Dealing with a Difficult Teacher

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.]

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About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
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18 Responses to Dealing with a Difficult Teacher

  1. It is really hard for me to respond to this post with a calm voice and compassionate heart. My daughter had two terrible teachers from kindergarden and 1st grade and no matter what I tried the teachers put me in between themselves and my daughter. It was a very awkward position to attempt to navigate. I do sincerely appreciate your insights and agree with your suggestions. I know my experience was not the norm, and we have since had some lovely teachers who have put my child’s interest first. Thanks for this post!

  2. Dr. Sayers says:

    Wow. When I wrote this post, I was really thinking of teachers in older grades. I virtually never hear of difficult kindergarten or 1st grade teachers. I am so sorry you and your daughter had these bad experiences. Hopefully, your bad teacher experiences are behind you for a good long while!

  3. Val Delli says:

    Hi, I have a child in gr 8 and did try to have her moved to another class. I did so because over the last two years, two of my very good friends were directly affected by this teacher and I have since discovered that last year a petition was being processed to remove this teacher from the school because so many parents were distraught by her direct teaching style. (not a personal hit) This is a french teacher who refuses to collaborate with the kids in order for them to learn the language enjoyably, rather refuse to speak any english or suggest tutoring as a method to learn french. One case (a close friend) the child failed the class without even a phone call to the parent. Next case (another close friend) attempted repeatedly to contact the teacher who avoided answering emails and avoided meetings until she just showed up to discuss that her daughter is not understanding the lessons because there is no english translation during class. This girl ended up getting an 80 when she clearly didn’t understand french at that level…disappointing and completely frustrating for the parent. The fact that all our daughters are close friends led to my daughter in mortal fear and a predisposed biased opinion understandably. I went to the principal before school started and received lip service to no prevail. They admitted my case had merit as they investigated the history but chose to address this to the teacher in a way that seemed as if my daughter was not understanding the lessons, instead of approaching the teacher with the information that has been accumulated the last couple of years to help her to “alter” her teaching style so that all the kids can adapt to and enjoy learning languages instead of this collective gloom. Of course the teacher was surprised as I never would have “complained” about this the first week into school and now my daughter feels centred out and nothing came out of this because the real issue was never addressed.
    To go on the notion “accept and learn to deal with difficult people because life is not fair” seems to be the reason why society accepts these lower standards of human beings instead of teaching (especially) our ‘teachers’ how to lead by example. This is pathetic to me.

    “Our Mission
    To enable all students to reach high levels of achievement and to acquire
    the knowledge, skills, and values
    they need to become responsible members of a democratic society.”

    by the TDSB

    ……………………………..really??

  4. Dr. Sayers says:

    Sounds like an awful situation that has gone way beyond a level that could be handled by a student in grade 8. It’s great that you are acting as a strong advocate for your daughter. Since she is likely stuck with this teacher for the year, she is going to need all your support. Best of luck to you and your daughter as you navigate this challenging student-teacher relationship.

    • kerry hogervorst says:

      Hi
      These are good suggestions. However I have a 6 year old who is having nightmares and a phobia of going to sleep is beginning because of school. It is more complicated as I work with his teacher and she is in charge of the section where we work. We have only 4 months left of this grade. What should we do? Thanks

      • Dr. Sayers says:

        That sounds like an extraordinarily difficult situation for your little boy and for you. When I wrote this post, I was picturing older students having trouble with middle school and high school teachers. I think in a situation with a child as young as yours, your role has to be to listen and validate your little boy’s feelings and to advocate for him with the teacher. If dealing directly with the teacher is unsuccessful, then I would engage her immediate supervisor. My advice would be very different if your son’s anxiety came first and then the trouble with the teacher began. If that is the situation, it would be a good idea to consult a professional with lots of experience with child anxiety. I sincerely hope your little guy has a much better experience with his next teacher. Thanks for reading.

