When the Teacher Doesn’t ‘Get’ Your Kid: a #LessonLearned by Marilyn Gardner

I “met” Marilyn Gardner when she was Freshly Pressed with the fabulous post “Dull Women Have Immaculate Coffee Tables.” As a total neatnik, I immediately took offense. But I quickly calmed down. Marilyn had so many fabulous things to say.

Cool things to know about Marilyn: She was raised in Pakistan and tasted her first strawberry in Afghanistan. She has 5 children born on 3 continents – 2 born at a hospital overlooking the Nile River. She loves tea and scones, especially in London. And she wants to be buried with her Passport.

Marilyn’s blog is called Communicating.Across.Boundaries. You should follow her on Twitter @marilyngard.

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Click on the teacher lady's butt to see other #LessonsLearned

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When The Teacher Doesn’t “Get” Your Kid by Marilyn Gardner

The F could not be disguised. No matter how skilled my son was with the fine-point of a Sharpie, we could tell that it was not an A+ in English. If the pen smudge hadn’t given it away, then the comments would have: “Does not do his homework. Disorganized. Enthusiastic in class.”  Even though I had heard the comments before and knew they came from a drop-down list on a computer program, they still stung. This was my easy-going, bright, 16 year-old, and he loves writing. How can he be getting an F?

School had always been a challenge for Jonathan and by default, me. Had I the ability and had he been a first-born, I would probably have decided to home-school but he was the youngest of five and I had become a relaxed parent, learning that a poor grade in high school didn’t necessarily equate to a life of underachieving. I had also learned that I could occasionally indulge in the immature act of locking myself in my room to escape, that unless blood was flowing there was no need to panic, and that hiding a secret stash of wine and chocolate did not make me an alcoholic or a binge drinker/eater – it made me a mom who knew how to coddle herself and engage in “self-care”.

Except when they don't.

I have tremendous respect for teachers and early on I realized although we may differ on the details, we both had the same goal in mind – that my children achieve their potential in an academic setting. Or, mostly we had the same goal in mind. Occasionally there was the teacher that did not seem to think there was potential, and that was the challenge presented with the F. While on the surface it looked like the F was a product of laziness and disorganization, on further scrutiny it was clear that the F was a product of Jonathan and the English teacher butting heads. The English teacher was a newbie and a realist. My son is an old soul and a romantic. This is a kid that spent a Friday night in October at an event called “Waking Jack Kerouac” in Lowell, Massachusetts. He is not your average student. And if I am honest, she is not the first teacher to face frustration with him in the classroom.

So there we were. Jonathan on one side, teacher on the other, me in between. If there was ever a time to put in the ear plugs and shout “I’m not listening! I’m not listening” to both of them, this was it.  But the reality was (and is) that I need to hear and understand both sides. Life is not about others understanding us, although it’s nice when it happens.

Life is about seeing from both points of view and helping negotiate understanding between the two.

I don’t think this teacher will ever get Jonathan, and the outcome will not necessarily be a grade that is pretty, no matter how much he tries to disguise it with a sharpie. But she isn’t there just to ‘get’ him. She has a classroom full of students, many with far more difficult circumstances than my son. Although I desperately want her to understand and appreciate this child that drives me crazy and that I would give my life for, it’s not a requirement and doesn’t mean she isn’t a good teacher with other, more mainstream, students.

The great thing about this story is that in the midst of the defeat of an F from one teacher, another heard Jonathan playing piano two days later, stopped in and said “I don’t know if you know this, but you are known as an outstanding musician by the faculty in the arts department.”

“Thank you” he said. “My peers don’t think so.”

“Your peers don’t know shit,” she responded.

He grinned until he fell asleep that night.

