5 Smart Ways to Handle Teacher Troubles

Is it the teacher—or is it your kid? How to find out why your child's unhappy at school.

Dad and Son Before School
Photo: Sharomka/Shutterstock

There was no single incident that made Kim Black of River Ridge, LA, realize that all was not sunshine and warm fuzzies between her son Harrison, then 7, and his second-grade teacher. Rather, it was a constellation of things:

Harrison insisting that "the teacher doesn't like me," that she yelled at him frequently in class, that she was picking on him in particular—as well as the dramatic change in her son's disposition. "I'd had this happy-go-lucky child, and now he's coming home crying every day as he gets off the bus," says Black, a mom of four.

So before the end of the first month of school, Black went to speak with Harrison's teacher. "I said, 'My son doesn't feel like you like him,'?" recalls Black. "She was very defensive, saying, 'Of course I like him. I like all the children.'?" Black quickly explained that she wasn't accusing the teacher of doing anything wrong, but that she was simply trying to make her aware that Harrison felt this way, and to understand why. The teacher insisted she had no idea.

"I think that started us off on the wrong foot," says Black, noting that things deteriorated from there and that she had "opened a can of worms." Harrison grew to dislike going to school, and his grades suffered. Ultimately he was moved to a different class, but not without much angst all around.

It's hard to know what to think (or do) when your child comes home clearly upset, or with a specific beef like Harrison's. "You hear things like, the teacher plays favorites, we all get punished if somebody's bad, she's impatient with me, or that he's bored," says Susan Etheredge, associate professor of education and child study at Smith College. Some of the complaints can be about social issues—for instance, there's a problem with another child and the teacher isn't stepping in, says Etheredge, who adds that the beginning of the year is the peak time for all these concerns.

Depending on your style and whether or not your child is particularly sensitive, it may be tempting to advise him (in age-appropriate language, of course) to grow a pair. More likely, however, a part of you will want to elbow your way into the classroom like Nancy Grace on steroids and fight for your kid.

Totally understandable—although more likely to get you branded as the cuckoo mom to be humored than to resolve the problem. Instead, use our step-by-step guide to sorting out your child's trouble with his teacher. You'll find that he may soon be looking forward to school—or at least showing up and learning something.

Step 1: Play Reporter

Sometimes kids will make generic claims, like "The teacher's mean to me." You want to find out what that means. Etheredge calls this "unpacking" what your child is saying. Try to get as much detail as possible.

Ask, "What exactly did she say? What was happening in the class when she said it?" (You might want to inquire casually, so your child doesn't clam up or exaggerate.) "Mean" might mean "She makes me do my work," in which case you could explain that the teacher is trying to show the kind of behavior you need to have at school; after all, some things are very reasonable under the circumstances, but they may not seem that way to a 6-year-old. The idea is not so much to uncover "the truth" of what went down but to get a more concrete sense of what your child is seeing.

Step 2: Play Advocate

Tell your child that you're going to write down what she's saying so you can go have a conversation with the teacher. (Give her a chance to elaborate on her story—it's hard for kids to remember every detail.)

"Let the child understand that you, her teacher, and the principal are partners working to help make school a great experience for her," says Jan Harp Domene, a mother of three in Anaheim, CA, and president of the National Parent Teacher Association. This serves several purposes: Your child knows that you care about what's happening, that her concerns are going to be heard, but also that you're not just going to march in and "fix" a problem. Domene advises saying something like "Mom and Dad are going to talk to the teacher to find out why you feel this way"—not "why the teacher did this."

"It's your child's feelings you're dealing with. Until you talk to the teacher, you don't have the whole picture," says Domene. You might also be able to give your older kid some tools to handle the situation herself. Suggest options, such as approaching the teacher after class and pointing out, for instance, that she doesn't think she gets called on very often. Sometimes the teacher may not be aware of how your child feels.

Step 3: Play the Diplomat

If you decide you need to speak with the teacher, set up a time (not at dropoff or pickup), and go in as someone seeking help in solving a problem. Using inclusive language is important, says Etheredge. Say something like "I'm coming to you with a problem I don't completely understand, but I'm hoping together we can best figure out Mark's concern." Here's where you explain what your child told you and when, using his words as often as possible.

"This de-escalates the situation," says Etheredge. You're not saying "Mark says you do this." Instead, you're saying "I need help understanding what's bugging Mark." Whatever you do, assume innocence all around. Your child may well have done something to annoy the teacher, who may have reacted with, well, annoyance.

