Dealing with Difficult Teachers

It's that time of year! Parent/teacher conferences are common in early October for elementary school students, and progress reports or mid-term grades usually become available for their high school counterparts. Although it may seem like the school year just started, October marks a crucial time for assessing academic progress so far. This allows students and parents to make adjustments homework routines and study strategies if the grades aren't where we'd like them to be by the time report cards come out at the end of the term.

In most cases, parents and teachers use this opportunity to strategize together about how to help students be more successful in school, often with great results. But what can you do when you feel that your child's teacher is the problem, not the solution? How do you deal with a teacher that you perceive a teacher to be unfair, unkind, or unavailable for help? Taking constructive actions based on a few simple principles can help you navigate these treacherous waters.

Perception vs. Reality. Be careful about making judgments about a teacher before having all the facts. Too often, we hear from our children, their friends, and other parents that the teacher didn't explain the material or never said when the assignment was due. And that may be exactly what happened. Then again, it may not. Young people, whether age seven or seventeen, will often say that they were "yelled at" when in reality they were merely corrected for breaking a rule. Also, they will commonly say a teacher didn't explain a concept well when a more accurate statement is that the child simply hasn't comprehended it yet. Therefore, it's wise to make sure we have all facts before we suggest that a teacher may lack professional competence or personal caring. And the only way to have all the facts is to ask the teacher for his or her perspective.

Go Through, Not Around. A temptation for many parents is to go around the teacher and take any complaints or concerns to a school administrator. Some parents fear that if they say something to a teacher, the teacher will be mad and "take it out" on their child. My 20 years in education have taught me that as a general rule these beliefs are simply unfounded. In fact, probably the worst thing for a parent to do is to go around a teacher and speak first to a school administrator. There are rare, exceptional cases where it may be appropriate to go over a teacher's head immediately, but most of the time, this only encourages unnecessary resentment that takes everyone further away from the ultimate goal - to help the child.

Consider Word Choice. When you do talk with the teacher, consider how you phrase your questions or concerns. Begin your first sentence with the word "I," not "You." For instance, saying, "I would like your advice in knowing how to help my son be more successful in this class," is much more likely to lead to constructive problem-solving than saying, "Your teaching methods don't work for my son." Also, focus on concrete statements, not vague judgments. It's far better to say, "My daughter's last three papers had letter grades on them but no written comments" than "You don't give my daughter any feedback to help her improve."

In most cases, teachers and parents work together as a team toward the shared goal of the child's academic and personal success. But in those instances when it seems like the teacher is playing for the other side, there's still hope for positive outcome. By remembering to check out our perceptions, go directly to the teacher, and use positive, concrete language, you can help make sure that everyone is back on the same team, which can only mean victory for your child.**

Learn what to expect from your parent-teacher conference next month or find the right tutor for your child with Noodle.

Mary Ann is a career educator with 20 years of experience as a high school teacher, assistant principal, and principal. She has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Secondary Education, and an M.A. in School Administration. Currently a Learning Consultant for a Fortune 100 company, she is also a freelance writer, the mother of an elementary school student, and a member of the advisory board at her son's school.