Is your teacher really listening to you?

Written by Dr Catherine Llewellyn

I recently came across a lovely video on Facebook of a Us teacher, Barry White Junior, teaching 5th graders. This charismatic teacher has developed an individual handshake with each of his students as a way of connecting with them emotionally and preparing them to learn in his class. It gave me pause to thought: What is it that makes a great teacher?

Role of the principal and importance of good governance
I am a big believer that the culture of a workplace is controlled by influences from the top down. Good leadership leads to functional teams no matter where you work.  When staff feel valued and supported, systems work well. So what about the role of the principal when it comes to teachers and the influence they have over the culture of the school?

The principal is the head of the school and the standard bearer for the values and culture within the school system. They are in the unenviable position of having to be across issues as they arise in the school. A good principal will act proactively to prevent problems spiralling out of control and resolve conflict, whether between staff members or between parents and teachers.

Good school governance encourages parental involvement throughout their child’s educational journey.  They welcome feedback from parents and students, and proactively explore ways in which the culture and experience of the school can be improved. A strong leadership team will respond to complaints by actively seeking out facts prior to determining an outcome or conclusion.

Good school governance happens when the principal and staff are able to be transparent regarding any difficulties:  highly-functioning systems create a balance between addressing staff underperformance, maintaining staff confidentiality, all the while placing the best interests of the child first.  As a result of their conduct, schools with strong leadership foster a strong sense of school community by facilitating an “open door” policy with parents, ensuring that issues are dealt with expediently.

In a school with good school governance, principals avoid stepping outside their scope of practice, and instead they appropriately use medical experts to prescribe, guide and inform behavioural management, as well as other measures to facilitate children’s’ learning. They are aware of the fact that teachers are experts when it comes to the teaching of students, and that Child Psychiatrists are the experts in medical diagnosis and treatment planning when it comes to emotional, behavioural or psychological disorders.

Good school governance has a style of communication that makes requests rather than demand for parental support for the school in fundraising activities. Newsletters have a collaborative tone, rather than one of authority.

Good school governance leads to good school teachers

If school governance works well, a positive teaching culture is born. Good teachers spend time getting to know the unique gifts of each child, which are appropriately celebrated and form the foundations for learning.  A good teacher who is confident in their skills and knowledge base easily form collaborative relationships with students and their families.  Good teachers encourage and even facilitate regular feedback about progress and communication about concerns, so that early intervention can result in optimal outcomes for your child. They have the capacity to present information in chunks and via range of media, are flexible in their teaching methods and have an “open door” policy because they have nothing to hide and your child comes first.

Good teachers recognize that timely behavioural management is required to reinforce desired behavior in the classroom, and if issues arise they communicate with parents expediently rather than relying on the traditional 6-monthly parent-teacher interview. Good teachers use verbal scaffolding with students to explain behavioural management so that children or teenagers can retrospectively reflect upon and understand the ABC* of any behavioural issues.

Good teachers recognise that early intervention in the setting of education difficulties results in better outcomes, and are able to flag students requiring further assessment without leaping to conclusions about diagnosis and treatment. A good teacher will never teacher play doctor or label your child with a diagnosis, and instead they will contact the parent and discuss their observations rather than trying to diagnose your child. A good teacher provides you with objective feedback without an agenda that you can use when you see health professionals to help your child thrive.

Identifying problem teachers and poor school governance

In contrast, problem teachers who actually require increased supervision present as disinterested when given opportunities to understand your child’s unique needs. These teachers actively attempt to block or ignore repeated contact with parents (for example, locking the classroom doors as soon as children leave at the end of the day to prevent parents entering).   Problem teachers make little or no effort to explain behavioural management to the child or parent, and have a tendency to utilise exclusion from learning environment as the mainstay of behavioural management.

In addition, problem teachers often avoid documenting behavioural issues, and are quick to promote the mislabeling of a child with psychiatric or other difficulties (such as “naughty” or “attention seeking”), sometimes even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In the event of teacher-student disharmony, problem teachers have a tendency to seek a psychiatric diagnosis and medication for your child instead of considering other reasons for behaviours, or considering any classroom changes which could promote or enhance learning. Alarm bells should be ringing if your child’s teacher has poor documentation and communication skills. Problematic teachers will often put the political identity of the school first, their needs second, and your child’s needs third.