  5. I believe that the suggestions are all good, however, not likely to work with some teachers. I have had to deal with many bad teachers and did have meetings and go through the chain, as suggested by the school. I can tell you that some teachers are not willing to cooperate and when situations are brought to their attention will take it out on the child. This is something that goes on a lot. I wrote and published a book about my experiences as a former teacher and a parent, from that, became an advocate for parents, offering online resources and phone consultations. I was not surprised by the number of parents who deal with bad teachers daily. One thing I want you to understand, which I feel you may have missed, is that bad teachers are everywhere, in every grade level. The most difficult to deal with are teachers in the lower grades because they get away with inappropriate actions and are backed by the administrators. Please take the time to check out my website http://www.snitchbook,com and read, Snitch: True Stories of Destructive Classrooms and bad teachers. I think you will get a clear picture of bad teachers and the rising number that exist in our schools.

    • Dr. Sayers says:

      Thanks, Catherine, for reading my blog and for your comment. I don’t think there is anything in your comment that is inconsistent with my post. I know there are bad teachers at every grade level, just as there are bad doctors, parents, waitresses, police officers, and actors. In my work with children and adolescents, I have heard some pretty awful stories about some really rotten teachers. Still, I believe that the vast majority of school teachers are wonderful people who have taken on one of the most important and most difficult jobs possible. I would venture to guess that the number of bad teachers, if in fact it is rising, is rising in direct correlation to declining support for public education, increasing demands on teacher time, and worsening struggles for parents trying to work enough to support their households and still be present for their children. Whatever the number of bad teachers is, I stand by the suggestions in my original post and subsequent comments. I am very thankful that there are folks like you out there advocating for parents who are trying to navigate their way through school systems and to get their children’s educational needs met.

  6. Disillusionedmom says:

    Thank you for your posts it has helped me address an issue my child is having with his teacher of two years – it is tough having to get through one year and then have the same teacher move with the kids to the next year too. Between a rock and a hard place. I too am a teacher and have tried to remain neutral and give my kids space in school. But seeing the negative impact this individual is having on my child I have to become more directly involved. I have armed my child with some strategies to help him see how others might be feeling and treated in class so he can see that it may not just be him feeling this way.
    I have listened and explained that sometimes in life we have to deal with difficult people at various times and that there may be more going on with this teacher’s life that may be part of the issue. However that is not an excuse to behave badly. I have started keeping anecdotes of my child’s concerns, and have explained that I understand that this is difficult for him but I am glad he has shared this with me.
    I have spoke with the teacher on a few occasions, and it is obvious we approach education from very different perspectives. I love teaching and learning and instill this desire in my classes. I had hoped my children would have this same experience but in grade 7 & 8 it has been less than disappointing.
    I am hoping that my support and understanding will help my child cope – if things don’t change then I will be meeting with admin to discuss my concerns – the emotional and mental health of my child are of utmost importance and feeling less than as a consequence of an educator is unacceptable.
    As a parent and teacher – I put myself in the position of imagining how I would want someone to treat my child if they are in their class and then go from there…sadly I never imagined that I would have to be concerned with someone mistreating my own and not see the damage they are causing.

    • Dr. Sayers says:

      It sounds like you are doing a really good job with a very difficult situation. Your most important intervention may simply be the support you offer your son as he gets through the rest of his time with this teacher. It is often the case that the lessons learned from such a situation are not apparent until much later. I hope one day you will be able to see the fruits of your efforts on your son’s behalf. Keep fighting the good fight!

  7. Pingback: The Right School for Your Square Peg | What Kids Want Us to Know

  8. Fran says:

    I think some I you ppl re a joke let the chil go alone to speak with a teacher they don’t like or having a problem with are you KIDDING O ok and if that don’t work go with them but sit in the back round lady you are a joke and sometime children need to be removed from classrooms and as a parent it’s our job not the 5,6,7,8, an so on it all depends on the age and the problem teachers today are not good ppl when I was growing up maybe 2 out of 10 were bad now it’s 8 out of 10 are with there sarcasm and bullying IT IS YOUR JOB AS A PARENT

  9. Dr. Sayers says:

    I am so sorry to hear that this has been your experience. I was blessed to attend excellent schools with mostly wonderful teachers. I have been further blessed to be able to access great schools with great teachers for my own children. EVERY child on the planet should be able to attend well-resourced schools with teachers who are dedicated, caring, and professional. I agree that parents must do what is necessary to advocate for their children. I wish you the very best of luck as you do so.

