Advice for parents

Hello parents!

If you’re reading this, you probably have a child who is taking chemistry and having some trouble.  Maybe there’s trouble with the subject matter, or maybe it’s the teacher that’s giving you problems.  Either way, maybe I can help.


It’s storytime!

My name is Ian Guch and I’m the guy who does everything on this site.  I’ve got lots of credentials, but I figure you’ve already figured that out – I won’t bore you with them. The biggest credential I have, however, comes from my own high school chemistry experience.

When I was in 10th grade, I had a chemistry teacher named Mr. W.  Mr. W was an odd guy who wore a green lab coat and believed that only Very Special People could be honored with chemical knowledge.  I left the class with the lowest possible C-, and I promised myself I’d never take chemistry again.

Fig1Greencoat

Mr. W and green coat.  It was a long time ago.

When I got to college, I was very unhappy to find that I had to take chemistry again.  And, to my great unhappiness, the professor was just like Mr. W. I stopped going to class entirely, and showed up only to get dismal grades on the exams.

When it came time to take the final, I saw that it was still possible to pass the class if I did really well.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know anything about chemistry.  Because I didn’t want to take chemistry again, I sat down in the library with my textbook and taught myself everything I needed to know in less than a week.  Somehow, I passed the class.  And even better, learned that chemistry is pretty interesting.

During my time in the library, I had to invent my own (sometimes unconventional ways) to understand each topic.  I use these in my teaching, and have found that they work for just about everybody.


How to help your child get better grades

As a former chemistry-hater, I have a pretty good idea of how your child can do much better in chemistry.  Here’s my official key to success:

Your child needs to start studying:  I hate to tell you this, but your child isn’t doing well because he or she isn’t studying.  I know that he or she spends a lot of time in their room with the book open, but they’re texting, not studying.  If you want your child to really study, put them at the kitchen table without a phone and keep an eye on them.

Fig2Studychemistry

Typical teenager as he studies chemistry

Homework is key: Most students who are taking a subject they’re having trouble with don’t put a lot of effort into their homework.  They may get it done, but they’re doing it because they think the teacher just wants to see a paper with writing on it.  Here’s a secret: the reason we teachers give homework is so that students understand what’s important in a subject, and how to approach those sorts of problems.  Homework isn’t just busywork – it’s an ongoing guide to what’s important.

Memorization is usually useless:  There is very little in chemistry that should be memorized.  Many students are used to using flashcards to learn what battle resulted in the end of the Esoteric Empire, and that’s fine.  However, in chemistry, this isn’t handy at all because you’re not supposed to memorize facts.  You’re supposed to learn ideas.  Flash cards simply won’t work to do this.  While your child can still use flash cards to learn some things (polyatomic ions, formulas), doing sample problems and thinking about the main ideas is far more important.

Tutors are a bad idea:  I was a tutor for a couple of years and never saw a student who needed a tutor.  A child who needs a tutor just needs to study, do homework, and learn the main ideas.  A terrible secret is that most tutors don’t know that much about chemistry, because their personal focus is something else.  Your child’s teacher, on the other hand, not only knows the topic but also knows what’s on the exam.  Have your child ask him or her instead.

Fig3dunce

Though he was bad at chemistry, Mr. Nibbles’ tutoring rates were very reasonable.

In other words, there’s no simple way to do well in chemistry.  It will require brain power and time to learn.  But when learned, it’s a lot of fun.


How to deal with your child’s teacher

Let’s say that your child and your teacher are having problems with one another.  You’re hearing one set of stories from your child and another from the teacher.  You’d like to side with your child, but the teacher’s story is also plausible.  What to do?

Before doing anything, remember that your child’s teacher has no reason to behave unfairly toward your child.  The teacher probably has 150+ students, and it’s hard to give all of them special attention, whether good or bad.  Your child, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be punished, which gives them a good motive for stretching the truth.

Fig4devil

Parents tend to have unreasonable beliefs about how good or bad their children’s teachers are.