Interestingly, children are generally very astute, and these teachers are often experienced by children to be disinterested, busy, rude or unfeeling. Their teaching style is observable if you review your child’s school work and it has been inconsistently marked, or if there is a history of reliance on electronic devices (such as the iPad) to teach and supervise during classroom activities.

In contrast to good school teachers and functional school systems, problem teachers are occasionally supported by poor school governance which allows their behaviour to continue unfettered.  A poorly functioning school leadership team is identified by senior staff who make no attempts to clarify events and investigate complaints appropriately.  Instead, dysfunctional school leadership teams often imply that complaints made by parents are completely out of keeping with the teachers’ reputation and therefore they are immediately discounted. Alternatively, poor school leadership teams will leap to the wrong conclusion prematurely without gathering information, and as a result complaints are generally swept under the carpet. Dysfunctional school leadership has a tendency towards parent blaming in an attempt to divert attention away from core issues and before establishing the facts.


In contrast to good school governance, dysfunctional school leadership can also be identified by an authoritarian style of communication with the community. These systems overuse the phrases “you must”, “you won’t”, “under no circumstances”, “there will be no…”, or “that will not be happening” as examples.  Additionally, the content of parent communication often falls well-outside of the scope of teaching, for example, there are attempts at pop psychology. Alternatively, the content of communications may be viewed as highly unusual, for example actively dissuading parental contact with teaching staff.

Our children are precious, and adverse experiences early in the educational system have the potential to negatively shape their perception of education for the rest of their life.


The role of the Child Psychiatrist

The Child Psychiatrist has a unique role. In light of their extensive training they have expert understanding of the emotional, social and psychological development of children compared to any other doctor or health professional.  As a result, the Child Psychiatrist can act as the central recipient of, and coordinator for, the needs of your child. Because the Child Psychiatrist also has an unrivalled understanding of and therapeutic interventions, the Child Psychiatrist is the only expert and authority on psychiatric and psychological diagnosis as it pertains to children.

The Child Psychiatrist is able to coordinate and make sense of multidisciplinary assessments from a range of allied health professionals.

This includes psychological test results including cognitive (IQ) testing, behavioural observations (for example when assessing a child for Autism Spectrum Disorder or ADHD), formal language assessments, or sensory profiling.  A Child Psychiatrist is trained to collate results, interpret findings, and coordinate an informed behavioural management plan that is uniquely tailored to your child.

Because of this, the Child Psychiatrist can seamlessly take on the most important role your child needs – be your child’s advocate.  Child Psychiatrists can legitimately request changes in an academic setting to optimise your child’s school experience, even if the school has previously not been prepared to listen. Regardless of your state or territory, the school system must listen to expert medical advice when it is prescribed. Your Child Psychiatrist is the most powerful member of the team.  You can be confident that a Child Psychiatrist will always put your child first.

Is it possible to repair relationships with the teacher or the school?

The answer to this questions is, “Sometimes.”  Repairing your relationship with your child’s teacher requires both parties to be willing to acknowledge when and how things went wrong, and to express a desire to make amends. Unfortunately, this is not always possible.

For repair to work, your teacher should be open, flexible, and acknowledge what they do and do not know.

The school should be supportive, fostering positive communication rather than operating in a defensive style.   The teacher needs to be willing to operate from a place in which they focus on renewing your child’s love of learning.

So what are the take home messages?
As a parents, if you have a clear idea on how your child should be performing at school and the unique ways in which your child can learn and develop their confidence, you should feel able to speak up to speak up as a parent.  Only you and your child have an intimate understanding of what your child needs emotionally and socially to thrive.  There are lessons to be learnt for everybody when your child has had a bad year at school. Wisdom is only ever the benefit of hindsight.

In my opinion, when the needs of the child are placed first, above and beyond the political needs and identity of the school, effort is made to discover the strengths of every child, and the teacher invests time and energy into forming an authentic relationship with them, positive outcomes are assured. This is akin to patient-centric practice, where treatment decisions are driven by the agenda of the patient within a doctor-patient relationship.

Given what prompted today’s blog, I think it would be most appropriate if I left the final words to the charismatic and energetic Mr White:

“Pretty much the most important component of teaching, is that rapport, that relationship.  Before you’re able to deliver a substantial amount of content to them, you’ve got to be able to reach them. And to reach them, you’ve got to have a relationship with them. “

Hear, hear.

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