Dealing with a Problem Teacher
Sooner or later, you will encounter a teacher who is inflexible and unwilling to make changes or adjustments to benefit your child. Even if modifications are required under a written IEP or 504 plan, the teacher may be unwilling to implement them, resulting in conflicts when you or your child attempt to enforce the rules. There may simply be a personality conflict; for example, a teacher who places a high value on maintaining an orderly classroom may have little patience for a child whose learning difference leaves him prone to a messy desk, lost paperwork, and constantly dropped pencils.
You may become aware of the problems from your child's complaints, or from your own contact with the teacher. The first thing you should do is to try to get a better sense of what is going on. If possible, volunteer to help out in class or at the school so that you will have an opportunity to observe how the teacher generally interacts with students. Seek out parents of your child's classmates or parents who have experience with the teacher from previous years to learn whether other students have similar problems. Talk to other school staff members, such as a guidance counselor or the school principal, to see whether they can offer any insights.
Handling a Personality Conflict
If the problem seems to be unique to your child, keep in mind that your child's own behavior and response to the teacher may be part of the problem. There are many unintended behavioral aspects of dyslexia that teachers may wrongly attribute to insolence or disobedience. Behavior quirks such as classroom fidgeting, a speech impediment, or regularly forgetting to turn in homework may frustrate the teacher.
In some cases, you may be able to help by recognizing these issues and providing the teacher with information showing how the problems relate to your child's learning disability, as well as suggesting strategies to help address the issues. If the teacher won't listen to you, try to find someone else who may be able to approach the teacher in a nonthreatening manner. This may be another teacher in the school who knows and likes your child and who can offer the problem teacher some helpful hints.
Your child may not be aware of how his own behavior is affecting the teacher. If the teacher is not willing to change expectations, you cannot change your child, but you can help your child to develop greater insight. Talk to some of your child's classmates about specific incidents that your child has mentioned; the kids may be able to fill you in on missing details. Even if your child cannot change behavior that stems from his learning difference, it may help him to better understand why it is upsetting the teacher.
If you cannot resolve problems with the teacher, consider whether you and your child can live with the situation. If so, you can help your child develop better coping skills and show your child that you support him and sympathize with his predicament. Sometimes your child simply needs a sympathetic ear. If your child generally has a good attendance record, consider allowing him a few “mental health” days — days when you let him stay home from school and plan some fun activities together.
The Verbally Abusive Teacher
If your child seems very upset, or actively tries to avoid school, complaining of stomachaches or headaches or crying on the way to school, it may be a sign that the teacher is behaving in a verbally abusive manner. Although most teachers care about their students and treat them with respect, a few use emotional abuse as a means of exerting control. An abusive teacher may repeatedly threaten to tell parents of misbehavior or unsatisfactory work, reject your child or ridicule his work, allow other children to tease or harass your child, label your child as “dumb” or “stupid,” or provide a continuous experience of failure by insisting that your child complete tasks that are beyond his capacity to fulfill.
The most common and pervasive effect of verbal abuse is negative self-image. Your child may say things like, “I'm stupid,” or, “Nobody likes me.” Or he may simply seem withdrawn, sullen, or depressed. The National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse defines emotional abuse as a pattern of behavior that attacks a child's sense of self-worth.
If you have reason to believe that the teacher is behaving in a verbally abusive manner toward your child, then you may simply need to find a way to get your child away from the teacher. These problems could arise with any child, but a child with learning differences is particularly vulnerable to suffering emotional damage from a teacher who treats her harshly. In some cases, you may be able to bolster your child's sense of self-worth with outside activities; perhaps help foster a positive relationship with another adult authority figure such as an athletic coach.
Don't be afraid to ask the school principal to intervene. If other parents have witnessed your child being mistreated, ask if they will write a letter for you to help document it — that way, it won't simply be your word against the teacher's. The principal may be able to arrange to transfer your child to another classroom for at least part of the school day. If not — or if the principal is not helpful or supportive — you may need to consider homeschooling for the remainder of the year or transferring your child to another school.
If it is not possible to get your child away from the teacher, try to arrange counseling for your child. There are many charitable organizations and agencies that can arrange free or low-cost counseling if you cannot afford to pay for a therapist. It is not your child's fault that he is subject to abuse; counseling can help build his self-esteem and develop better coping strategies. A therapist who understands the effects of emotional abuse on children will be able to help your child recognize what is happening and help him overcome some of the ill effects.
Fortunately, you will find that situations like this are rare. Although many teachers are far from perfect, most are willing to work with you if you treat them with respect and show a willingness to understand their needs and to compromise. It is far more common for problems to arise from honest misunderstandings than from ill intent. While you and your child may continue to feel frustrated, you usually can work toward improvements that will at least make the classroom tolerable for the remainder of the school year.