Additionally, please remember that teachers aren’t infallible.  As a teacher, I’ve occasionally said and done stupid things – not because I’m a bad guy, but because I’m human.  If your child is upset about something, it may very well be that there’s been a misunderstanding that the teacher doesn’t even remember, or that they feel very dumb about.  Remember, we’re teachers because we like working with kids, not because we want to give them a hard time.

If you’re convinced that you should proceed, here are the steps you should follow:

Step 1:  Let your child handle it.  

If your child has a problem and hasn’t talked to the teacher yet, they need to do so.  A phone call from a parent who’s angry about something the child has never mentioned warrants a shrug and “I’ll look into it” from the teacher. Even if you and your child don’t like the teacher, the child needs to learn that most problems are solved simply and easily, and that starting small is the way to go when resolving conflict.

Step 2:  Interrogate your child.  

Your child is upset about something and it’s your natural inclination to believe what they say.  The problem with this is that your child is upset about something and wants to make themselves look as correct as possible in the dispute. As you already know, there is no dispute in the world in which one site is 100% faultless, so if your child says that this is the case, they’re not telling the whole truth.  Ask questions until you get a better idea of what really happened.

Fig5interrogate

 You most likely will not need this when interrogating your child.

Step 3:  Send the teacher an email.  

Some things to think about:

  • Email allows everybody to have a written record of what happened. Though this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll interpret what is said in the same way, it’s a good start to building understanding.  Phone calls, on the other hand, are an excellent way to wind up with a “he says, she says” sort of situation.
  • Keep a civil tone.  The instant you become irrational, nobody will take you seriously again.  No matter how right you are, a parent who uses unprofessional words comes off as a bully who should be ignored.  Plus, what kind of example do you want to set for your child?
  • Pay attention to the teacher’s response:  Your child has told you what happened – now it’s time to find out from the teacher what happened.  I know this will sound crazy, but the teacher is more likely to give you a clear idea of what’s happening.  After all, the worst that can happen to a teacher is that their boss tells them to knock it off, while your child can be grounded from using their precious cell phone.
  • Never threaten the teacher with anything.  It makes you sound like a bully, and the teacher already knows that you don’t actually have the power to do anything to them.

Step 4:  Before escalating, define your desired outcome

Before things get ugly, you need to sit back a moment and figure out what outcome you’d like to see take place.  It’s often the case that when parents get angry, they get to the point where they must win this fight!.  That’s not a good way to go.

If I know you (and I don’t), you probably want one of the following things:

  • You want to win this argument.  If you want to win the argument at all costs, you need to step back and take a look at yourself.  Your goal should be to make sure that the outcome is fair to everybody.  Even if it means that your child is found to be responsible for the dispute.
  • You want the teacher fired.  Nope.  Not gonna happen.

Fired

Pictured:  Something that’s not going to happen.

  • You want whatever the teacher said to be overturned.  If your child was given a “0” on an assignment for cheating, is your expectation just to get it turned around?  If your child is found to have committed the offense, this isn’t going to happen.
  • You want a fair outcome:  If this is what you want, you’re doing it right.

A very important thing to remember at this stage is that your child will pay very close attention to how you respond.  If you value getting them off the hook over truth, they’ll learn that fairness is for suckers.  Sometimes kids need to learn hard lessons about their behavior, and if it turns out that your child made a mistake, this is a pretty tame environment for it to occur.

Step 5:  Call the administrator for a conference that includes you, the administrator, the teacher, and your child.  

Important info:

  • If you get to the conference stage, this doesn’t mean that either the teacher or student are assumed to be right.  The administrator is truly interested in a fair hearing, not in supporting their teachers, right or wrong.
  • Your child needs to speak first, followed by the teacher.  This gives everybody a simple way of comparing and contrasting the stories in an open forum.  It’s also usually the case that the disagreement is worked out at this stage, as the truth comes out.
  • If you raise your voice, you lose.  People who have reasonable cases don’t need to raise their voices because their argument does the talking.

Fig9Conference

It seems that Mr. Jones dislikes pedagogical criticism.

  • If you threaten anybody, you lose.  See above.
  • The administrator’s job isn’t to make anybody happy – it’s to make sure that everybody is treated fairly. Being upset and cranky won’t help your case because the administrator doesn’t care if you’re cranky.  (Or, to be more precise, the administrator will laugh about it later if you get cranky).

