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What happens if you

get a bad teacher?

How to cope when your child's teacher is out and
out terrible.
by: Carol Lloyd
When I learned my daughter had been placed in Miss
Ws second grade class, I began hearing whispers
around the playground. There were complaints of
strange punishments something called the walk of
shame and of students being yelled at and publicly
humiliated. It was also rumored that she was running a
boat-parts business off her laptop and cell phone during
class time.
What class is Anna in? I asked the mother of my
daughters best friend. Her older daughter had already
graduated from the school so she knew the terrain well.
The other one, she said with a bright smile, not
elaborating. But I knew what she wasnt saying.
Most schools have them: Teachers whose reputations
precede them in the worst possible way. Some such
reputations are wholly unearned. Just as the most
popular teacher is not necessarily the most effective, so
too the cranky school marm may turn out to be an
educational rock star. But other bad raps reflect a sad
reality: There are bad teachers roaming the schools of
America and every year countless kids must endure
their whims.
There are bad doctors and bad garbage collectors, why
should teachers be any different? Still, they occupy a
special place in the occupational world. Lifetime tenure
and a flaccid evaluation process can conspire to keep

terrible teachers in the classroom until retirement. Firing

a tenured teacher is a complicated and expensive
process, involving months and even years of hearings
and appeals, and thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Once they are installed in their classroom, teachers
wield prodigious power over the students they teach.
This vast sphere of influence makes teachers godlike in
the best possible way; it can also translate to
catastrophe for a young childs education.

Yes, I know. To say teaching is challenging is an

understatement. Given a big class full of diverse, often
squirmy, students in an underfunded public school, even
the best teachers are stretched to their limits
intellectually, emotionally, and organizationally. There
are so many ways to fail. As Tolstoy might have said:
Every ineffective teacher is ineffective in her own way.
My daughter survived Miss Ws class, but many of her
classmates didnt fare so well. A boy who was not
allowed to go to the bathroom during class time got so
nervous he ended up peeing in the car after his mother
picked him up, and needed psychotherapy after
reverting to bed-wetting. A girl became math phobic and
required months of private tutoring to get back on track
after Miss W publicly yelled at her to cut out the
nonsense when she handed in an error-strewn math
quiz. Another child, who was wrongly accused of
stealing pencils and made to do the walk of shame,
spent every morning weeping and refusing to go to
school. (For the walk of shame, a child had to walk
around the classroom while other students, egged on by
Miss W, glowered to make her feel bad about her

Since then, Ive heard plenty of nightmare teacher

stories from friends. There was the teacher who
punched a locker within millimeters of a seventh
graders face, while yelling full-throttle. There was the
fourth grade teacher who broke his students into two
instructional groups: the brainiacs and the
numskulls. There was the fifth grade teacher who sent
her difficult students to the hall in the morning, where
they bullied other students for the rest of the day. There
was an OCD kindergarten teacher whose room was
immaculate because he kept the children from doing
anything including the curriculum.
For each of these tales of terrible teaching, no matter
how savvy the parents were, there were no easy
answers and plenty of pitfalls. Regret was a common
theme. Parents prefaced their stories with, I wish Id
done it differently, or, If Id only known. Advice from
educators, parent advocates, straight-from-the-trenches
teachers, and expert pundits produced a smorgasbord of
Bad teacher=good lesson?
Some experts and parents suggest that not only is the
bad teacher experience probably inevitable, its actually
a blessing in disguise.
Tiffany Andrews, coauthor of Sincerely, the Teacher , a
book of advice for parents from a teachers perspective,
recommends that parents use the experience as a
golden opportunity for a student to learn how to
adapt. Mother and parenting writer Loulie Scharf
suggests that its a good chance to teach kids that, you
get what you get and you dont throw a fit.
A less-than-effective teacher may not lay waste to a
childs entire education, but parents who have had more

