By Samurai Mom
When kids are little, your relationship with their teachers is clear: you’re partners in encouraging your little one to grow throughout the school year. Raising and teaching elementary-age kids is such a big job that it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation. As they grow into teens, though, your part of the equation becomes murkier – should you intervene when your kid struggles? How much is enough? How much is too much?
And in my world, this dilemma is fueled by the fact that I’m a teacher. I have to walk the line between my perspective as an educator and my role as my kid’s advocate. Routine home-school exchanges are fine, but in any conflict between a teacher and my teen, it’s harder. I live on both sides of the parent-teacher relationship.
What should you do if your teen thinks a teacher dislikes him?
- Talk to your teen to understand what’s happening from his perspective.
- Document some specific examples as talking points.
- Meet with the teacher.
- Together, develop a measurable action plan to improve the situation.
- Escalate to the principal if no improvement.
- Use the problem to teach conflict resolution skills to your teen.
There’s a saying offered in my colleagues’ open house presentations every September:
“If you only believe half of what your child tells you about school, we’ll only believe half of what your child tells us about home.”
This quip is often met with a few wry smiles from parents. At face value, it calls the credibility of your teen into question. It’s like saying, “Don’t let your teen play us off each other; we’ve got to stick together for their benefit”. There’s some real value in that request; as in co-parenting, a united front helps set boundaries for teens who are just stretching into independence.
See related: Why is My Teenage Daughter so Mean to Me?
But there’s another side to interpret – the way your teen feels about school in general and about a specific teacher is emotional and about perception. How your teen perceives the situation is important. But it’s only a piece of the total picture. Your job as a parent of a teen is to respect your teen’s feelings, collect some data and decide how serious the problem is.
Here’s the central question: Is the teacher-student relationship that your teen perceives as negative interfering with your child’s progress in school? And if so, what can your teen do differently to improve the situation? What can the teacher do differently to help your kid feel more valued? And the silver lining: What social skills can you teach your teen to help him work through this type of conflict? This will not be the last difficult relationship he will face in his lifetime.
By the way, all of this education-speak doesn’t change the possibility that the teacher may dislike your child. Teachers are people. This was a revelation for me as a starry-eyed first-year teacher in a middle school. I always thought that all teachers were cut from a different cloth – more knowledgeable, more evolved, more patient. And the best ones are. Believe me, those hard-working souls impact the world in ways that can’t be measured. Their influence is handed from person to person, perhaps into infinity. They deserve every ounce of credit and support possible.
But the average Joe or Josephina teacher is human. And all relationships can be tricky, including the ones at school and work. Teachers are trained to be professional in our affect, and even professionally kind. We can be strongly encouraged to develop fair class policies, and treat students with respect and tolerance. But we can’t be forced to like your kid. Yet even if a student and teacher don’t share a good interpersonal chemistry, there are ways to improve the working relationship.
That’s why you have to focus on measurable indicators in the classroom over your teen’s emotion and perception. This will help you decide if your teen might be misinterpreting high expectations and a strict demeanor for personal dislike. In addition, is your teen frustrated with the class content?
Feeling unsuccessful may spark a self-fulfilling prophecy like this one: Teen struggles to complete assignments and begins to avoid the work. Teacher calls him on missing homework with negative attention. Teen begins falling farther and farther behind, hides the panic behind a veil of anger and blaming the teacher.
What can you do?
Explore the Problem
Hear your teen out. Don’t interrupt or offer solutions. Listen. Over a few days or weeks, give him time to communicate a clearer picture of what’s happening in the classroom. It’s typical for a teen to make broad statements. He may need guidance to reflect on what’s really happening that makes him feel that the teacher dislikes him. Focus on active listening and getting some objective information.
Here’s an example of a conversation you can have with your teen:
When your teen says, “Mrs. Smith hates me!”
Use open-ended questions which encourage more specific details:
Calmly ask, “How do you know?” or “What makes you think that?” or “What happened?”
Try mirroring to help your teen feel validated:
“You’re not feeling good about the class” or I can tell that you’re not feeling good about this teacher” or “You sound frustrated about that class.”
Then, stop talking and listen.
