Dealing With A Difficult Teacher
by Lisa Medoff
Dear Dr. Medoff,
My daughter is a freshman in high school. She is having a lot of trouble with her math teacher. She thinks the teacher is mean and unfair to my daughter and her friends. She complains about this teacher all the time, and doesn’t want to do her homework or study in this class. What should I do? From, Cori
It can be very painful to watch your daughter go through any experience such as this one. You are probably having a hard time imagining why anyone would dislike your daughter. Your mother’s instinct most likely directs you to swoop in to protect your daughter from anyone who would treat her poorly. However, before you immediately step in to solve the problem, think about what you would like your daughter to learn from this experience. Would you like her to learn that she should automatically run to her mother to fix what is wrong? Or would you like her to get practice dealing with people that are difficult so that she can handle similar situations in the future?
Unfortunately, this teacher is not the last unfair or mean person that your child will have to deal with in her life. If you can teach her how to handle people like this teacher, you will be giving her an invaluable lesson that will help her in both personal and professional relationships. Here are the steps that you can take to help your daughter negotiate this situation:
- First, get your daughter to articulate exactly why she thinks the teacher is mean and unfair. Get her to list specific incidents that have happened. This exercise will not only help your daughter clarify her own thoughts and feelings, but it will also help you understand exactly what is going on in the classroom.
- Make sure that your daughter sees that you understand how she feels. Give her a chance to talk without judging her. Respond only with statements such as, “That is frustrating,” and “I can see how that makes you feel bad.” However, once she has finished talking, try to get her to see the situation from the teacher’s perspective. Is this teacher just stricter than other teachers that she has had? Is it at all possible that your daughter and her friends are doing anything that bothers the teacher? How could your daughter change her behavior to make the teacher respond differently?
- Talk to your daughter about how sometimes people are just put in situations where they are treated unfairly, and they have to learn how to deal with them. Unfortunately, the teacher has power over her right now, so she needs to figure out how to get what she needs (such as learning the math and passing the class) within this difficult situation. How does she think she could get what she needs in this class? Help her brainstorm ideas.
- Let your daughter express her feelings, but do not let her dwell on them. Constantly repeating that she hates the teacher will not get her homework done or help her learn the concepts. Let her vent for a few minutes, and then push her to just complete the homework and move on. Challenge your daughter to excel in the class by doing extra studying so she can prove to the teacher that the teacher’s perception of her is wrong.
- Urge your daughter to take action for herself to handle her problem. The first step should be talking to the teacher. She can email the teacher or catch her before class to ask for a time to meet. Practice with your daughter exactly what she will say to the teacher so she is well prepared. Remind her how important it is to be respectful to the teacher. She should tell that teacher that she is concerned about her grade in the class and wants to improve. What advice can the teacher offer? After the meeting, talk to your daughter about the suggestions the teacher made. Check in with her on a daily basis to see if she is following through on the suggestions. See if the teacher’s behavior (and your daughter’s attitude about the teacher) changes after a few weeks.
- If your daughter has talked to the teacher and has sincerely tried to change her behavior, but the situation has not improved after a few weeks, it is time to talk to the teacher yourself. Approach the teacher in the same way that you have encouraged your daughter to do. Be respectful and ask for help. Tell the teacher what your daughter’s experience has been and ask if there is anything you can do to help your daughter succeed in her class. It is okay to tell the teacher that your child feels like she is being treated poorly, but do not accuse the teacher of unfair treatment. Stay calm and acknowledge your daughter’s responsibility to act appropriately in class.
- If you have tried all of the above steps, and you feel that nothing has changed, then it is time to go to the administration. Again, stay calm, and let them know all of the things that you have tried. Ask what your options are at this point and decide with your daughter on the best course of action.
- If, at any time, you truly feel that your daughter is in a hostile environment that could damage her emotionally or academically, then you need to make sure that she is put in another math class immediately.
Lisa Medoff, Ph.D holds a B.A. in psychology, a master's degree in school counseling, and a Ph.D. in child and adolescent development. Although she’s worked with all types of children, for the past eight years, she has worked with students with special needs, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, depression and anxiety. She has taught courses in psychology and child/adolescent development at Stanford University, Santa Clara University, San Jose State University, and DeAnza College. She currently works as a resilience consultant for the non-profit Cleo Eulau Center, helping teachers at a low-performing elementary school understand issues of connectedness, special needs, and cultural sensitivity in order to build resilience in their students.