Would you like to know how to deal with your child getting a bad teacher? Having a bad teacher can feel like a prison sentence for the whole family. Sadly, there is nothing you can do about it immediately but hope for the best.
What makes it worse is when every other parent in the class starts complaining after the first day of school because they know what it is going to be like for the next nine months. Most of us know that it’s almost impossible to change classes once a class list is set which is part of the reason most schools that I know don’t post their class lists until a day or two before school starts each year. But what can you do to make the most out of the situation?
In this article I want to talk about a few things. First, what do bad teachers look like? How do they behave? Next, what can you do about it as a parent and, lastly, what can your child do about making it through the year in once piece having learned what they need to. That’s a lot to cover so let’s dive in.
First, there seem to be three kinds of bad teachers: Fluffy, Boring and Mean
- What’s a Fluffy teacher?
- These are the ones that often show movies or tell personal stories, getting off topic. Often times they are super nice human beings but just don’t manage to teach much or don’t teach the topic at hand. How can you tell if your child has a fluff teacher? You might begin by asking to see the curriculum and look up the Common Core Standards to find out what your child should be learning. This will send a message that you are informed and watching. My niece had a second-grade teacher who had been a kindergarten teacher for 20 years and was moved up due to class size issues. Well, after a while my brother and his wife, who both happened to be teachers, noticed that homework coming home was kindergarten level work. I kid you not!
- What’s a Boring teacher?
- These teachers just read from the script or are just unchallenging and can be deadly. One friend was in a class with a high school history teacher in her last year before retiring. That teacher could care less about teaching. She literally read the textbook. It was agonizingly boring each and every time my friend went to class. What a drudge to get through that.
- What’s a Mean teacher?
- These are the scary ones. Ones that might yell and scream at the kids in their class. They might demean kids in front of others. They might deal out punishments unevenly or even play favorites where your kid isn’t the favorite. Or maybe they’re just impatient and won’t answer questions so your child comes home not knowing the material. These teachers can cause lasting damage so we need to keep our eyes and ears open if you think your child has a teacher in this category.
Julie Plagens at Mom Remade has a wonderful article about dealing with bad teachers. I’ll put a link in my podcast notes. It’s called How to Deal with A Bad Teacher: 15 Strategies to Survive the School Year
That’s a whole lot of strategies but I’m going to go over just a few that I think might really help families in this situation.
Wait and See
The first approach would be to wait and see while doing research
- You need to investigate to see if things are really as bad that they seem. Sometimes our kids and their friends, not to mention other parents, can really blow things up. Gather information from multiple sources if you possibly can -- class work, opinions from other parents with kids in that class, info about how things are going in other classrooms for that same topic; that sort of thing.
- You might find people who took that teacher's class last year and ask them how they got through the year. They might say "It doesn't get better but stay quiet or it gets worse." Try to find students who did well in the class and ask how they achieved that - ask to borrow their notes if they have any. Ask them if they have any tips on how to do well in the class.
- Another way to research is to volunteer in the classroom if it’s allowed which it often is at the elementary level although since COVID-19 not much is allowed any more. I’d read the teacher’s emails and look over the assignments. Don’t helicopter, just be aware of what’s being studied and communicated.
- You should also try to figure out what the teacher’s perspective might be, sometimes it’s not all your child says it is. Bottomline, research before taking sides. Even parent rumor mills can vary depending on how different kids reacted to the same teacher. I had one parent tell me that her son hated a particular teacher he’d had a few years before which made me a little worried but, for my son, she turned out to be one of his most favorite teachers. Go figure.
- I just want to say that during this “wait and see” phase, sometimes things do settle down and kids figure out on their own how to get through each day or even start liking the teacher they were complaining about.
Communicating with the School
However, if you really feel that things need to be addressed you need to start the next phase which is communicating to the school
- Teacher meetings are the starting point. Set up a meeting with the teacher and your spouse or partner.
- As you meet you need to phrase the concerns as issues that require clarification instead of an attack, like “Mr. Jones, I need your help. I’m a little confused about something. Annie said _____, but I think she may have misunderstood. Can you explain it to me?” This gives the teacher an out but implies you’re watching what’s happening at the same time. You need to tread lightly since alienating your child’s teacher is one of the worst things you can ever do as a parent since your child can suffer as a result.
- If you feel unsatisfied the next step is to have a meeting with the principal or someone above the teacher like the head of a department
- Ask for a meeting with the administrator and the offending teacher together to voice your concerns. Nothing makes a teacher angrier than going over their head without giving them a chance to correct things.
- In my case, my son’s 4th grade teacher was a fluffy teacher. He and his classmates weren’t learning much at all. We parents grumbled in the background for a few months as we started to see how little our kids were learning. She was a new teacher at our school although not a new teacher to teaching, so it took us a while to see things. A few parents chatted with the principal but nothing happened. Our comments seemed to be treated as casual parent grumblings which principals here a lot of over the course of the year. It’s part of their job, right?
- Community Pressure
- As a last resort, if the teacher and the principal won’t listen to you as a parent, talk to other parents and address the situation as a group. There is power in numbers. It makes a statement.