"I have seen some parents absolutely assume that their child would never do anything wrong, and when you do that, the chances really dwindle for a successful school year," says Domene. "We need to realize that kids are kids and we love them, but they also can say stuff that may not be entirely true."

Despite your light touch, the teacher might feel criticized—some people are sensitive, particularly beleaguered, tired and underpaid educators who do occasionally deal with parents who are a little overzealous on behalf of their perfect little angels. Do your best to reassure her that you're not blaming her.

"You don't want her to get defensive, because then you're in a hole and you're starting from behind," says Etheredge. If she rears up, just stay calm and keep repeating that you're simply trying to understand what's going on.

Ideally, the teacher will shed light on why your child feels as he does, and you can have a mutually informative conversation that will help her teach your child most effectively. If your child says the teacher "never" calls on him, when you talk to her she might tell you that your son often knows the answers, but she's trying to give the shier kids a chance.

Or the teacher may not have done anything at all. Maybe the teacher is a grump, and your child is taking it personally. Getting a firsthand taste of how the teacher communicates may illuminate the situation. Then you can talk to your child about how some people are not as smiley or are maybe less patient than the other adults in his life, but that doesn't mean they don't like him, says Domene.

A pleasant face-to-face helps in other ways: The teacher will see you as an ally and be more likely to confide in you, of course. But if the teacher is, let's say, better suited to another line of work, you're sending her a signal that you're paying attention and are involved. If the teacher is, in fact, singling out your child, a little I'm-onto-you might be enough to get her to lay off.

Because the truth is, while teaching is the most noble profession, not all teachers are as noble as one would hope. Juliet Goldberg*, a mom of two girls in Vancouver, British Columbia, felt that way about her daughter Sara's first-grade teacher a few years ago.

"The parents just could not believe this woman was teaching our kids," she recalls. "I kept saying to Sara, this is not what school is supposed to be about.'?" The teacher made callous comments, teased kids about sensitive issues, and told stories about her personal life in class, says Goldberg, adding, "Sara hated going to school."

Goldberg spoke with the teacher several times (something the experts advise) and volunteered in class two days a week so she could get a better sense of what was going on. When that didn't help, she decided to take the next step. Which is...

Step 4: Play Tattletale

No one wants to go to the principal's office, and that includes parents, but if you've raised your concerns with the teacher several times and you feel she isn't doing her best to resolve the problem, you have a choice to make: You can decide to turn the unpleasant situation into a "sometimes life sucks, kiddo" learning opportunity for your child, or you can go over the teacher's head. The first tactic, while perhaps not as just as the second, might ultimately be what's best for your kid. "The truth is, most kids will do fine" even if they don't like their teacher, says Etheredge. Ask yourself, is she learning what she needs to be?

This is what happened to Christine Klepacz of Bethesda, MD. Her tween daughter's teacher was strict and not very nurturing. To help get Alysia through the year, Klepacz told her that even though the teacher had a different personality than she was used to, she was academically challenging, and Alysia was meeting the challenge. It was a good lesson: Alysia learned she could work with all types of people.

But if, like Goldberg, you feel that what's going on in the classroom is turning your child off to school, by all means, speak to the principal or whoever is next on the school food chain. Tell the principal the steps you've already taken, and "keep bringing it back to the child's perceptions," says Etheredge. "Your attitude is still, we all want her to have the best year possible."

Explain how you've tried waiting and discussing it with the teacher, but what's going on is interfering with your child's education. Depending on the principal's style, she either will arrange for you to have another conversation with the teacher or will speak with him herself. In Goldberg's case, the principal admitted to her privately that the teacher was a poor choice and promised the parents in that class that the following year their kids would get an excellent teacher, which they did.

When things reach this point, of course, you may not exactly be the teacher's pet parent, which may cause problems for your child. But if it's something important, as in Goldberg's case, advocating for your child is more crucial than being labeled the annoying mom.

Step 5: Play Hardball

If you suspect the teacher is taking her frustrations out on your child, especially after you speak to the principal, that's the time to make it clear to the principal, firmly and calmly, that you're not going away. As a last resort, request a change of classroom. Schools are very reluctant to do that, says Etheredge, but may if a child is truly suffering and the situation is unlikely to change.

After much persistence, Harrison was ultimately moved out of his second-grade class and was much happier (and got better grades) with his new teacher. Still, Black saw a similar pattern developing with her second son, and moved both boys to a new school.

"If you do nothing but defend your child and don't investigate the issues, you are not helping matters," she says. "But if a problem is repeated year after year and you've done what you need to do with your child, you know it's the school." At this point, both her sons are thriving at their new school—and that makes all the difference in the world.

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