@Tweet This Twit @rasjacobson

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28 responses to “When the Teacher Doesn’t ‘Get’ Your Kid: a #LessonLearned by Marilyn Gardner

  1. Pingback: Communicating Across the Boundary of the Classroom – The F Cannot be Disguised! « communicating.across.boundaries

  2. I love this. My son seems similar to yours. He doesn’t fit into most boxes and teachers either LOVE him or don’t get him at all. And you’re so right — it’s not their job to “get” him but isn’t it wonderful when they do? Thanks!

  3. Exactly! And as a parent who wants to support both it can be so tough. And you’re right – with my son as well it is the extremes; either they can’t say enough about him or they really think he’s on the path to a life of low achievement. Soon after this was written we had the opportunity to get him into a smaller setting with a lot of individualized attention. It has been a gift! Thanks for reading and it is so nice to have someone who gets this.

  4. As a contract negotiator, this is an exciting piece to read. The last six years of my life has been dedicated to trying to help two opposing sides see each others’ opinions and understand how to respond to them–even if not accepting them–in ways that allow the two parties to work with each other ongoing. There’s a lot I understand very differently now than at the beginning, with the biggest being that it’s important to be led by objective. My son’s a toddler at the moment, so I’m viewing this piece as an early reminder to my future self on the parent front. Same truth applies. :)

  5. We all have different gifts. It’s a shame that a teacher can’t see the different gift in each child.Your child has a gift in English. The teacher just doesn’t see it. It doesn’t warrant a F, especially if he is enthusiastic in class. That alone should say something is off.

    • Thank you! That’s exactly how I felt….! She actually did acknowledge one time that though he wouldn’t “get the best grade” she had no doubt that he would “learn more than anyone else in the class….”

  6. I love this comment. In healthcare I see a lot of this too, particularly with immigrant patients and doctors/nurses – helping them see the other side and negotiate in the middle around healthcare treatments etc. What is so tricky is the vulnerability of the parent in the process. I don’t think I really knew what it was to be vulnerable until I had kids… and then I found out that my “armor” was not what I thought it was. That 6 lb 14ounces of baby was my weak spot. ….and then I had 5 weak spots. Anyway…I’m digressing but appreciate so much the work you do.

  7. Fabulous post. I have four and they are all so different from each other in how they learn. They each have different strengths and as a parent it is hard to balance activities to encourage growth in their weak areas. I can only imagine trying to do that in a class of 20-30 kids!

    With the exception of a couple teachers not challenging #1 out of his comfort zone (mostly in reading) we’ve been blessed with amazing teachers. #3 is the most challenging to teach because he is completely a visual learner, he won’t try anything until he’s observed it and feels he can master it, yet we received the best compliment from his teacher this year. She said he challenges her to think outside the box and that he is making her a better teacher. I have to admit, he’s grown more this year than any previous years.

  8. The hardest student a teacher deals with are the ones who are brightest and/or think differently from all the other students. This was an early and hard lesson for me as a new teacher. Predictability is easier to teach to; unpredictability stretches us and forces us to grow outside our comfort zones and neatly organized curriculum… Unfortunately, it’s usually the student who suffers the consequence, unless the teacher stops to genuinely inquire, “Tell me more..”

    • Not being a teacher it’s so good for me to hear this perspective and it makes complete sense. if there is one thing he isn’t it’s predictable. The other thing is that when you get a teacher who stops to inquire it can help the parent gain tools for working with their own child – something I’ve needed.

  9. It is hard to connect with every student, but not impossible. I think I’m better now with 17 years of experience. As a parent, though, I know my own son is not easy to “get.” He is 7 and his current teacher gets him. He’s having a great year. She can see his quiet intelligence in his daydreamy eyes, she can draw him out, and she adores his sense of humor. I wish I could handpick his teachers, for he is my orchid. His twin sister is my dandelion. I have a feeling she’ll do well for anyone. She’s good at the game of school.