Step 6:  Escalate

Before you escalate, ask yourself whether this issue is really worth making your own life hell.  It’s very unlikely that the teacher will be fired, and it’s also unlikely that you’ll get what you wanted unless you’re 100% right.  Please also remember that the constitutional rights of public school students are very limited, and nonexistent in private schools.

bill of rights

Ironically, students are taught about the Bill of Rights even though they usually don’t apply in the schools

When you should clearly escalate:

  • Your child has been physically or sexually abused.  You shouldn’t be escalating this with the school, however – escalate with the police.  Though you sometimes read in the paper about molesters getting a slap on the wrist, rest assured that in real life most of them go to jail for a very long time.
  • Your child has had their freedom of religion violated:  Courts have generally held that students have the right to reasonable accommodations for religious dress and practices, and that student-led groups may pray in whatever fashion they’d like. However, the courts have also held that religion (particularly the Bible) can be taught as literature or as a historical document as long as it isn’t endorsed by the school.  It is, however, unconstitutional to have teacher-led prayers or other school-sponsored religious activities.

When you might want to escalate:

  • Your child has been harassed (non-sexually) by a teacher.  This harassment has to be fairly serious, though, and based on things like religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, or physical handicap.  Aside from those examples, the teacher has to pretty egregiously hassle your child for it to be considered a big deal.
  • Your child has had their freedom of speech violated.  You need to understand that freedom of speech is generally regarded as inapplicable in the public schools.  Basically, anything that your child has said which is harassing or potentially-disrupting to the school (this included political opinions, racist comments, disparaging comments about others, or other controversial comments) is not permitted via the first amendment within schools.  If you go this route, hire a lawyer and get ready for the legal fight of your life.
  • Your child has had their fifth amendment right about self-incrimination violated.  If your child was coerced to confess to breaking a non-criminal school rule, the fifth amendment doesn’t apply.  If your child was coerced to confess to breaking a criminal rule (or into making a confession that might open them to later criminal prosecution), the fifth amendment applies.  As there are lots of technicalities, you’ll need to get a lawyer.

When you shouldn’t escalate:

  • Your child has had their fourth amendment right against search and seizure violated: For a variety of legal reasons, the fourth amendment is, for all intents and purposes, invalidated in a school environment.
  • Your child has been disciplined for behavioral or cheating offenses.  School boards let schools handle these as they wish.

No matter what the situation, if you decided to escalate you probably want to seek the advice of a lawyer.  And get ready for a long, expensive fight.


Other issues

Let’s say that you’ve got another issue with the teacher.  Maybe you think the teacher is an idiot, or the teacher can’t control his or her class.  What’s the right way to deal with the teacher?

Honestly, there’s not much you can do.

Consider this:  If a teacher were to be kicked out in December, who would replace them? It’s not like teachers are just hanging around waiting to be hired. Substitute teachers?  Not a chance – they usually don’t have the credentials.  Unless there’s something really awful going on, you’re stuck with that teacher.

Now, you can always ask that your child be moved, but that’s not likely to work.  It’s just not possible to change class sizes such that one teacher has a huge class and the other has a tiny one.

About the only thing you can do is to talk to your administrator (calmly!) and let them know how upset you are.  Ask if there’s anything you can do to help and document everything you don’t like.  This will be extremely unlikely to change anything this year, but it may affect the teacher’s position in subsequent years.

But not very often.  You’re probably stuck.


The big wrap-up

I hope I’ve given you the impression that being the parent of a high school student doesn’t need to be a painful experience.  Sure, your kid sometimes acts like a moron and the teacher sometimes messes up, but both of them are fundamentally good folks who occasionally make mistakes.  It happens.  Be patient with everybody and keep your cool, and your kid will be carrying a diploma in no time.


Photo credits:


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The date this tutorial was originally published was February 9, 2015.  However, please be aware that correct citing of scientific works (i.e. ACS style) does not require this information.  If you’ve been told to cite your sources using anything other than ACS style, you’re doing it wrong!!

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