Kindergarten is a big leap-- for kids and for parents. And having the right teacher can make all the difference. In a perfect world, you'd be in love with your child's teacher from the get-go. But what if you're not? Perhaps some other parent has told you something that made you nervous; maybe this teacher is brand new and seems out of place in the school; maybe you’re reminded of a much-disliked relative…the list can go on and on, particularly if it’s late at night after a long day.
After 33 years in the field, kindergarten teacher Bonnie Brown Walmsley, author of Kindergarten: Ready or Not? and a practicing teacher at the Karigon School in Clifton, New York, has seen thousands of kids and families make the jump to kindergarten. For lots of them, it’s an exciting, smooth transition, but for some, there are unexpected bumps. Getting a "bad" teacher ranks right up there.
It's a fairly “high stakes” moment for parents; you and the school are just beginning a relationship, and everyone wants things to go well. What should you do if you've got a bad feeling about your child's new teacher, and what should you not do? Here are some practical tips:
• Beware of rumors from other parents. “Parents tend to share their experiences with teachers, bad and good,” says Walmsley, “much as one would with a doctor one had seen.” The truth is, though, that one child's terrible fit can be another's saving grace. Just because your neighbor's child disliked a teacher, doesn't mean she won't turn out to be a fabulous teacher for your child. “Give the teacher a chance, let things get going, and try to form your own opinions,” Walmsley says. On the first day, teachers are profoundly busy helping new kids learn the ropes; routines may look very different just a week later.
• Keep a positive attitude in front of your child. Remember, says Walmsley, that “most kindergarteners love their teacher.” Don't poison your child's attitude with your own worries and concerns. “Maybe you don’t like this person, but that doesn’t mean your child may not have a good experience.” Do whatever you can to encourage your child to enjoy the class, and trust that the experience will be good one.
•If concerns keep building, make sure you talk first with the teacher. After an initial settling-in period, says Walmsley, “if you’re still anxious, ask questions, but do try not to be judgmental.” Try to emphasize information rather than accusation. “Michael has small motor coordination problems that make scissor work hard,” for example, is valuable information to a caring teacher. That same person, however, may withdraw if a parent says, “You made him do scissor work five days in a row and you’re making it way too hard!”
• Only talk to the principal after you’ve had a thorough talk with the teacher. If you still have deep concerns about your child, you can go to the principal for help. But beware: the first question you’ll hear is, “did you talk with the teacher?” Again, remember to focus on information about your child’s learning needs. Especially if your child has any diagnosed learning differences, or if there are special issues at home, this is the time to let folks know, so that everyone can make the best possible choices for your student. In very rare instances, a school may decide to move a child to a different teacher; but, in the words of Nancy Davenport, Ed.D, longtime elementary principal from Virginia Beach City School System in Virginia and current president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, “this is only in really extreme situations…it is not a practice that overall has good benefits.”
Instead, advise educators, take a deep breath. Those first few weeks of kindergarten can be just as wild a ride for parents as they are for kids. Kindergarten teachers understand this, and they want a smooth relationship as much as you do. For this writer (and former teacher!), that lesson happened when our second child was placed in a barren kindergarten classroom with a new teacher we’d never seen before. I went home in tears. The teacher ended up staying with the class for two idyllic years, through first grade. Today, if you ask my son and his friends, they’ll tell you right off: she’s the best thing that ever happened to them.