than one negative experience or a truly nightmarish

teacher may not be willing to look for the silver lining
in the maelstrom of their childs misery.
To broach or not to broach
For many parents, the first question is whether the
chance of upsetting the teacher or administrator is
worth risking the childs standing. I think Im going to
complain anonymously, confided a colleague grappling
with whether or not to confront her sons English
teacher. After she went and
read multiple tales about the teachers vindictiveness,
she made her decision to go incognito and leave a
message at the principals office.
Most experts I spoke to contend that parents shouldnt
shy away from openly raising concerns, but they also
advise planning the approach with all the strategy of a
guerrilla general. First, parents need to make sure they
have the right intelligence.
Take all information from your child with a grain of
salt, says principal Steve Perry, CNN education
correspondent and author of Push Has Come to Shove:
Getting Our Kids the Education They DeserveEven If It
Means Picking a Fight. Kids do some stupid things and
they sometimes blame the teacher, he points out.
Once youve established the basic facts, or at least your
childs version of the facts, set up a meeting to
communicate your concerns, without your child. Its an
adult conversation, Perry says. Children dont belong
in the back and forth.
Tactical triage
Because parents are at a natural disadvantage, Perry
recommends that they plan carefully for potentially

difficult conversations with a teacher or principal.

Schools are like car dealerships, Perry says. When
you go to a car dealership, I dont care how much
research youve done, the car salesman always knows
more than you do. He recommends that parents dress
professionally, and bring someone to referee who has
your best interest at heart. Treat the meeting like a
business meeting: Send an email in advance,
communicate concerns, be precise, solution-oriented,
document everything, and then go up the chain of
Elaine Meyers, a reading specialist and the founder
of READS, recommends first doing a close analysis of
the teacher, and figuring out exactly how hes
Less-than-desirable teachers fall into three categories:
the fluffy, the boring, and the mean, and each requires a
distinct response, Meyers says. Boring teachers, she
says, read from the curriculum script and are just
deadly. Children with a boring or unchallenging
teacher need parents to fill in the learning gaps with
extra-curricular activities, tutoring whatever it takes
to help their child get excited about learning.
Fluffy teachers, Meyers says, show movies or tell
personal anecdotes when they should be teaching. For
this kind of teacher, begin by asking to see the
curriculum and look up the Common Core Standards to
find out what your child should be learning. This will
send a message that you are informed. Meyers
acknowledges that such situations may also require
parents to fill in the learning gap outside of class. Even
homework duties may fall to the parent: If you have a
teacher who doesnt mark the homework, you should be

the editor, check homework, AND be the rewarder,

offering stars or praise.
If your child feels the teacher has been mean or
worse? Meyers recommends asking the child if he would
like you to talk to the teacher. If the kid says no,
validate that youre upset and that youre proud of him
for talking, she advises. And tell him if this happens
again, you want him to tell you about it. If it does
happen again, make an appointment to talk to the
teacher or principal.
Fight or flight?
In these difficult conversations psychologist Jennifer
Powell-Lunder, the founder of ,
suggests presenting concerns as issues that require
clarification, as in, Mrs. Smith, I need your help. I am a
little confused about something. Johnny said , but I
think he may have misunderstood. Can you explain it to
me? This gives the teacher an out for an inappropriate
comment; it also implies that her approach to your child
is unacceptable.
For an intransigent problem, Richard Horowitz, former
superintendant and author of Family Centered
Parenting, recommends joining forces with other
parents: If no progress is made, I strongly suggest
contacting other parents in that class and going to the
principal as a united front. There is strength in
In the end, all experts agree on one thing: If your child
has been bullied, threatened, or abused, you should
take action. You need to say, I want my child taken out
of the classroom, Meyers says. It will not reflect
poorly on the child or the parent. Your child will be
welcomed into the next room. Ive done it myself.

In the end, your job is to protect your child, Steve

Perry agrees. If a teacher does something so
unprofessional, theyve jeopardized their status and all
bets are off.