Niche versus national

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On one side of the conference-room table is the father who's annoyed about missing work, the mother who has steam coming out of her ears and the student who is full of trepidation because he's convinced nothing good can come from this ill-fated meeting.

On the other side is the teacher who feels underpaid and now, under fire; the guidance counselor who would rather be helping the honor student; and the principal who longs for problem-free days but rarely enjoys even one.

Parents may find themselves in just such a meeting if a problem arises between a teacher and their little Johnny this school year, but it's not really how you want the dispute resolved.

The potentially confrontational scene should be the last step in finding a resolution.

Here are some tips on how to handle the student-teacher clash and, hopefully, stay out of the principal's office until you really need to be there.

--You have to care. It sounds like a given, but teachers and administrators will tell you so many parents don't care nearly enough about their child's education. Distinguish yourself by playing an active role at your school.

--Establish an ongoing relationship. Share previous problems or current concerns at the beginning. Maintain regular contact through the year via conference nights, e-mail and Edline, the online system for tracking your child's progress. Teachers can discern how often you check in online to keep up with grades. You won't be able to solve the problem a week before the grading period.

--Learn as much as you can about the curriculum. Ask for a syllabus or course outline at the beginning of the year and study it. The more you know about the course, the more informed inquiries you can make with your children about their progress.

--Challenge your child first. If he complains about a teacher, challenge him to solve it. Not every teacher's personality will perfectly mesh with your child, but the same truism will apply in the real world. A child has to learn to adjust. Tell him to discern what the teacher expects and deliver. Teachers don't randomly decide to hate a particular student.

--Enhance your role. So if he continues to struggle, meet with the teacher, preferably face to face, but don't do so in a confrontational manner. You can ask, "What's your problem, teacher?" Or, you can ask, "How can I help you get little Johnny to do better?" Give added attention if needed. Also, leave your child in the hallway. It allows for a freer exchange of information.

--Look for patterns. Still not satisfied? See if Johnny struggles with this particular teacher but gets along with all his other teachers. Is Johnny the only student struggling, or was there a line of parents wrapped around the school on conference night waiting to meet with this teacher? Try to avoid specific comparisons with other children.

--Guidance. Take your concerns to the guidance counselor because it's proper protocol. Explore the possibility of switching teachers. In some cases, a child may thrive under a teacher with a different approach, but switching isn't always an option for a number of reasons. And remember this: The teachers will consult with each other to learn why little Johnny transferred.

--Meet with the principal. Begin with a one-on-one meeting without the teacher. The principal may suggest bringing in the teacher, assistant principal or guidance counselor for a subsequent meeting. That's fine, but leave your child out. You don't want to put him on trial. Always keep in mind this is the last resort because, most times, the principal will circle the wagons and protect the teacher. What? You think the principal will stand up and say, "You're right, I've hired someone who's incompetent"? Not likely.

--Remain calm. Express your displeasure without personal attacks and believe everyone involved has your child's best interest at heart. If you can't establish that basic tenet, the problem is larger than one student, one principal or one school. However, because administrators and teachers lament having so many parents who don't care, they almost always respond in a positive manner to those who do care.