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2 Lies and 3 Truths Every Teacher Should Be Prepared to Tell

Meghan Mathis

It might be a bit unusual to write an article claiming it’s OK to lie – but I think you’ll agree that there are numerous occasions in life when a small white lie is the kinder option than a harsh, unnecessary truth.  That being said, there are also times when the harsh, ugly truth has to be brought up, even if it means uncomfortable conversations we’d rather avoid.  Today, I’ll talk about a few times when it’s ok to fib to parents . . . and a few times when you must tell the truth.

It’s OK to fib about . . . their child’s embarrassing habit.

If you’ve ever taught elementary school, you’ve probably come across the student who has discovered that it can feel pretty good to touch “their swimsuit area.”  In elementary, middle, or high school, you might have encountered the student who finds the contents of their nose far more fascinating than anything you’re trying to teach them in class.  When these (and other) inappropriate behaviors become distractions, it is our job as teachers to bring it up to their parents so that it can be dealt with.  But how do you make that phone call without embarrassing the parent, the student, or yourself?

This is a time when a little fibbing is perfect.  Make the call home but instead of flat-out telling a parent that their cherub is displaying these embarrassing behaviors, get your point across in a gentler way.  For the student with their hands in their pants ask if Mom or Dad has recently changed laundry detergent.  When the parent says no (or yes) and asks why, politely state that their son or daughter seems a bit uncomfortable and has been pulling at, adjusting, etc. their underwear zone and it seems to be distracting them from their studies.  Chances are, the student’s parents are seeing very similar behavior at home and will know exactly what you’re talking about.  You’ve brought the issue up, have given the parents a chance to address it at home as they see fit, and haven’t had to have an embarrassing conversation about appropriate times for their son or daughter to explore their body.  When dealing with nose explorers – I often take a similar approach and ask the parent if their son or daughter has allergies because they seem to be having a lot of trouble with sinuses.  I ask that they send Kleenex in, if possible, so that their child always has them on hand and doesn’t forget to use them.  

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I can’t promise that you won’t have to have a more detailed conversation about this down the road if the behavior doesn’t stop, but this option gives everyone a chance to first address the issue in a less embarrassing way.  It’s definitely a time when it’s OK to fib a bit.

It’s OK to fib about . . . not liking their child as much as you like other students.

It’s one of those secrets that isn’t really a secret: teachers don’t adore all of their students equally.  Every year we have students that test our patience more than others.  Maybe they’re the student that comes without a pencil . . . every day.  Maybe they have to be told 20 times a class to stop talking.  Perhaps they are the student who comes in three seconds after the bell rings every day with a grin saying, “I was here on time!”  Whatever your personal pet peeves may be, chances are there’s a student who embodies them, and it’s hard to like that student as much as you want to.  And as long as you do what all professional teachers do every day and treat that student just like all the others . . . that’s OK.

It’s also OK (in fact, it’s probably a very good idea!) to not share that fact with your student’s parents.  There are plenty of ways to discuss concerns with parents without needing to mention every bad habit or poor decision their son or daughter makes in our classes.  That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t mention if a student spends more time talking to her tablemates than completing her work, but wording it in a more positive tone can be a great way to get the parents on your side. “Your daughter is a very social learner. I think that is a skill that is going to serve her well in life—collaboration has become such a necessary skill in today’s workplace.  However, I would like her to continue to work on her listening skills, especially when her socialization interferes with her learning.  I was hoping that we could work together on coming up with some ways to bring her back to the lesson when she starts to talk during class.” Not sharing how much the student drives you up a wall is definitely an OK fib (or omission) to make.

But what about those times when you simply must tell the truth?

You must tell the truth . . . about their son or daughter’s progress.

It can be difficult when a parent wants to speak to you about why their child is doing poorly in your class.  It’s hard not to feel attacked when someone is questioning your methods if the way you grade is fair, if you provided enough accommodations or assistance to help a student in your class succeed.  That being said, when placed in this situation it is essential that you share your knowledge about a student’s learning with their parents.

Is the student doing poorly because they are frequently distracted in your room?  Are they frequently tardy or absent?  Do they not complete homework?  Does it seem like the student is trying to succeed but still not experiencing success?  This information must be shared with their parents so that you can come up with a plan to help the student succeed.  If you come to the meeting prepared with good data and information about their son or daughter, as well as with the attitude that you are willing to work together to solve the problem, then the focus will be on finding what the student needs in order to succeed and not on what you may or may not have done wrong.

You must tell the truth . . . if their child is threatening to hurt themselves or others.

This one seems like a bit of a no-brainer, especially in this day and age of zero-tolerance policies and our obligations to keep our students safe.  When it becomes a bit trickier is when your student says or does things that you are pretty sure they don’t mean . . . but it’s still questionable.  For example, I once had a student who wrote poetry.  Beautiful poetry.  Amazing, powerful poetry.  Poetry about hurting herself or wishing hurt on others.  She was being bullied and when I asked her about her poems she told me that they were therapeutic, but that she did not mean anything by it.  I believed her.  But I still told the guidance counselor and her parents.  I also told her that her poetry was amazing, that she was very talented, and that I was going to be telling her parents and the guidance counselor what she was writing about.  She was angry with me, especially since I said that I believed she did not plan on acting on anything she wrote.  It was worth it, however, to ensure that she was safe. 

Even if we are almost completely sure a student is kidding or isn’t serious about something they say, we have to tell the truth about situations like this.  Keeping our students safe has to take priority over everything else.

You must tell the truth . . . about the negative things their child might experience.

This is one I experience frequently when I meet with parents to discuss students taking Special Education classes.  As much as I would love to fib and tell worried parents that their child won’t be teased for taking “special classes,” that they won’t be called “stupid,” or “retarded,” in the hall, I can’t—because it isn’t true.  The reality is that often our students will be teased or bullied for a variety of reasons.  If you have a student who is experiencing this, you owe it to the parents to deal with the issue head on.  Yes, it does happen.  We try to be vigilant and stop bullying when we see it happening, but we won’t catch it all.  It’s very possible that this will make the parents angry—but you can’t lie about something this serious.

What you can do, is follow-up this honest assessment of the reality their child may be facing with what you and your school are doing to stop this behavior.  You can discuss how you help students deal with their challenges, how your school takes bullying seriously, and how you build rapport with your students to ensure that they know they can always come to you when they are experiencing problems with other students.  It may not be a perfect answer, but in this case, a truthful answer is always the best one.

Overall, I believe that in most situations honesty is the way to go.  Parents deserve our candid, forthright information regarding their child’s life when he or she is entrusted to us.  Even if the information you are sharing is unpleasant, it is often best to take a deep breath and proceed professionally and honestly.  That being said, there are a few instances when it may be best to soften that information with a few harmless fibs . . . as long as you are keeping the student’s best interest at heart.

What do you think?  What are some times when it’s ok to fib?  When is it imperative to tell the truth?