Document some specific examples as talking points
Is he being singled out (or ignored) in class discussions? Called out in front of peers? Get some specific details about the number of times it happens over a week, direct quotes of put-downs, sarcasm or other information about the interaction. Emphasize to your teen that the process is to help you understand what is happening with a clear focus in order to improve the situation. It helps no one to paint the teacher as an adversary. In other words, the idea is not to compile a dossier of guilt, but to put together some talking points for a discussion with the teacher.
It’s important that your teen acknowledges the role that he may be playing in the interaction between him and the teacher. Is he paying attention? Participating fully in the lessons? Handing in homework and meeting project deadlines? Treating the teacher with respect? If not, he needs to take responsibility for improving his performance. And that willingness to improve the effort should be communicated to the teacher in CAPS LOCK emphasis. As any teacher will tell you, it’s challenging to develop a positive relationship with a student who disrupts class or doesn’t seem to care about the important work we do with students.
Talk to the teacher
Your next step is to meet with the teacher. This is a sit-down, diplomatic conversation, not a drive-by exchange. Be sure to have your talking points organized and to maintain a calm, solution-oriented approach. Share your concerns and the specific description of events without attacking. The use of I statements is always a good approach, as in, “I’m concerned about Colin’s progress in your class. He seems unhappy…Have you noticed anything in class that he can work on?” You can begin by discussing recent assignments and work up to the feelings and perception piece.
Keep in mind that teaching is a hectic job, and at the middle and high school levels, your teen is one of many that he or she sees in a day.
Also, remember that this teacher:
May not even know that there is a problem at all.
May be frustrated with your teen because of a lack of effort or behaviors in the classroom.
May be defensive and feel unsupported in his or her efforts to reach your teen.
Once you’ve laid out the basic problem as your teen perceives it, stop talking and listen. Take notes, paraphrase and mirror the feedback offered to be sure you really hear the teacher’s take on the situation. The teacher holds information that you don’t have and is a window to your teen’s actions in the classroom. By now you’ve predicted this: the key is in the listening.
Develop an action plan to improve the situation
An action plan develops an agreement to move forward. Some schools encourage the teen to be present at a follow-up meeting. If your teen and the teacher are willing, this could be a positive strategy for both the teacher and teen to begin to repair the relationship together. If your teen can express thoughts and needs in a non-confrontational way, this type of meeting can also be a huge step toward effective self-advocacy.
Some tips for developing an effective action plan include:
- Clearly describe and agree on the scope of the problem.
- Focus on improving learning and the teacher-student relationship going forward.
- List what the teen agrees to improve performance or attitude in class.
- List what the teacher is willing to do to improve the relationship.
- List what you will do to support this effort.
- Setup follow-up meeting to check progress.
- At the follow-up meeting, re-evaluate if future meeting is needed (these can be by phone or in-person)
- Identify if additional help or support is needed (i.e. guidance counselor, administrators, tutor).
- Counselors are trained in facilitation – they can help ease you through any contentious areas of the conversation.
Escalate to the principal if no improvement
If you found you have made little to no progress over a period of time, it may be time to involve an administrator. The best ones will come to the conversation with a neutral point of view and suggest alternative solutions. They can work proactively to overcome any structural or attitudinal resistance with school staff. If it can’t be worked out, a principal may (in extreme cases) consider a schedule change. Escalating the problem up a chain of command can be tricky, though. You can decide if you want to take this next step or focus on helping your teen get the most out of the class in other ways.
The Silver Lining: Conflict Brings a Chance to Develop Real-Life Social Skills
Self-advocacy – We at Parent Samurai believe that teens can – and should – be helped to advocate for themselves. Older teens, especially, need to be shown how to reflect on their own needs in school and in the wider world. and communicate those needs respectfully. A huge part of self-advocacy is accurately perceiving your own actions and making changes to help meet goals.
Tolerance for differences in others – A valuable life lesson for us all is to understand that we have to work with all types of personality styles over a lifetime. Some of the unpleasant relationships will be strictly business. Learning from someone you don’t admire takes more effort, but your teen will encounter other teachers, professors and/or employers that he experiences in a similar way.
Overall, it is well-worth it to work through a problem with a teacher openly and in good faith. It teaches your teen that although conflicts will happen, there are ways to work through them that either improve the situation or give you the strength to persevere in spite of a difficult personality.
See also: Are You a Parent Samurai?