A Year with Mr. Gruff

You just learned the awful truth. Your little Susie will have Ms. Oh-so-strict this year for fourth grade or John has Mr. Gruff for algebra. What should you do?

It happened to me more than once, and I survived. Chances are your child will, too. Mrs. Reed, my fourth-grade teacher, resembled a short, gnarled, weather-beaten tree. Drill sergeants bark; Mrs. Reed growled. I feared the sudden thunderstorm of her wrath when it came to math. We lined up by her desk to have the mistakes in our word problems pointed out. After a growl of frustration from Mrs. Reed and much red ink from her pen, I’d return to my seat, condemned to try again. Math hadn’t been my forte before fourth grade and having Mrs. Reed didn’t change that.

How about a little reassurance here, Pam?

My mother always struck a great balance between advocating for me when necessary and backing up the teacher’s authority. In fourth grade she thought I was learning enough math and not suffering too much, so she didn’t intervene.

The bottom line: don’t overreact and don’t panic if John has a “problematic” teacher. Wait and gather more information while trying to remain unbiased. In time, you may see that the teacher’s strong points outweigh her weaknesses. Depending on your child’s age and personality, this is also a great way to encourage some independence.

Here are some suggestions for a successful year with Ms. Oh-so-strict or Mr. Gruff:

  1. Start the year with an email just to establish a line of communication with the teacher. Don’t complain or even ask questions. Indicate when and how to contact you. Without being threatening, this shows that you intend to be involved in your child’s education.

 

  1. If you still have concerns after a week or two, contact the teacher directly and arrange to discuss the situation face-to-face. Emails discussing problems can be misunderstood without the benefit of eye contact and other cues.

 

  1. At the conference, relax. View the teacher as a partner in helping your child. Get a feel for how Susie is doing in class, then bring up your concern in a non-threatening manner, using “I messages”: I’m concerned because Susie seems afraid to ask questions about her math assignment. I’ve learned that Susie needs to sit near the front of the room near attentive neighbors in order to concentrate.

 

  1. Ask the teacher for her recommendations. Chances are you will come to a resolution without difficulty and leave the meeting with an action plan that will be easy for all parties to live with. For example, if John never seems to understand the specifics of his homework assignment, he’ll write out the details in his assignment book and the teacher will check and initial it. If you object to the book that John’s English class is reading, you and the teacher will work together to find an alternative meeting curriculum guidelines.

 

  1. Discuss the action plan at home and make sure Susie understands what’s expected of her. Email a thank you to the teacher. You can keep friendly tabs on the situation throughout the grading period.

 

  1. If the meeting doesn’t help resolve the situation, you can seek help from another staff member. A guidance counselor could help with relationship issues or even learning strategies. High schools offer peer or volunteer adult tutoring.

 

  1. If possible, avoid going to the school administration. Your protective instincts may tempt you to bring in the “big guns,” but this move may figure into the teacher’s evaluation and create a hostile relationship. In a middle or high school, the department chair may be able to help, or the guidance counselor may be able to arrange a schedule change.

 

  1. Involve the administration when you have exhausted other avenues. Documentation of how you’ve attempted to resolve the problem will be helpful to the administrator.

 

Did you survive a year with Ms. Oh-so-strict or Mr. Gruff? What did the experience teach you?

Do you have any suggestions for dealing with difficult teachers?

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