School-age children settled into their classrooms this week — for many, getting used to new routines, new learning material and new teachers.
But as patterns emerge and kids grumble about being back in school, some parents may be beginning to wonder if there is a bigger issue at stake. What if Johnny or Jane's teacher isn't a good fit for them?
"At the start of the year there's always issues around class placement," said Faizel Rawji, principal at Sunnyside Elementary in Surrey, B.C., and co-author of The insider's guide to education: K to 12.
Parents are often influenced by rumours in their communities about who is a good or a bad teacher, Rawji says, but in his experience the issue isn't quite so simple.
"Parents kind of get themselves in a tizzy about being with a good teacher, but really what the focus needs to be is being with a teacher that their kids can connect with."
Not all students respond to teachers in the same way. For example, he explains, some students may prefer a structured approach in the classroom, while others may prefer teachers with an arts-based focus.
And in any case, teachers are trained to accommodate most students' needs, he says.
Focus on resolving issues
That's not to say serious issues don't arise. Rawji said students are usually moved to a different classroom when health, safety or accessibility concerns are at stake.
But very few kids have a really tough time in their class and with their teacher, Rawji says. Even in cases where there are bullying concerns, as a principal he prefers to work the situation out between the students rather than move them around.
As a father, Rawji says he understands how emotions can run high when parents have concerns about their child. But he says taking the time to resolve problems collaboratively with the teacher and the school sets a strong, positive example.
"A piece of advice I'd give to parents is, you know, take some perspective, get the whole story, let your emotions settle," he says, adding that parents should consider what role their child may have played in any situation.
"If we think that our kids are perfect, we're probably doing a disservice to our kids."
The first step in resolving an issue is for parents to speak directly to the teacher, Rawji says, either by phone or in person. If the latter, they can also ask that the school's principal be available during the meeting.
Putting 'reasonable' expectations on teachers
That's advice echoed by B.C. Teachers' Federation president Glen Hansman.
"It's much better to go directly to the source, especially for those low-level concerns that can crop up in the classroom," Hansman said.
"Jumping immediately to a letter to the Minister of Education probably isn't going to resolve the issue about the missing flyer for the field trip next week."
Hansman also agreed that talking it out should resolve the overwhelming majority of parents' concerns about teachers; only in "really rare cases" should problems need to be taken a step further.
That's not to say communication between teachers and parents is problem-free — one common area of conflict Hansman hears from teachers is unreasonable expectations about how quickly they're expected to respond to electronic messages in particular.
"If you send an email at 8:30 at night please don't expect a reply by breakfast the next morning," he said.
"That's just not realistic in the day-to-day worklife of people, especially teachers given the number of students we work with."
Canada-wide studies show that, between meetings, marking and prep work, many teachers put in dozens of volunteer hours over the course of the month, Hansman said.
He also points out that, in some cases, issues that arise in the classroom may be the result of the school board's policies or staffing issues and may not be within the control of the teacher.
In those cases, he recommends involving more senior personnel earlier in the process.