Mr Tomahawk is so grumpy!” “Oh God, I’ve got Mrs Badbreath for English!” “Ms Earhair hates me and always picks on me!” Sound familiar? It can be stressful for everyone involved if your child is having difficulties with a teacher. So when do you need to worry? When do you need to intervene? When do you need to step back?
1) If your child is not being presented with opportunities to learn, then they probably have a bad bad teacher and you need to worry and intervene.
2) If your child doesn’t like the way learning opportunities are being presented then you probably have a case of conflicting learning styles or an old-fashioned personality clash. In this case you may need to take a step back and focus on helping your child develop the skills required to deal with the situation themselves.
Bad teaching is a serious issue. It is not something that should be accepted or explained as ‘just one of those things’. I believe schools really do want to know if a teacher is not effective in the classroom. In fact, if a school has a bad teacher on staff they probably already know it and are working with the teacher to address the issue. Objective feedback provided by parents can give the school more information to present to the teacher to assist them to improve their performance. If a teacher is resistant to this feedback and assistance, then regular parental feedback can help speed along ‘due process’ to remove them from the classroom.
However contacting a school about an incompetent teacher is a complicated and sensitive matter and needs to be approached in a constructive and discrete manner. This warrants a whole post in itself and so it won’t be the focus of this post. Instead this post will focus on the second, more common scenario. What should you do if your child has a clash of personality with a teacher? The answer is almost too obvious.
The key lies in your child developing a positive personal relationship with the teacher. I know that sounds very simplistic, but please stick with me. I’ll outline five practical steps you can take to help your child improve their relationship with their teacher.
1. Reflect on your own attitude towards the teacher involved.
I’ll be brave and start with the one that may make you bristle. The first step is to reflect on your own attitude towards the teacher in question. Have you had negative interactions with the teacher in the past? Did the teacher have issues with an older sibling? Has your child heard any discussions you have had with other parents about which teacher you hope your child does or doesn’t get? Have you made any negative comments about a teacher’s style or personality? This is particularly important to consider if we are talking about younger students as they are quite impressionable and ready to accept their parent’s view of the world.
Young children are generally quite positive and expect the best of people until proven otherwise. Sure, they will talk about the teacher that yells a lot or label another teacher as ‘grumpy’, but thankfully most enter the classroom with an overriding belief that things will be okay. If your child is in the early primary years and they are entering the first day of class with a negative mindset you may need to ask why and check that it isn’t a reflection of your own attitude.
You don’t have to like the teacher; it’s not you sitting in the classroom. If you think you may have displayed a negative attitude toward the teacher try to keep your personal opinion private and start having more positive conversations. For example, try asking ‘Did you have fun with Mr Nod today” rather than “Was Mr Nod in a bad mood again today?’
2. Help your child to see their teacher as a real person and help the teacher to see your child as you do.
Young children tend to establish more positive relationships with their teacher. Why? Their default position is to see the teacher as a friend and ally. They tell the teacher about their weekend, excitedly share what they got for their birthday and divulge far too much information about the flatulence habits of their dog and grandpa. They also show genuine interest in their teacher’s life by talking and asking questions, often asking lots and lots of questions! But somewhere among this talking and listening a personal relationship is created and it is very hard not to care about a student who cares about you!
My most enjoyable and productive classes have been those filled with students that I have got to know over a period of time outside of the classroom. This may be as their netball coach, leader on camp or through involvement in other extra-curricular activities. If you know each other as real people you establish common interests and you can empathise with each other’s feelings and emotions. From here, kindness and respect follows. It is a wonderful part of teaching that you can then establish a lovely understanding of working hard for each other and not wanting to let each other down.
If you have a younger child, you can try to role model these types of positive interactions with the teacher. Start with really simple things; at the school pick up wish the teacher a good weekend or enquire about how their new puppy has settled in. Find and emphasise the positives “Mrs Crabapple wrote a lovely comment in your journal today” rather than pointing out the negatives “She didn’t write in your journal again!”
3. Attend Parent Teacher Interviews.
Attending parent teacher interviews will help facilitate productive conversations between yourself, your child and the teacher. This is a place where issues be raised and dealt with while also eliminating the element of ‘he said, she said’. It helps you to become visible to the teacher and you will be in the back of their mind when they interact with your child. If you are a reasonable and loving parent this is a good thing and will help shape the teacher’s interactions accordingly.
You can also aim to be the mediator and help establish common ground. Try to focus on what behaviours can start rather than what behaviours need to stop. For example “If you start sitting up the front and start working straight away then Mr Top can start to give you more feedback on your work” rather than "If your stop talking then Mr Top can stop giving you detentions”. The first conversation is less confronting and more positive and motivating for both parties.
This is also the place to discuss your child’s learning style and try to find ways for your child’s learning preferences to be addressed in class.
4. Help your child break unhelpful patterns of behaviour
Most difficulties between students and teachers begin with a small issue and then due to repeated patterns of behaviour from both the teacher and student, the issue escalates and becomes disproportionate to the initial issue.
Consider the negative patterns of behaviour in this scenario: As the student and teacher enter the room the self-talk is all negative ‘Here we go again,’ ‘Argh, not him again’ and ‘I hate this class’. The teacher avoids eye contact to miss the inevitable eye roll and the student takes a seat way up the back. The student continues to avoid eye contact at all costs and monosyllable answers are given until the teacher gives in and stops asking questions. The teacher stops roaming that part of the classroom (wrongly) thinking ‘it’s better to focus my attention and time on those students who appreciate it’. With every class it gets worse and worse. It takes one or both parties to commit to breaking this pattern in order for the relationship to work again.
It is really easy for a student to signal improved intentions to the teacher.
Day one: As you enter the classroom, find eye contact with the teacher
Day Two: Find eye contact and smile
Day Three: Find eye contact, smile and say ‘hi’
Day Four: Find eye contact, smile, say ‘hi’ and initiate a conversation “I completed my homework last night miss”.
By doing this alone, things will have improved by the end of the week.
Students can also signal their good intentions by sitting closer to the front, paying attention, demonstrating active listening skills and laughing at a teacher’s feeble attempt at humour! The teacher will start smiling back, return eye contact and will start to look for opportunities to reinforce this new positive behaviour. In a short period of time the pattern of negative behaviour starts to be broken. But, I hear you ask, they are the child, shouldn’t the adult initiate this?
5. Help your child accept what they cannot change
Some people are just not nice or friendly or happy with their life and unfortunately some of these people choose to become teachers. Will I be happy if my boys are taught by teachers like this? No. Would I prefer that their teachers were all friendly, positive, happy and engaging? Absolutely. Would these people be better teachers if they had a better attitude? Definitely. But would I approach the school and ask them to change their teacher? No, and here's why.
Although these people will never be the most effective teachers, they can still provide opportunities for my boys to learn if they choose to do so. They will also be learning a lesson in tolerance, acceptance and taking some responsibility for their learning. We have all worked with people we don’t like, played with team mates that bored us or dealt with a boss with a conflicting management style and yet we still got our work done. We have to learn strategies for dealing with unkind, boring or mean people in a respectful manner. We have to learn that sometimes other people’s behaviour is a reflection of their own issues and not a reflection on ourselves.
So when I first considered writing this post, my first teacher instinct was to give one line of advice, ‘tell them to suck it up, the teacher probably doesn't like them either!' Hopefully I moved beyond that and have instead given some useful tips to ensure that your child doesn’t fall behind academically because of a personality clash. Your child's education is far too important for that to happen.
Now how do I block comments so all of my dissatisfied students can't comment about how much they dislike me...?