How Parents Can Deal With Difficult Teachers (From a Teacher)

I think that most parent-teacher interactions are positive. Teachers generally care about students, parents generally care about students, and when there is a misunderstanding or concern, it can usually be sorted out with a little communication.

But just like the world has many kinds of people, so, too, are there many kinds of teachers. And yes, that includes a few teachers who can be difficult to deal with, and for any number of reasons.

I know. I’m a teacher, and there have been rare occasions when even I get irritated with a select few of my colleagues. I’m also a parent, so I understand the desire to have my children in a safe, effective classroom.

Now, before we continue, a disclaimer: this post is about tools, not guarantees. Every person and situation is unique, and what works in one situation might not apply to another.

And, obviously, if the situation involves anything inappropriate or criminal, you should report it to the authorities immediately.

With that said, here are some things to consider:

1. Remember that teachers are human.

I remember many years ago having a parent express frustration at how I’d interacted with her daughter. What the parent didn’t know is that my own parents were going through a divorce at the time, which had been affecting my patience level. (Fortunately, things got better.)

Teachers are like anyone else. That means their lives have context like the rest of us, and they can hurt just like the rest of us. They may have personal or professional challenges that you don’t know about, and while that doesn’t necessarily excuse a teacher who is being difficult in some way, it does explain why some teachers can be more difficult to deal with.

That makes the little things like kindness and politeness all the more important. If a teacher is ready to raise their guard, kindness can help pre-emptively reduce any potential conflict in the conversation and better help you, the parent, get the information and help that you’re seeking.

2. If appropriate, ask the teacher what they think.

If the issue involves a situation with your child, one of the best things you can do is to ask the teacher for his or her insights. This does two things: 1) it lets you get the teacher’s take on what’s going on and 2) it gives the teacher some goodwill by communicating that you are interested in the teacher’s opinion.

The first is important because it’s always possible there are details or circumstances you don’t know about yet. The second is also important because showing the teacher that you value his or her opinion makes it more likely that the teacher will listen to you in turn.

3. Request, don’t demand.

It’s true that teachers work for parents, but it’s also true that we all respond better to requests than threats. If at all possible, ask it as a question. You might even start by asking what the teacher thinks is best (see above), then asking the teacher to consider your take on it.

It’s not a guarantee, but asking makes the teacher feel like they have a choice, which makes them more likely to choose something you want, rather than them bucking at a demand they don’t want.

4. Be purposeful about how you move up the food chain.

For some parents, there is a temptation to want to bypass the teacher and go higher, especially if a teacher has a poor reputation. “I can get things done faster,” you might think. And, yes, you could go straight to the top … but there are some reasons not to. At least, not right away.

For example, if you try to strong arm a teacher by going straight to the principal, you might win the battle but lose the war. In other words, you might get the teacher to give you what you want that time, but now you may wonder if the teacher holds a grudge or is otherwise predisposed against you for the rest of your kid’s time in that class. No one wants to live like that.

Instead, try to stay polite with the teacher and work it out with him or her.

What if that fails? Well, you may want to go lateral. In other words, consider talking to the guidance counselor, who is not a supervisor but is a colleague who might be able to grease the wheels with the teacher. Explain to the counselor what you’ve done and how it has worked out. You might feel tempted to ask the counselor to switch classes—and if the teacher has a terrible reputation that might be worth considering—but if the teacher is not known as a bad teacher you might want to save that for a little while if you can.

Another intermediate option: if the school is large, it may have instructional coaches or other people who might be able to talk to the teacher. Again, these aren’t supervisors, so they may be able to work with the teacher in a less threatening way. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

If that still fails … then leadership is probably the next step. If the school is large, a department chair or supervising assistant principal is probably the person to speak to. If the school is smaller, it may just be the head principal. Either way, make sure you carefully (and in as non-judgmental a way as you can muster) explain to the principal what the situation is and what you’ve done. If you’ve worked your way carefully up the food chain, you’re a lot more likely to get strong support from the principal.

Going to the superintendent or school board is also an option, but I’d recommend saving that for something really serious.

5. Remember that this too shall pass.

When I was in fifth grade, I had to move to a different school in the late fall. My teacher, as part of my exit report card,  gave me negative marks for my behavior in her class. I was baffled, as were my parents; I wasn’t a kid who ever got in trouble, before or after, and the teacher had never said anything that had led me or my parents to think that something was wrong.

For whatever reason, though, something was. And, as a teacher now, I can tell you that, sometimes, personalities just don’t click.Ten teachers with one student can have different reactions. The good news is that, most of the time, eventually the semester or year ends and life goes on. And if a kid is well-supported by family and friends, even a difficult student-teacher relationship most likely won’t have a large long-term impact on a child’s learning.

So what do you think? How have you dealt with difficult teachers in the past?

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