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Teacher Trouble


Q. 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:


         Stay 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 problems.


         Always, 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.


         Explain 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.


         After 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.


         This 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.


         While 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.


         Discreetly ask other parents if they notice anything wrong.


         Meet 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 classroom.


         One of you should quietly obtain your district's teacher evaluation document, which lists all the expectations for teachers and codifies what is unacceptable. Share this.


         Another 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.


         However, 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.


         Wait 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.


         What 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.


  • Problem 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 poorly.


  • 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 doing this.



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,


By Susan Darst Williams Parental Involvement 17 2008




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