Don’t smile until Christmas! is the old teacher adage but what if your child’s teacher doesn’t even know how to smile? What can you do if your child complains that his teacher is mean?
The difference between being mean and being strict
A strict teacher has high standards for kids’ behavior and school performance and she applies these standards to everyone equally and applies them every day. Kids know where they stand with this teacher and they know how to stay on her good side: behave yourself and work hard. When this teacher bestows a rare smile, it seems like a gift. Your child knows he’s earned it.
The mean teacher is unpredictable. She seems to like some kids better than others and lets them get away with stuff other kids get punished for. She likes to catch kids being bad or doing poorly and she even seems to set traps for them. You almost think she believes kids are the enemy. When this teacher smiles, watch out! She might be plotting against you.
If your child complains about his “mean teacher,” help him to figure out if she’s really mean or if she’s just being strict. A strict teacher deserves no complaints. Students in her classroom will learn to stretch themselves and will discover just how much they can achieve. They just have to put in the effort and keep their hands to themselves. But if your child’s teacher seems mean, check it out. Talk with other parents and see what they think.
Dealing with a mean teacher: First steps
If you think the situation is bad enough that you want to make an issue of it, then you need to talk first with the teacher herself. Do her the courtesy of letting her know that your child feels badly in her class. And the approach to take is just that: my child feels sad and picked on; why would that be?
So ask for a face-to-face conversation. Don’t try to do this over the phone or, worse, by email. You both need to see each other’s faces and body language. Describe your child’s feelings and the most-recent incident that he’s shared with you. Then be quiet. Let the teacher talk.
What she’s telling you is information, not criticism. Listen and learn, about her but also about your child. You may discover that she’s frustrated by your child’s behavior and he needs to shape up. Or you may pick up cues that she’s in over her head with this class. Take notes. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand. But don’t be defensive or confrontational. Be careful not to raise your voice.
Maybe this conversation will set things straight and the teacher will understand better how your child feels and you will understand better what’s going on in the class. You and she can agree to touch base in a couple weeks and see how things are going. You end the visit on a note of agreement. The next day you send her a thank you email and include a summary of what you’ve decided to do. Things have gone well.
Or maybe not…
Dealing with a mean teacher: What to do when first steps fail
Maybe you come away from your meeting with your child’s teacher convinced that she is indeed a meanie and your child needs some help. The next step is to take the problem to the principal. Call and request a face-to-face meeting with her.
At this meeting, you will need data. The principal isn’t so familiar with the class or your child as his teacher is. So gather data that demonstrate that the teacher is being mean and not just being strict. Remember that you are speaking only for your child here, so the examples your gather of the teacher’s mean behavior shouldn’t include examples of what’s happened to other kids in the class. What makes you and your child think the teacher is mean? How can you demonstrate that your child is not the difficult one? Stick to the facts and don’t exaggerate.
Take your notes with you, so you don’t forget anything you want to say. Expect that the teacher herself may be at your meeting with the principal. Know what you want to get out of the conversation and be reasonable (getting the teacher fired is not reasonable, but moving your child to another classroom is). As before, listen more than you talk and stay in control of your emotions.
Everyone hopes that this meeting goes well: you do but so also do the teacher and the principal. If you are satisfied, then fine. Send a thank you email to the principal and teacher next day that summarizes what you’ve all agreed to do. Agree to meet in a couple weeks to review the situation. But if things don’t do smoothly, you still have some options.
What to do when nothing is working
If you are convinced that the situation for your child is serious but you haven’t made any progress in talking with your child’s teacher or the principal, you still have three options.
- You can take your complaint one step higher in a letter to the school board. Now you may need not only your own data but data from other parents, demonstrating that the problem is not just a problem for your own child. Obviously, this takes time – maybe more time than is left in the school year. You might take this step only if you feel this teacher is so unbalanced or unprofessional that she will be a danger to future classes too.
- You can withdraw your child and enroll him somewhere else. But imagine first all the difficulties this might raise: private school tuition, transportation to and from school each day, loss of your child’s school friends, and maybe academic issues resulting from your child’s need to adjust to a new curriculum. Like going to the school board, switching schools is a drastic step that you should consider only if you feel the situation is so serious you can’t let things go.
- You can let things go. Living for nine months with a mean teacher might be better than the alternatives. It can even be a good lesson in learning to manage adversity and handle difficult people. Especially if your child is older and otherwise pretty well-adjusted, just letting things play out might be a reasonable solution. Support your child as best you can through this, and help him to hone his people skills and see if he can find this teacher’s good side.
Finding a teacher’s good side isn’t something any child should have to do. We all want our kids’ teachers to be paragons of virtue. But teachers are human being too. Your job as a caring human being yourself is to try to work things out agreeably.
Best wishes with that.