Taking On the Teacher

My eight year old daughter is a fairly good student. She receives mostly “A’s” for her grades and she has always had a lot of respect for her past teachers. Lately she has been complaining to me about the punishment strategies of the teacher at her new school. For two months she has been denied certain privileges (such as art class or extra homework) because of the behaviour of a few students in her class. Her teacher punishes the entire class for the actions of a few students. While I do not see this as a problem on a limited basis, I feel that maybe after two months of this, the teacher ought to take different action. My daughter is getting discouraged. She is starting to feel negatively toward her new school and her teacher because of it. After hearing her complain about it for a couple of months now, I am starting not to blame her. Am I wrong?

I decided to answer this question because a lot of parents have trouble deciding whether or how to intervene in the school situation. Teachers today are often overloaded with large classes and special needs students who require extra attention mixed in with all the regular children. Many don’t have job security, as funding cuts jeopardize the jobs of those who don’t have seniority. So it’s important that parents have empathy for the teachers who are trying to cope with all these factors. At the same time, our children spend six hours a day with these people, so it’s important that we make sure the learning environment is a safe one for our children. A bad connection with a teacher can seriously affect the way a child feels about learning and about herself.

Nobody likes to “make waves” with a teacher. When I first held my parenting course in a junior high school, school representatives decided to make a speech about etiquette at the start of the course, including little things like “Don’t run in the halls” and “Be sure to clean up your garbage.” I watched in awe as over 100 adults suddenly turned into sullen adolescents. The conversation over coffee was much less animated than it had been in another location. School frightens us, because we were children there, and were in the power of the people in authority.

However, advocacy for our children in the school situation is sometimes necessary. In the above situation, the girl is being punished for other children’s behaviour. This might be a useful behaviour management technique in a very small group who was tightly bonded, as the group would then rein in the members who got the others in trouble. But it’s disastrous in a typical classroom, in which the acting-out students don’t respect those who want to get their work done. Consequences must be individualized. The focus also needs to be on encouraging the students and getting them interested in their work . Assigning extra homework as a punishment has exactly the opposite effect it makes students dislike work. The fact that your daughter, who has previously liked school, done well, and respected teachers, is becoming increasingly upset points to a serious problem.

And your daughter, at only eight, is far too young to take on the teacher herself about this situation. My daughter came out of grade one believing she was a behaviour problem. She had a new teacher who didn’t understand that six-year-olds need to move around and can’t sit still all day. Fortunately, the teacher was on probation and the teacher failed the year. But not before my daughter lost considerable self-esteem. One of my sons had a grade one teacher whom everyone praised for his ways of encouraging class participation. Unfortunately, my son was very shy, and didn’t like to speak up unless he was absolutely sure of himself. And the classroom was French immersion, so he hardly ever spoke in class. He came out of that year believing himself to be stupid, which was far from the case. Fortunately, positive grade two teachers turned these situations around.

So you need to intervene. Some teachers respond positively to a parent giving them feedback about inappropriate disciplinary methods; others don’t. If you can, get the “lay of the land” first by speaking with other parents, e.g. parents with older children who have finished being in this teacher’s class. They may give you valuable information about how receptive the teacher is. Another excellent resource is the school counsellor, if there is one. Although school counsellors are not able to speak about teachers’ inadequacies directly, they are able to tell you whether or not a particular strategy might be effective, and they are also able to intervene themselves in the classroom if necessary.

When you have decided to intervene, practise with a friend how you will speak to the teacher, so that you don’t just come across angry and lacking in empathy. Make sure that you are able to state the problem clearly. For example : “I’m concerned because my daughter, who used to love school, is becoming increasingly discouraged because she is frequently losing privileges because of the behaviour of other students. She feels that her hard work and respectful behaviour make no difference to how she is treated. I would like to ask you to please stop taking privileges from the whole class because a few students misbehave.” Then listen to what the teacher has to say, and perhaps suggest some alternative methods of dealing with the problems if she appears open. Teachers are vulnerable human beings too, and if you speak clearly, respectfully, and also with some authority, she will probably take what you say seriously.

What if she doesn’t? Children are going to encounter some disappointments and frustrations, and we can’t protect them from all difficult situations. Assess whether this situation is one which your daughter can master. If you think she can, you can empathize with her feelings, help her recognize that teachers are not always right but they need to be respected, and help her learn how to deal with difficult people in authority. You can make up for the privileges she misses at school by giving her extra ones at home. If you think, however, that the situation is too difficult and discouraging for your daughter, then you need to go over the teacher’s head to the principal, and insist that either the teacher be told to handle things differently or your daughter be removed from this classroom.

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