  10. Pingback: The Parent-Teacher-Student Partnership | What Kids Want Us to Know

  11. Heidi says:

    While these are good suggestions, I immediately caught in your article the same fear and hesitation most people feel addressing teachers. We are terrified to criticize them. This stems from the misconception that parents who try to play an active role in their children’s education are quickly typecast as overbearing if they find legitament faults with a teacher. While in your article you are quick to praise teachers, hold them in awe, find that 29 out of 30 times it is the student/ parents and not the teacher, I see a clear absense of praising parents for taking an active role in a system they have no control over. Immediately if there is an issue between a student and a teacher, the parents are immediately attacked with the classic comeback, “Perhaps it is your child that is the problem.” Because, naturally, all parents are completely oblivious to who their child is. The past five years or so of raising your child clearly taught you nothing about them, including their strengths and weaknesses. Like a public prosecutor for a city, it takes a lot of convincing and evidence before they will admit the vague possibility a police officer might be corrupt. It is the same story with teachers as well. Any criticism of a teacher, even if it is constructive, is almost always met with accusations of how difficult a profession teaching is, how little they earn, how they are overworked, how they deal with “annoying illnesses” with their students (a quote taken from the president at a teachers convention. I would need to find the video). Not to mention, in no small amount of irony, how parents needs to get more involved with their children’s education. I think our society needs to address how we continuously see teachers through rose coloured glasses. I am not expunging parents of their faults. Despite what society seems to have us think, parents active in their child’s education are very much aware of their child’s shortcomings. Everyone involved is only human. Teachers, parents and kids alike. It is because of this that society, and teachers, need to step down from the praising pedestal and admit on civil terms perhaps it is the teacher’s fault just a bit more often.

  12. Dr. Sayers says:

    Thanks for your comments, Heidi. At the risk of sounding defensive, I want to push back a little on one point. I don’t think I place blame on students or on parents. And, you and I agree that active parent involvement is a key ingredient in good outcomes for students. What I said happens “29 out of 30 times” is that a child claiming that a teacher is “bad” turns out to be that there is a poor fit between that particular teacher and that particular child. I acknowledge that there are bad teachers out there and that my children have been blessed by a school with an unusually gifted faculty (which, I believe is due, in part, to how well the school attends to their professional development and the fact that the school is independent and therefore free from a lot of the pressures and limits placed on teachers by federal regulation). Bad teachers exist, no doubt about it, and parents need to be ready to push up their sleeves and help kids navigate those very difficult relationships. When I think about the diversity of students in both of my teenagers’ cohorts, it is no wonder that a great teacher for one student could not possibly be a great teacher for every student. In fact, in my own sample of two kids, there has been an upper school teacher that one kid did not like at all and one likes a great deal. I emphasize “fit” in this post because in my practice, what I see far more often than bad teachers are poor matches. I am fully aware that this is true because my practice is nestled among several very well-funded school districts. I am sure my experience would be quite different if I still worked within the city limits of Philadelphia where teachers are working against impossible odds, teacher support is weak, teacher burnout is high, and the teachers’ union and tenure system make it very difficult to deal with bad teachers.

    I hope you will also read The Parent-Teacher-Student Partnership and Bullying is a Community Problem, both of which deal with related issues.

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to share your reaction.

  13. Patricia says:

    I am a high school senior, and I have this one teacher who shows favoritism in class and points me out when I slip up. I understand my faults at times, but it is just when I am doing my work, whether it’s asking for help from a nearby classmate or me helping them, I still get in trouble. At this age I know that I do have a talkative tongue in class but I know how to control it. Also the teacher messes up when it comes to putting in grades and when they do, they place 0’s for classwork that weren’t even given or something that is due later on. How do I deal with a teacher who only points out my flaws instead of my good works in class?

    • Dr. Sayers says:

      Have you tried talking to the teacher, letting him/her know that you benefit from positive feedback as well as constructive criticism? If so, and the conversation went well, perhaps another conversation is in order. If not, I encourage you to try it. Approach the teacher without making accusations. Use “I” statements and tell the teacher how you feel. That might sound like “Sometimes it seems like you only notice when I make mistakes but not when I’ve done something well. I feel picked on when that happens.” Invite the teacher to let you know how you can improve your behavior and/or work in the class. If you tried this without any benefit, this may be one of those situations in which you just have to tough it out. Don’t let the teacher get to you. He/she is just one person with one perspective. In a few months, this teacher will be out of your life. Hopefully, you will have learned something from the class as well as from the experience. Good luck!

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