- In my case, By Feb/March of that year it was apparent that we needed to move to a united front of concerned parents. There were 5-6 families who strategically set up individual meetings with the principal over a month or so period. You could set up one meeting with lots of parents but that’s not what we chose to do. The principal got the message and that teacher wasn’t hired back. It sounds a little harsh but once a teacher is offered tenure it’s almost impossible in California to get rid of them. This didn’t help our kids that year but it certainly prevented other families from suffering in future years and we really felt heard which made us feel a little bit better.
Lastly, it seems that most of the time your child is just going to have a bad teacher and you have to help them learn how to cope with it. You can’t always have the best teacher, the best principal, or the best school. I’m sure all of us remember times when we had a bad teacher in our youth, or a bad boss or a bad co-worker. This is life. There are lessons to be learned about working with difficult people and bad teachers can turn kids into problem solvers with the right love and encouragement from their parents and peers. As possible solutions you might get extra tutoring, set up study groups, correct homework yourself or become your child’s reading or writing partner. It’s all extra work to get though the year but figure out what will make the learning happen, don’t let the bad teacher take away a whole year of learning.
If your child is 5th grade or older, if at all possible, you want to brainstorm with them on how they can handle the situation themselves. You don’t want to rescue every time and talk to the teacher for them every time they have a problem. Lots of kids are afraid of authority figures and need encouragement to stand up and be heard. What can you do to help? Feel free to role-play or even have your child write down what they might say to their teacher about an issue. Step in only after the child has tried on their own. If they don’t understand something, encourage them to stand up to the teacher and ask for extra help. It might be really scary and hard which is why I’d suggest some role-playing with how that conversation might go.
That said, sometimes a bad teacher just won’t help a kid learn. I was talking to a recent college student whose AP Calculus teacher in high school just didn’t seem to know the material and wouldn’t and couldn’t even help them. They tried talking to the principal with and without parents and nothing changed so the students in that class learned that they had to adapt. They gathered together in study groups. They traded notes. Some of them had tutors and they traded those notes. They used Kahn Academy lessons online. They learned that they could learn without that bad teacher and they all wound up passing that AP exam in spite of that teacher. It was twice as much work as they should have had to do but they did it.
In another instance, when my younger son was a junior in high school, he struggled with a teacher who was constantly picking on him. This teacher was in the boring category and my son just hated his class. He was getting a good grade but came home every day complaining about how much he hated being in that class.
After a few months I decided to challenge him. I know that great teachers have the ability to make one-on-one connections with students. They are able to do amazing things with them since their students trust them and feel seen. In this experiment, I decided to encourage my son to flip that where he’s the one who makes the connection with the teacher since this teacher didn’t seem to know him as a person and was picking on him all the time for putting his head on his desk and not participating. I told him that if he when to his tutorial period with that teacher and had a conversation about ANYTHING, I’d give him money. Yes, I am not above using money to motivate behavior of things kids don’t know how to do yet and I decided this was one of them.
So, a few days later, he and a basketball friend, who also was in that class, decided to go to tutorial and talk to this teacher who happened to be a basketball coach of one of the girls’ teams. Well, wouldn’t you know it, they talked about basketball and they even enjoyed the discussion. You know what happened? The very next class the teacher was nice and each day after he was too. That teacher “saw” my son and, you know what, I think my son “saw” him too. In chatting with him about this he even remembers that he tried harder to participate. They weren’t the best of friends or anything but things worked out. The best part is that my son learned a life lesson in how making connections can really make a difference. It was worth every penny I spent!
One of the last strategies in Julie Plagen’s article is about having a good attitude. I love this idea. Listen to what others say but always talk nicely about the teacher in front of your child. Sometimes when kids hear parents talking trash about a teacher, they’ll use it as an excuse to slack off or worse.
I interviewed a number of people young and old for this podcast from students to parents to teachers. The discussions were so much fun. It was interesting that each person could remember a bad teacher or two. Some teachers didn’t know the material. Some teachers were always unprepared. Some teachers were boring as heck. Some teachers had class pets and treated some other kids unfavorably. But you know what, all those kids made it through to college and beyond. They had loving families who supported and encouraged them. They had parents who would listen to them, help set up and augment their studies, and give them empathy when things were tough. They learned that life sometimes gave them lemons but, typically, they were able to make lemonade. Sometimes it was a year or two later but, in the end, they made it.
I know as a parent of younger children; things might seem dire and you have a right to be concerned. A young dad who has a 5th grade son just heard that his son got stuck in the class of a bad teacher for the third year in a row and is losing his joy of learning. That sucks. I’d certainly keep a close eye on that 5th grade teacher early and often. I even know families, myself included, who’ve found that moving to a different school was worth the bother as a last resort. I wouldn’t keep moving my kid every time I wasn’t happy with a teacher since it creates lots of other stressors that can be significant, but it’s worth considering.
I just want to finish up by saying getting our kids through school is certainly a journey of ups and downs. I pray this article has given you ideas for keeping the journey a little smoother.