IAN CHISHOLM, A fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Chatsworth School in Reisterstown, remembers one of the first conflicts he had with a parent, many years ago, when he was new to the profession. He had been covering the topic of evolution one week, when he got a visit from a mother of a child in his class.
She was livid. Evolution contradicted the Bible lessons she gave her son at home, and the boy felt confused and caught between the two of them. Despite being a young teacher, Chisholm responded in a way experts would say was wise: He sat and listened.
"I had to look past her anger and actually hear what she was saying," Chisholm says. After venting, "I think that she was satisfied."
That conflict is just a minor example of the disagreements that parents and teachers encounter every day in schools across the country. Some experts say that tensions between parents and teachers are worse than ever. With overcrowded schools, the advent of standardized testing, pressure of federal reforms like No Child Left Behind, and the expectations for students to achieve even at a young age, there is more demand on teachers to produce results and more hovering from "helicopter parents."
Schools have also been put in the position of telling children about touchy social issues that were traditionally covered in the home, such as sex education or warning kids about drugs.
"The specific role of parents and teachers ... is less clear now than it has been in the past," says Raymond P. Lorion, the dean of the College of Education at Towson University. "That may contribute to part of the difficulties and the strain that parents and teachers have."
But both educators and advocates for parents say that children benefit most when both sides communicate clearly, understand each other's point of view, and resolve disputes amicably.
Start with trust
"As a parent, you want to forge a good relationship with a teacher so you have open communication and a sense of trust" to form a base when issues come up, says Stacy M. DeBroff, a parenting guru who appears frequently on the Today show.
DeBroff interviewed hundreds of teachers for her latest guide, The Mom Book Goes to School (Free Press, $15). "They have come to view the current generation of us parents as agitators," she says. "Teachers are increasingly closing their classroom doors because they feel like parents are spying on them to assess what's going on."
DeBroff believes that parents carry the burden of maintaining a good relationship with teachers, and she offers advice accordingly: At the beginning of the school year, send a friendly letter to your child's teachers, telling them a little bit about your child's personality and interests.
When a teacher has a concern about your child, don't be defensive, she says. Don't go straight to the principal with complaints -- that will only escalate tension. Instead try to work out disagreements with a teacher directly. Keep in mind that the teacher is a trained professional. Remember that the teacher is concerned about all the students in the class, and is not focusing on your son or daughter exclusively.
"You want to avoid getting a reputation," she says. "If you are known as a hypercritical parent who is jumping on teachers, remember: teachers talk in the teachers' lounge."
But social status and class can profoundly complicate parent-teacher relationships, and parents are not always in control of the conversation. Marc Lamont Hill, an assistant professor of urban education at Temple University in Philadelphia, says his research shows important differences between the ways that parents and teachers interact in urban schools versus suburban schools.
"At an elite school, parents have a voice -- not just in terms of their own sense of empowerment, but also in a practical sense," he says. "They write letters, they petition, they are part of the school board, and they often are more educated or have a higher social status than the teachers.
"All of those things conspire to make the teacher feel more uncomfortable," he says.
But in schools in poorer, urban areas, the situation is just the opposite. "Often times the teacher is the most educated person in the room," Hill says. The parents in these areas usually did not have positive experiences in school, so coming back to the school to discuss concerns about their children's education or behavior feels like "returning to the scene of the crime," he says.
This affects tone of the discussion. "Parents don't feel that they are qualified to engage in certain types of conversations -- and if they do engage in conversations, it's a one-way conversation," Hill says.
Blondelia Caldwell, an advocate for parents who volunteers in the special-education department of the Baltimore city schools, says she has seen the sorts of interactions that Hill describes. "Some teachers respect the parents, and some don't," she says.