Teacher Trouble?
When your child complains about a teacher, you need the whole story.

by Lynn Pribus

“I took Sarah to preschool,” my friend Al told me unhappily, “and the teacher was blasting a police whistle at the kids.” He doesn’t think 4-year-olds need military discipline, but he’s afraid protests will get his daughter “in trouble.”
Emily, formerly a straight-A student, is struggling in 7th grade math. She claims the instructor is spending too much time on “gab” and not enough on algebra.
Nick, a high school senior, reports a “personality conflict” with his ceramics teacher. Ceramics isn’t an academic subject, but an “F” could block his college admission.

Why Do Problems Arise?
For some children, simply being in school can be difficult as they learn to adjust from “home rules” to “school rules.” For example, in school they must usually ask permission to use the bathroom and can’t snack when they want to.

Other subtle situations might include a youngster who feels unfairly treated even though no one knows it, such as the girl who secretly wanted to be chalkboard monitor. A child may also take personally a comment or criticism directed at the entire class. Or, fearing ridicule, children may become upset when asked to do something they can’t manage; they could be too shy to ask for help.

Older children sometimes use the teacher as a scapegoat when they are struggling in class but don’t want to admit it to their parents. They may also dislike a teacher if they feel the instructor is unfair or uninterested or if they find a class boring or without relevance.

Although there can be many reasons for students’ grievances against teachers, there are some cases in which the child has a legitimate complaint. For example, a teacher may favor quiet little girls over noisy boys.

First Steps
You can address most problems that arise if you get to know your child’s teacher.

Don’t wait for problems to arise. Meet the teacher early in the school year, especially if you have a child with unusual needs or issues to make the teacher aware of the situation.

Find out how the teacher prefers to communicate— by notes, e-mail, phone or meetings.

To go a step further, volunteer at school if you can. You will get to know the teachers and staff and it will be appreciated.

The Whole Story
If your child complains about his teacher, remember that you have only half the story. Does he often whine about small things? Could he be overreacting or making excuses for his own faults?

On the other hand, if a youngster is crying when it’s time to go to school, refuses to eat or shows other signs of stress, it’s likely that something is wrong.

Terri Giardine, principal at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Levittown, PA says that parents might not understand what the teacher requires of the student, and unknowingly, may send the child mixed messages about how to behave. For instance, if a teacher requires that students read every night, a parent who doesn’t reserve time for reading at home may cause a dilemma her child can’t solve.

If You Decide to Act
First, see if your child is willing to talk to the teacher herself about a problem. Melissa Grieshober, a 1st grade teacher at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown, DE, says that students, even elementary school students, can help teachers by communicating with them about problems — which the teacher is sometimes unaware of. An unhappy student may be quiet and compliant in class.

If you decide to act yourself, make an appointment for a meeting with the teacher. Work together to define the problem and its cause. Once identified, it is often relatively easy for the teacher to correct it.

It can be helpful for both parents to meet with the teacher. A stepparent, grandparent or other interested adult could also be included. This tells the teacher that the family is genuinely concerned and wants to work together to resolve the problem. Further, two people might react differently to things the teacher says, and you can check later to be sure you heard the same thing.

Next Steps
If you cannot get positive results after talking with the teacher, talk to other parents of students in the class to see if their children are also struggling. Then go to your principal at the elementary level or to a counselor in secondary schools.

Many schools don’t endorse switching students from class to class, but don’t be intimidated by an administrator telling you they can’t let everyone change classes. In actual fact, very few parents bother. If you feel it’s going to damage your child to spend a year with a teacher, you’ve got to take action.

Ed Canzanese, principal at Rosa International Middle School in Cherry Hill, NJ, says that the goal is to depersonalize issues between the teacher and the student, and to look for other causes of the friction, such as too much homework.

“Our goal is to find the common ground that we can all go back to and set up a system that we can put in place to help the child,” he says.

Keep in mind that changing teachers won’t solve a learning problem. Finding a tutor or after-school program could be the most effective way to address your child’s difficulty.

Will I Get My Kid in Trouble?
It could happen, but it’s rare that a teacher will resent a child because of a parent’s concern — unless you go behind the teacher’s back to the principal before you discuss the issue with the teacher.

In most cases, discussing the problem is much more likely to help than hurt. If your child doesn’t want you to see the teacher, it’s often because of fears that you will “learn the truth” about poor behavior or class performance.

Sometimes it’s best for the student to face the situation alone. The rest of the time, you can’t overestimate the value of parents and teachers working as a team.

Lynn Pribus is a freelance writer.

Here’s What Happened
Sarah: Al and his wife became convinced the preschool teacher was too harsh for Sarah and transferred her to another preschool, where she is blossoming.
Emily: After conferring with the teacher and observing her difficulties with algebra, Emily’s parents hired a tutor. By the end of the school year, she was getting A’s again.
Nick: Quiet investigation told Nick’s parents that the ceramics class problem was largely of his own making. They declined to intervene. Nick buckled down in the class and has since graduated with honors.