When the Teacher is the Problem
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Volumes of research are devoted to examining the critical variables in education. When all is said and done, the most important factor in your child’s formal education is his teacher. Fortunately, most public school teachers are competent, dedicated, and caring. At some point, however, your child will have a teacher who falls short in some aspect of teaching. A poor teacher, particularly at the elementary level where your child will have one primary teacher every year, is cause for parents’ concern.
Teachers are not expected to be paragons of educational virtue. With the pressures on teachers to raise test scores and deal with an increasingly diverse student population, instruction understandably may fall short of expectations on occasion. But some teachers have styles which present significant and persistent problems for students. Some teachers are overly strict with their students, engendering anxiety and fear. Others are disrespectful to children and treat them in a demeaning and humiliating fashion. Others have difficulty managing their students’ behavior, resulting in more chaos than learning. Still others are ineffective communicators and rely on busywork or films to instruct rather than teacher-student interaction. These and other teacher problems are not without consequences for students. Their anxiety may rise while their enthusiasm for school may fall. The issue for parents is when to take action — and when not to.
When Not to Act
What is a parent to do whose child is complaining about his teacher? Sometimes the best action is no action at all. If your child is mastering the skills being taught, is going to school eagerly, and seems generally positive about the teacher, a one-time minor incident probably does not warrant follow-up. Time will probably take care of the problem. In some cases, an older child may be able to handle the problem on his own.
If the teacher’s style is not well suited to your child, your best approach may be to help him learn to adapt to the teacher. Children must learn to accommodate to teachers with different styles, standards, and expectations. It is not helpful for them to believe that their parents will rescue them from every discomfort or disappointment.
You should, however, acknowledge your child’s concerns and feelings while at the same time expressing confidence that he will learn to adjust. Offer your child some coping strategies and help him understand the reason for the teacher’s decision or action. You may want to let your child know that teachers have shortcomings like everybody else but try to give the teacher a vote of confidence and find some positive qualities to highlight. If your child persists in his dislike of the teacher, do not try to talk him into liking her. Let him know that it is okay not to like a teacher but that he must still comply with her rules.
Diagnosing the Problem
Your child’s distress with the teacher may not necessarily reflect a teacher failing. Consider these other possibilities: the teacher’s reprimand or action was justified; your child’s complaints reflect a learning problem rather than a teaching problem; the schoolwork is very easy for your child and he is bored; the teacher is academically demanding; or your child is distressed about something (for example, a peer concern) and is transferring his distress to the teacher. Also, children often complain about their teacher early in the school year. They may feel loyalty to their previous teacher and need time to make the transition. Their concerns usually fade as they develop trust and confidence in their new teacher and settle in to a routine. The essential point is to make sure your diagnosis is correct before you consider a remedy.
Gathering information about the teacher and the classroom helps to ensure an accurate diagnosis. Taking a teacher to task without understanding her perspective will be harmful to your relationship with the teacher, and perhaps with the teacher’s relationship with your child.
Start by talking during a calm moment with your child. Ask specific factual questions but try not to convey criticism of the teacher. If your child responds vaguely or has difficulty putting his thoughts into words, don’t push the issue. Factor in your own knowledge of your child’s reactions to teachers and situations in evaluating what he says and keep in mind that young children are not always the most reliable reporters. (My daughter’s first-grade teacher struck a bargain with parents: she would not believe everything she heard about us from our children if we would not believe everything we heard about her.)
Other parents, especially those serving as classroom volunteers, can provide additional perspectives. Find out if their child is making similar complaints. Try to see the teacher in action for yourself by volunteering in class, chaperoning on a trip, or observing the class. Most school districts will allow parents to observe their child’s class if arrangements are made in advance.
At what point should you make your concerns known? If your child is coming home distressed or discouraged about school, is bringing home work which is either much too hard or much too easy, is resisting going to school, is visiting the school nurse’s office often, or describes an incident suggestive of humiliation or gross insensitivity, it is time to take some action. Begin by scheduling a face-to-face meeting with the teacher. This meeting may be awkward for you so do some advance planning and perhaps even rehearse with your spouse or friend.
Keep the discussion on a constructive level. Most importantly, stay calm, avoid accusations, and do not make sweeping generalizations. Express your point of view but do so respectfully. Keep the meeting focused on what your child needs rather than what the teacher did wrong. For example, rather than state that the teacher’s directions are confusing, say that your child often needs clarification about what to do.
If you think that the teacher’s style might be causing stress to your child, you might say: “I am concerned because Sarah seems worried about something in school and I’m wondering how we can work together so she seems more relaxed.” You may want to describe specific incidents in school that upset your child but be sure to give the teacher a chance to offer her perspective. The teacher might not have realized your child was upset or having difficulty. Offer strategies that you have found effective with your child. After all, you are the expert on your child. The more constructive the meeting, the more likely the teacher will be responsive to your suggestions and the less likely she will bear ill will towards you or your child.
Give the teacher some time to remedy the problem. Most teachers are eager to please parents and will respond to their concerns. But if there is no sign of progress after two or three weeks and you still have serious concerns, consider meeting with the principal in the hopes of getting her to apply pressure to improve the situation. The principal may invite the teacher and other school staff members to this meeting (for example, the guidance counselor or the school psychologist). While this meeting may impair your relationship with the teacher, she is unlikely to take out her displeasure on your child, especially if she knows you are monitoring closely. If a plan of action is decided on, let the principal know you will contact her in a week or so to find out how the plan is progressing. At the end of the meeting, express your gratitude to the principal and the other meeting participants.
You may conclude that the problem is serious enough to warrant a mid-year teacher change. While principals are even more reluctant to grant requests for mid-year teacher changes than requests for specific teachers for the following year, they often accede to the wishes of an insistent but respectful parent.
Some principals will tell you in the fall that more time is needed before a change can be considered but come the winter tell you that it is too late to make a change. Do not accept this. A student’s teacher can be changed at any time during the school year — and should if the problem is serious and persistent. Changing the teacher may not be the answer, however, and may even give rise to other problems. Moreover, such a change may give a message to your child that something is wrong with him or that the way to deal with a problem is to run from it. Use this strategy as a last resort. In most cases, parents can improve their child’s classroom situation by working cooperatively and constructively with the teacher.
But if you view the situation as intolerable or abusive, stay the course and do not worry about being labeled a troublemaker. You may need to pursue this concern beyond the principal. If so, request a meeting with the superintendent and invite other parents with similar concerns. Schools are much more responsive to groups of parents. Be prepared to discuss specific examples. Do not expect that you will be able to have an incompetent teacher removed from her position if tenured. Teacher contracts provide strong protections to tenured teachers and teacher removal only occurs under extraordinary circumstances. But if the school recognizes a problem with a teacher, it should be able to find some way to improve or remedy the problem short of teacher removal (for example, extra supervision, provision of an aide, rearrangement of the teacher’s schedule or class roster, or teacher reassignment).
Whether you choose to pursue the matter, make sure to listen to your child and respond in a patient, sympathetic manner. He may not be seeking a solution but rather an opportunity to talk about his feelings. If warranted, help him understand your teacher’s action and avoid criticizing her in the presence of your child. Otherwise, you may foster your child’s disrespect for the teacher and give him an excuse for not working. Young children have particular difficulty reconciling parents’ negative feelings for a teacher with their obligations to cooperate with her. Older children can better handle your disagreement with the teacher and may even benefit from seeing two adults who disagree learn to resolve their conflict cooperatively.