Navigating Teacher-Student Relationships
Long before the first day of school, many kids dream of a bright, busy classroom helmed by a warm, supportive teacher. Sadly, the reality of school isn’t always so rosy, especially when a child doesn’t click with an instructor.
When a child dislikes a teacher — or feels disliked by one — school becomes a daily struggle. Just ask Constance Zimmer of Sanford. Her stepson, Harrison, now a happy fourth-grader, got off on the wrong foot in first grade. “He felt picked on and singled out,” she recalls. “He began to act out in class and refused to participate in projects and assignments.”
Fortunately, teacher-student traumas are often fixable. Here are some ways to smooth the bumps for a better school year.
0-5 Years: Slow and steady
Longtime early childhood educator and co-author of “Monday Morning Leadership” Evelyn Addis warns parents against jumping the gun and hastily switching classes or schools when a preschooler appears to dislike a teacher,. When a child begins preschool, he may be responding negatively to the overwhelming experience of school rather than a specific teacher.
“Allow a period of adjustment for your child in any new classroom setting,” Addis says. “It takes time for classes to come together as a group.”
Most schools welcome parents to observe a child’s classroom in action, particularly when a concern arises. But keep in mind: A short classroom observation doesn’t present a true picture of an entire instructional day, and a parent’s presence can alter a child’s behavior.
If complaints about the teacher persist, document your concerns and set up a conference with the teacher. Brainstorm a plan to address problem areas, along with a plan for daily or weekly communication to monitor the situation, Addis advises.
6-10 Years: Detective duty
When an elementary student complains about a super-strict teacher, don’t impulsively jump to calling the principal or filing a complaint, says child and adolescent psychologist Kristen Wynns, founder of Wynns Family Psychology in Cary. Instead, go into detective mode: Gather information about the conflict in a log. After a few weeks of documenting the problem, request a meeting with the teacher to talk about a solution before you consider alternative options like changing teachers.
Sometimes, there’s more to the “mean teacher” situation than meets the eye. Zimmer’s stepson, Harrison, felt targeted by his teacher, but it turned out that he had undiagnosed attention deficit disorder. “Once the problem was treated, he made progress in leaps and bounds, and realized that it wasn’t a matter of the teacher not liking him, but his own perceptions about his lack of progress in school,” Zimmer says.
11-18 Years: Obstacle course
Most teens will run into a teacher conflict at some point. “Any parent knows if you go to school long enough, it’s inevitable you’ll have that ‘really mean’ or demanding teacher,” Wynns says. Though those experiences aren’t always fun, they can teach valuable lessons about dealing with difficult people, she notes.
After ensuring that the class in question isn’t too easy or too advanced for the teen’s academic abilities, Wynns advises parents to avoid automatically “rescuing” teens who find themselves in a tough spot with a teacher. When parents encourage teens to continue in the class instead of granting them the easy way out (like dropping the course), it conveys a strong message about the parent’s confidence in the teen, Wynns says. Teenagers who see that a parent believes they can handle a tricky situation will often rise to the occasion.
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published freelance writer and mom of two.