has double period Hindi that she wants to miss the most. Your daughter ‘hates’ Hindi; she hasn’t been exposed much to the literature and neither is the language spoken at home. Before you can get around to discussing things with her you get a call from school, asking you to meet the Principal immediately. All the way to the school you are worried sick about your child’s well-being and the anxiety continues as you wait for her in the Principal’s chamber. Just then her Hindi teacher walks in to launch a tirade of complaints against your daughter who has followed her in.

Your daughter has again ‘forgotten to turn in her homework’ and has no explanation for it. You acknowledge this flippant behavior but the teacher continues to rant about your daughter, ‘always talking to boys’ and ‘not interested in studies, only interested in dance and theatre’ and ‘generally doesn’t do much to uphold high moral values’. You are almost at the point of strangling this ‘insensitive’ adult for making your child cry and maligning her character but out of respect for the school, and a fear of future dire circumstances for your child, you manage to control yourself. As soon as you are out of the Principal’s chambers you feel suffocated and helpless. How did your kind, hardworking, talented little girl become the obnoxious teen her teacher claims she is?

Back home from the office you learn that following the unpleasant encounter your daughter has not eaten anything since morning and has cut off all connection from everyone at home. A little gentle probing from you and her heart pours out all the humiliation, the criticism and hurt she has been carrying along because of the same teacher. Now you know the reason behind all her excuses of skipping school, the reason she has become so defensive lately. Insignificant as this incident may be in her entire life story, in an adolescent’s mind it sums up her entire life. She feels she always has to explain herself to all other teachers and change the way she naturally is with her friends in order to avoid further confrontation. This bright youngster who has the world at her feet feels useless because of the unpleasant situation with a person who is supposed to be her mentor.

The situation may sound a little dramatic and out of reach but take a school counsellor’s word for it, this is a commonplace occurrence. In their strife for identity, teenagers often cross the line between accepted developmental changes and rebellious behavior. They often have conflicts with any adult they come in close contact with as the situation is often taken as a power play between the concerned parties. Academics and family take a backseat as friends take center stage and govern the next ten years or so of the child’s life. As a parent you have unconditional love and bundles of patience to deal with the temper tantrums and calls for attention but not everyone else does. Teachers, being the second most important contributors to children’s upbringing, often bear the brunt of the typical adolescent outbursts (subtle or blatant). In return the teenagers are also victims of habitual adult decree of conduct and moral standards being thrust upon them; they are not granted the privilege of expressing their uniqueness. The question remains, what one must do?

Parental instinct will beget you to protect the joy of your life who was at the receiving end of a prejudiced viewpoint, anger may want to get the better out of you, but will it solve the problem or worsen it? Redundant as it may sound, teacher–student conflict is normal and, to an extent, necessary for your child to learn how to work with authority outside the comfort of their home. But many times, the way this conflict reaches a parent is in the form of a blame—‘you aren’t looking after your child’ or as a dumping of responsibility—‘you take care of this, he is your child’. Research shows that schools and teachers working in harmony with the parents are the best predictors of a child’s success. So, let’s now look at some practical strategies.

  • Acknowledge the problem: The first and most important step is to acknowledge that a problem exists. Only with acceptance comes a will to solve the problem.
  • Stop and Listen to both sides: You owe it to your child and to his teacher to give them a thorough objective listening to. 60% of all problems get resolved once the conflicting parties receive an empathetic understanding. Defensiveness can get in the way of problem solving, so it’s only appropriate that all perspectives are taken into consideration.
  • Choose your battles well: The next thing is to stop and think about the problem. How big is the problem? Can you let it go? Can you sort it out at home? Or do you need to talk to the teacher? There are some problems that you can just let go. Some issues are too petty to pick a fight about. Sometimes your child just needs you to listen and understand, but not to act.
  • Speak respectfully: No matter what you think, it’s important to speak positively and respectfully about your child’s teacher and school in front of your child. If you complain or criticize the teacher, your child will do the same. Disregard of the respect a teacher deserves is not a desirable trait.
  • Make sure that communication is clear: Listen to the teacher and don't leave until you are sure that you understand what is being said. Make sure that the teacher also understands what you have to say. Chuck Smith, a child development specialist at Kansas State University claims “For the child’s benefit, [parents] should try to engage the teacher in cooperation, even in difficult circumstances.”
  • Foster and facilitate problem-solving skills: As a parent your job is to encourage your child to look for effective, peaceful solutions to problems he may encounter. Do not spoon feed the solutions. Honestly discuss the pros and cons of each alternative solution, implement the best possible solution, and then evaluate its effectiveness. Remember, problem solving skills are not an inborn trait. Children need to be trained on these skills like they are for Math and English. You can also model positive problem-solving for your child. This is better than complaining or being aggressive.
  • Try the team approach: As well-wishers of the child, parents and teachers must form a strong foundation of collaboration. Passing the buck never works and neither does procrastination. A 2011 story published on by author and teacher Ron Clark looked at reasons why educators give up on their field and concluded that negativity from parents places undue pressure on teachers, and hence greater cooperation is advised.
  • Teach assertiveness: To be a winner in the real sense of the world, one must learn to negotiate conditions such that all concerned people benefit from the situation. Passively accepting situations as being out of your control is as undesirable as defiance is. Role-plays and practice sessions can help increase your teenager’s understanding of the problem and to reach a mutually acceptable behavior pattern.
  • Step in when necessary: It is true that each one of us must climb our own mountain, but don’t leave things to chance when your gut instinct urges you to stand up for your child’s rights and feelings. Your indifference or lack of initiative will determine your trustworthiness in the minds of your observant teenager.

The world is not an ideal place where a single solution or approach works. The Mother of Pondicherry puts it beautifully “Never forget that the greater the difficulties, the greater also our possibilities. (White Roses).” Each challenge your child faces brings with it a beautiful opportunity to grow so don’t panic, but be around to offer assistance as and when required.

The author is a clinical psychologist and school counsellor.