Dear Parents, Try to Avoid the Dreaded Game of Teacher Telephone


Dear Parents, 

As a former classroom teacher, I sometimes act as a go-between for explaining stuff about schools to parents who are not always aware of the logistics or situations that I know about from direct experience. Sometimes it’s things like why do teachers ask for plain pencils for the classroom pool (because no one has the time to break up fights over who gets the sparkly one today) or do kids really go through that many glue sticks (the younger they are, the more careless they are with glue sticks, so yes). At other times its stuff geared towards older kids like the high schoolers. Many times it’s stuff that applies through all age groups, like a phenomenon I call “Teacher Telephone.”

What is Teacher Telephone? Well, you know the party game Telephone where one person starts a sentence and whispers it to the person next to them, and then they whisper it to the next person until it comes to the last person who announces what they thought they heard to everyone? I don’t think I’ve seen a game where the final sentence and the original ever matched up, and it’s often weird or humorous. Well, Teacher Telephone is like that only it starts with a teacher saying something to the student or something occurring in class, next the student tells at least one other adult (like a parent) and possibly people like a counselor, administrator, or another relevant adult. They hear a version until the message gets back to the original teacher. The final version often does not match what originally happened, and the link usually includes one unhappy parent/guardian. The more people the situation has been told to, the more likely it is that the end version and original version are different.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this as a teacher, and usually, a counselor or administrator is the last person before I get the message. This is super stressful because instead of coming directly to me and getting the correct information up front, my boss received a complaint about me. Nobody likes it when their boss gets a complaint about them when it could have been solved by going directly to them instead. While I understand a parent contacting a counselor when concerned about their kids’ grades, here’s the thing, the counselor isn’t interacting with a kid in the classroom the way a teacher is. They probably cannot tell the parent where the struggle is, but you know who can? The teacher. I get there may be a situation where a parent wants a counselor looped in like if there are things that a kid might be struggling with that are impacting school (divorce, death in the family, etc), but in this case, loop the counselor in but don’t just go to them. For the record, in both cases, I would get contacted by the admin or the counselor to contact the parent. It’s just more steps and more frustrating than the parent coming to me in the first place. I honestly recommend contacting by email because it’s easier to keep track of what was brought up, anyone involved can come back to check on what was said, and it is easier for a teacher to get to an email during the day as opposed to trying to contact you back by phone. Angry calls are easier in the moment, but an email often takes time to write out and you’re more likely to approach your frustration in a less combative way. 

As a former teacher, this understanding has certainly shaped how I approach these things when I am on the parent side of things. I recently had one of my kids come home super frustrated by a situation. I tried to gather up as much information as I could, but I quickly recognized that my super frustrated kid wasn’t clear on certain parts of what happened. What was described to me admittedly sounded very frustrating, and that makes a lot of sense since my kid was clearly frustrated. I reached out to the teacher letting her know that the kiddo seemed to have had a rough day, this was what I had been told by my kiddo, and noted that I was certainly getting a confusing version of events and that would she be able to give me some clarification. 

She was, and guess what? There were details that my kiddo hadn’t told me, like that a few adults had checked in on him, but the kiddo was too frustrated to discuss it with them at the moment. When I brought those details back to the kiddo, they agreed with the additional details and we made a plan together. I don’t think the kiddo was trying to lie to me or be malicious, I just think they were too frustrated to give me as accurate of an explanation as I needed to understand the situation. I followed up with the teacher and thanked her for the detailed explanation. She thanked me for reaching out. The next day went much, much better for everyone involved.

There was another case with one of our kiddos and a kid that would lash out physically at classmates—our kid was a particular target. The teacher was working with the situation and the admin was undoubtedly working with the classmate. Since it was close to the end of the year, I asked the teacher if, given how things played out, we should request to the administration that the kids not be in the same class next year. When she agreed I emailed the principal, CCing her. In this case, I was not running to her boss on her. We had worked together and agreed to tag in administration, and when I approached administration it was obviously a joint effort between a parent and a teacher. I heavily emphasized that I believed the teacher had done everything in her direct power to solve the situation. Admin agreed to split the kids for next year, and that was exactly what they did. 

So, my bottom line here is really to encourage you to go directly to the source and to treat situations with your kid as you and the teacher being a team to fix a situation rather than parent versus teacher. Cutting out the whole Teacher Telephone thing will really make things easier on everyone. If you do end up in a situation where you and the teacher can’t sort things out in a mutually satisfactory way (unfortunately, it does happen at times), and you do need to reach out to admin, you’ll at least have shown you made a good faith effort to work things out with the teacher first.

I hope you and your kids have a great school year.

Elizabeth, who really tries to avoid committing Teacher Telephone as a parent  

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