Anticipating a lot of free time while I hunker down with my family and wait out Hurricane Sandy’s slow trek through the mid-Atlantic states, I put out a request on Facebook for topic ideas. One of my 9th grade daughter’s classmates, who apparently reads my blog, gave several excellent suggestions. I decided to tackle the most difficult one of all: how to deal with bad teachers.
This is a tough topic for me. My kids have been blessed with an endless stream of excellent teachers. Their teachers haven’t all been warm and fuzzy or super entertaining, but every last one of them has been kind and helpful and committed to seeing my children flourish.
Personally, I am in awe of teachers. There are so many reasons why this is true. First, I believe the job of a teacher is simultaneously incredibly difficult and infinitely important. The teachers I know firsthand do not get paid particularly well, work far more hours than the seven-hour school day, deal with challenging students and their challenging parents, and enjoy very little prestige for all their trouble. They teach for the love of children and the joy of helping children succeed.
Whenever a child client tells me about a “bad teacher,” I assume the problem is not that the teacher is bad per se, but that there is a poor fit between the teacher and this particular student (see The Parent-Teacher-Student Partnership for more on this). Twenty-nine out of thirty times, I’m right. But not always. There are some bad teachers out there. Sometimes, they have just been teaching way too long. Sometimes, they are not adapting well to new trends in teaching. Sometimes, I have no idea what drew them into the profession in the first place. Always, I keep in mind that they have a back story that I am not privy to as well as a perspective that may be very different from my client’s. Nonetheless, dealing with a teacher who is harsh or unreasonable or unapproachable or ineffective presents serious challenges for students and parents alike.
Today’s quote is fitting, although I cannot honestly remember whether this teenager was talking about a teacher, a coach, a parent, a step-parent, or some other adult in her life:
I believe people have to earn my respect; just being older than me doesn’t mean you deserve it. Flavia, age 18
This is a sentiment commonly expressed by young people. It is one I held myself as a teen, and to a great extent, I still hold this belief today. But, I am a pragmatist, and I try to help my young clients turn experiences dealing with difficult adults into opportunities to practice skills that will serve them well when they are older.
If you are a parent whose child is dealing with a difficult teacher, one of the most important ways you can support your child is by listening to his story and his perspective. Even if your perspective differs, listen with empathy. Remember how you would have felt at her age in a similar situation. Avoid telling her how to think or feel about the situation. Your message should be “I hear what you are going through with your teacher, and I understand how hard this is for you.” Unless your child asks for advice, this may be all you should do.
If your child does ask for your advice, think carefully about what you want him to learn from the experience of dealing with a problematic teacher. In general, kids need to learn that there will always be difficult people in their lives, whether they be professors, coworkers, bosses, in-laws, or neighbors. They need to remember that the offending adult has a point of view as well and that there is always an unknown back story. Young people need to develop skills for interacting with such individuals that give them voice and help them feel empowered. The last thing parents should do is step in and take over.
Here is a set of guidelines that may be helpful as you support your child’s efforts to deal with a difficult teacher (or roommate or coach or friend for that matter):
1. Encourage your child to talk to the teacher directly about her concerns. Help her prepare by role-playing. Remind her to treat the teacher respectfully, to avoid accusatory or inflammatory comments, and to listen in earnest to the teacher’s point of view. If she is too shy or too deferential or too intimidated to go to the teacher alone, encourage her to seek assistance from her advisor or guidance counselor or another trusted adult in the school.
2. If talking directly to the teacher is not effective, offer to accompany your child to a second meeting with the teacher. Again, help him prepare for the interaction. Encourage him to do the talking. Your presence is a reminder to the teacher to respond to your child in ways that are helpful; it is not your job to take control of the meeting.
3. If a meeting between the teacher, your child, and you is ineffective, the next step is to go to the teacher’s immediate supervisor. In some schools, this would be the principal; in others, a division director. You and your child should go to this meeting with the administrator together, and you should encourage your child to use her own voice as much as possible.
4. If this meeting is ineffective, you have a decision to make. Is it in your child’s best interest to pursue the issue further or is his interest better served by letting the issue drop? In the case of the former, you will have to take over. In the latter case, your child will need your support and understanding more than ever.
You may have noticed that I have not recommended requesting/demanding that your child be moved out of the teacher’s class. Many parents I have worked with over the years have tried this, and I can only recall a single instance where a parent has prevailed. In this one instance, the principal did move the child out of the problematic teacher’s class, but he also changed all of the student’s other classes as well. In the end, the student and her parents agreed that the move had created more problems that it had solved.
I don’t recommend demanding that a child be moved out of a difficult teacher’s class for the following reason. In life, we all have to deal with people who try us. Since this cannot be avoided in adulthood, we are well served by beginning to learn how to cope with these individuals while we are young. No sane father is going to show up on the sideline and demand a new football coach for his son. Nor will a sane mother march into a CEO’s office and demand that a new manager be assigned to her daughter. Either of these scenarios would be ridiculous, right?
In a difficult situation with a teacher, as in many situations, your child will follow your lead. If you regress to name-calling, demanding, threatening, and otherwise adolescent behavior in response to a difficult teacher, then an already bad situation is bound to worsen. If, on the other hand, you encourage and model a respectful, mindful, collaborative response, the situation is more likely to have a positive outcome in the short term and to become an opportunity for growth that will have far-reaching benefits for your child.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]