My third-grader has a teacher who has been on several leaves of absence, has
been bounced around from school to school in our district, screams at the kids
and is disorganized, never sends any papers home and hasn't changed the
bulletin boards since September. Half the class is bored out of their skulls
and the other half are misbehaving. What should I do?
Because of the false belief that teachers have
guaranteed job security and "tenure," most parents and many educators believe
that it is impossible to stop bad classroom behavior by an educator, much less discharge
an incompetent teacher. The process certainly can be expensive, costing well
over twice as much as that teacher's annual salary and benefit value, with all
the appeals and so forth. But all school districts should have policies and
procedures in place for responding to your concerns, and working with you to make
the situation tolerable, or even good again.
The usual response to massive parental complaints is
to move the teacher to a different school and try a different work group, set
of parents and kids, and strategy for improvement. In fact, districts often
engage in "The Dance of the Lemons," moving borderline teachers from school to
school every year, both in an attempt to make their lives so uncomfortable
they'll quit, and also to avoid angry parents who network with parents whose
kids had the teacher the year before from forming a posse and coming to the
principal's office demanding that the teacher be fired.
Whether or not this teacher is involved in a "dance" like
that, here's what you can do:
calm and be kind. Remember, problem teachers have personal problems. This
sounds like someone battling depression. Give the teacher grace, as you would
to anybody suffering from low self-esteem, anxiety, anger and other personal
always talk to the teacher FIRST before you do anything else, to establish a
direct relationship and try to understand. Make it a conversation, not a
confrontation. You wouldn't want anyone talking about you and your job behind
your back, would you? So be professional, and be considerate. Do NOT - repeat -
NOT gossip or gripe to others, at this stage.
the problem as tactfully and yet truthfully as you can. You may be surprised at
the explanation for what appears to be unfair behavior. For example, one little
girl came home sobbing and said that her teacher was "mean" and wouldn't let
kids even take a drink of water from the fountain in the hall. The mother
imagined mass dehydration; however, it turns out the "mean" teacher was dealing
with a few kids who were pretending to be thirsty and spending 'way too much
time in the hall, making a game out of getting out of class, so she had to shut
it down, and had suggested that the students bring a water bottle from home and
keep it at their desks if they got thirsty.
your talk, if things get better, rejoice. If they don't, though, you may have a
year-long problem on your hands that will require effort and finesse.
experience probably won't scar your child for life, so don't act as if it will.
Model good problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. It's important for
children to know how to adapt to peers and authorities who aren't to their
liking. As long as the teacher's behavior hasn't slipped over to abusive or
criminal, your best bet is to try to help your child get along.
you can strategize with your child about how to respond to things the teacher
says and does that aren't pleasant, if you decide to try to advocate within the
district to have that teacher discharged, you shouldn't discuss what you're
doing about it, job-wise, with your child. It's a matter of adult concern.
ask other parents if they notice anything wrong.
and work out a plan to monitor the situation for a time. It's always a good
idea to volunteer in the classroom, and often, a misbehaving teacher will clean
up his or her act when a steady stream of extra eyes and ears come into the
you should quietly obtain your district's teacher evaluation document, which
lists all the expectations for teachers and codifies what is unacceptable.
person could obtain a copy of your state's teacher competency statute, which
should define teacher incompetence and grounds for dismissal and the steps
leading up to that drastic measure. Share this, too.
- All parents should document
things that their children say about what is going on in school, so take
notes and date them and file them away. If
your problem teacher is verbally or emotionally abusing the children, you
need documentation. Usually, reports corroborated by two or more students
that the teacher used profanity or was cruel, and so forth, tape
recordings of a "screamer," and testimonials with dates and direct quotes,
can be attached as "exhibits" that back up your concerns. If the witnesses
are adults, you'll have a stronger case. For example, one teacher once
called the mother of one of her second-graders a "bitch" to another
parent, who reported the slur to the principal. That teacher was
disciplined and the child was moved to the other second-grade room. Many
other school staffers told the mother they were thankful that somebody had
to guts to call that teacher on her coarse and demeaning language.
many incompetent teachers are well aware of their shortcomings and they tend to
be on their best behavior around their bosses, coworkers and parents. Those who
don't write or spell very well also "accidentally on purpose" never send notes
or schoolwork home to try to avoid parental accountability.
for a precipitating, actionable event: the children start bedwetting (this happened
to a child of mine), the teacher makes all the kids in the class hold a tongue
depressor between their teeth for an entire afternoon (this happened to a
relative's child), or there's an incident of outright abuse by the teacher (a
friend's son was slapped hard on the face by his male teacher in front of the
whole class). Then meet as a group immediately with the principal to work out a
solution. It's the old "strike while the iron is hot" idea. If nothing bad ever
happens, then so much the better.
solution would be acceptable? It depends. The solution may be to assign an aide
to the classroom, give the teacher an enforced leave, or, as a last resort, reassign
the teacher to a nonclassroom position and bring in a new teacher. The
disciplinary/dismissal process can proceed then without your children having to
be directly involved.
- Almost always,
though, the so-so teacher will be left in place, and the principal will
most likely make the best changes he or she can, but they'll mostly amount
to minor changes and window dressing for attempted good public relations.
So now parents need to get assertive and creative. A problem teacher
usually knows there's a problem and often will express frustration, but because
of the underlying depression or personal problem, will rarely feel good
about imposed changes, and so they'll usually fail. So you take the
initiative. Suggest that the children take practice tests, get in study
groups, get matched with a study buddy, receive tutoring from older
students before school, parents take turns as in-room volunteers, etc.
Keep the tone positive and professional, and the focus on meeting the
children's learning needs.
teachers fear being undermined and sabotaged more than anything else, so
don't talk about her behind her back, don't go over his head to his boss
until you've talked with him first, and don't come in with stacks of
material on how she SHOULD be doing her job. Instead, ask a lot of
questions to understand her better, affirm the things he does well, phrase
suggestions tactfully, and supplement at home that which the teacher does
- One more note:
if your district refuses to take action, you can check your state's
statutes regarding education. There should be one defining teacher
competence. If you have documentation that can show that this teacher fell
short of that statute, there usually is a complaint process that skirts
your local school district, but takes you right to the State Board of
Education, to resolve your complaint. There should be no cost to you for
Homework: Sometimes, you have to study what
you want, before you even realize that you're not getting it. It's the same way
with evaluating a good teacher vs. one who is unacceptably poor. For a good idea of what a good teacher
is like, see the book, What Great
Teachers Do Differently: 14 Things That Matter Most, by Todd Whitaker, or
review the website of the National Council on Teacher Quality, www.nctq.org