    • Leanne – your daughter sounds exactly like my son’s older sister…..Vice president of Student Council; excellent student; every teacher loved her; prom queen….it’s hard to be her sister! And she is the kind that does well for everyone but it’s come with something of a cost in people-pleasing. I think you said it well ‘good at the game of school’. Interesting that when my son was 6 he had a teacher who was incredibly frustrated with him…at 7 he got a teacher that ‘got’ him.

  10. Your story reminds me of the Harry Chapin song Flowers are Red: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeJJOjb7fj4

    Sometimes it only takes one great teacher to make a difference. It sounds like your son found that in the Arts Department.

    He’s probably already heard it, but maybe you can remind him of the Steve Jobs quote:

    “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

    • Larisa – that quote totally describes my son – so thanks and I will remind him. Thanks for the reminder as well that it only takes one teacher – true words. I think we’ll print up the quote and put it up on the refrigerator along with the one “I would rather die than drink from the cup of mediocrity!” thanks so much for reading.

  11. I really enjoyed reading this lessons learned, Marilyn! I agree there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all teaching style. I come from a family of teachers (and even married one), so I really appreciate your perspective and the fact that you didn’t immediately blame the teacher when your son came home with the [smudgy, haha] F. I also liked your line about the chocolate and wine – girl after my own heart! :)

  12. haha! You should hear about the time when I did lock myself in my room! I think teaching in this country has to be the hardest vocation possible…and I’m a nurse so that says something. We have set up an almost impossible system but you know so much more than I about that. Thanks so much for reading.

  13. Great post – thanks! I’ve definitely had the experience of one of my kids having a teacher who doesn’t get him. He’s bright, but has learning disabilities and just thinks differently. Report cards and feedback in class were always very negative. Funny thing was, a sub came in for a month, and she was bang-on in her assessments of my son — totally “got” him.

    Thanks also for reminding me that teachers are on the same side with me — when things get so frustrating (for me and for son), sometimes I forget that. I know teachers have an incredibly challenging job, and that they want the best for the kids. But man, it is sure awesome when one of them “gets” my kid and takes the time to give some positive feedback — don’t know if they realize what a HUGE impact that has on a kid who gets so much negative….

    • Shari – thanks for sharing – that is exactly what my experience has been. I think in his entire schooling there have been only 3 teachers who have seen potential – until this November and then with a change we suddenly have a kid who loves reading, loves learning and wants to go to college…it’s such a turn around. And I agree – the impact is so huge – not only on them but on us.

  14. Such a good reminder.

    I was that child in school; teachers either loved me or seemed annoyed by me… which always confused me…

    I’ve worried about this very thing since before my oldest started school. She has always walked to her own drum, and I was fearful she would encounter teachers who didn’t get her and it would break her spirit.

    Fortunately, we’ve made it to 5th grade without that happening, but as we head towards middle school… I feel myself having to push down that fear once again.

  15. So great that you’ve made it through the early years with teachers that get her! We started down a hard path in first grade. And so great also that you understand your daughter. A hard thing for us is that my husband has been so great at school since birth that it’s hard for him to understand the struggle.

  16. blackwatertown

    Interesting and difficult challenge. Great that you and he (your son) know that he is talented and valued.
    But back to the teacher. Perhaps an amiable chat, acknowledging your son’s idiosyncrasy (if that’s an ok way of putting) and appreciating the teacher’s efforts, might disarm any battle of wills building up from the teacher’s side. Perhaps then he’ll be able to relax about the situation and not give up, but be more philosophical about the situation. I suppose I’m talking about managing the teacher.

  17. Oh Marilyn, what a perfect ending! Thanks for sharing your story (and J’s)

  18. Marilyn! Thank you so much for being here to post his piece. I was out of town this weekend without reliable Internet access, and I am so glad to see that readers appreciated your wonderful words. Look how many people liked your piece! They like you! They really like you! ;-)

    I hope you had a good time moderating comments.

  19. Pingback: Lessons Learned: Guest Posts for 2012 « Lessons From Teachers and Twits

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