Teacher Punishes Whole Class

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Question:

I am a parent of a 5th grader. There are 30 students in this classroom and the teacher is having a lot of difficulty controlling them. He has resorted to punishing the whole class because several of the students are "misbehaving". My son has not been the cause of this teacher's frustration but has been the recipient of his wrath. I have written to the teacher to inform him of my disapproval of this method and also have spoken with the principal. I have not yet heard from the teacher. I think that the principal does not want to rock the boat and would rather that the complaint be handled by myself. He has asked me to write a letter to the teacher, which I have. The teacher is very old school and has been around for very long. He is impatient with his very large class (30 students) and has also resorted to saying disrespectful to them (for example comparing them to 2nd graders). My son is suffering and I feel that this environment is not at all conducive to his positive growth and education. What can you do to help me?

 

Answer:

My name is Jody McVittie. I am part of the team that answers questions from the website. I am also a family doc, a parent of three (ages 16, 14, 11) and teach parenting classes as well as classroom management classes for our local school district. As a parent of school age children, I can really understand how you feel. You work hard to teach your children to solve problems and treat others respectfully. You probably understand that the very best way to teach this is to model respect yourself. Then you send your child off to school and he feels disrespected, humiliated and shamed. I've been there. I will be honest with you. There are no easy fixes. But there are things that you can do and think about that may help. When problem solving it is always helpful to look at the problem from as many points of view as possible. If you were the teacher in this situation, what would the problem look like? I suspect that this teacher is feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. He feels like he is doing a good job when he is in control, yet the usual tools he has used are not working. He is resorting to punishment and letting his frustration show. Most of us can relate to that desperate feeling, when as parents, we feel like we don't have any choices. We care, we care a lot, but we feel ineffective. That perspective is important to remember as you try to plan what you are going to do. The question is, what is the most effective way to get this teacher to be more encouraged and have more choices? When the teacher feels better, he will be able to do better (just like children and all of the rest of us.)

I think the very best way to communicate to teachers is to have the student talk to the teacher. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, the real problem here is how your son is being treated. (It is also the most respectful, and offers the most opportunities for real change and encouragement) Really, it is a problem between your son and his teacher. He (your son) can learn how to solve this kind of problem. This is a great time and place to practice. If he has never problem solved with teachers before, it is a wonderful opportunity. As a parent, your role is support. (NOT doing it for him). Even first graders can do this. Some of the support is the preparation. To prepare, let him know that you understand that his feelings have been hurt and that he feels he is not being treated respectfully. Let him know that you will support him in solving the problem, but not do it for him. 

Here are some sample questions to get him going. What is the best way to talk to someone when they make a mistake? How does he (your son) feel when he makes a mistake, and what kinds of things do people say to encourage him so that he can fix the mistake? (Usually kids know that talking to them while they are still feeling bad doesn't help, that being kind helps, that letting the person who made the mistake know that you still like him or her helps, etc.) What kind of language is helpful (being honest and using "I feel ..." statements).

The next step in supporting your son is to talk to him about possible outcomes. What is the worst thing that could happen if he talks kindly and honestly with his teacher (in private!)?. What is the best thing that could happen? Is there anything else that could make the best outcome more likely?
Next ask your son if he would like one of you (not both, it will overwhelm the teacher) to be there...but not say anything. If yes, ask him to make an appointment. If no, remind your son that this kind of talk works best if everyone is calm, and there is little chance of embarrassing the teacher. (It should be done in private) Will the teacher be able to really hear your son? Maybe, maybe not. The more your son can empathize with the teacher (e.g. agree that the class is too loud, agree that the teacher does not have a classroom of kids paying attention etc), the better the chances. But no guarantee. 

I know that you already talked to the principal and the teacher....and that is done. Next time I would save that to be a last resort. It is just more discouraging to teachers to have their boss breathing down their necks and the teacher is likely to dig in and get more upset rather than really be able to hear you. That is not the sign of a bad teacher. It is the sign of a discouraged human being. You cannot undo what you did....maybe some time later you can acknowledge that it might not have been the best approach (we all learn from what we do.)

A few more points:

  1. We all like to have things the best for our kids.... but life is not always like that. In order to be successful adults our children also need to know how to handle adversity. They need to stretch their psychological muscles. No matter what happens as the result of your son's discussion with his teacher, he will learn something. If there is improvement he will feel successful. If there is no improvement he will have an opportunity to experience a challenge and learn how to make the best of it. It is important to remember that this is DIFFERENT than the kind of message we got from our parents. Instead of saying "Hey, be tough, you can handle it" we are saying. "You are right, this is a problem. You have a right to your feelings. You can try to solve this problem. I will support you, but I won=t do it for you. If you can't change the situation, you can make the best of it." What a life skill.
  2. When we don't jump in and try to fix things for our kids, they learn that we have faith in them to handle adversity. They learn they are capable of taking on life. Another important life skill.
  3. Sometimes there are times to step in. Usually children can make it, cope, adapt until the end of the year....but not always. We came very close to pulling one of our children from a class where he was being bullied and the teacher was not able to intervene. We temporized by enlisting the aide of the recess supervisors (when they were watching, our child was safe) and moved our child to a new school the next year. (This was after multiple layers of problem solving that were not successful. The physical and emotional safety to our child was a serious concern). Only you can make the judgment as to whether the situation is really dangerous...but remember to have faith in your child's resiliency too.
  4. Remember that your long term goal is improvement in the classroom, not having the teacher acknowledge he was wrong. And, the most important long term goal is helping your child deal with adversity in a respectful way.
  5. If you go with your son, really really make sure that you can keep quiet. Make sure that you have let go of the fear that this teacher will damage your son. (He won't, your son has compassionate and caring parents, and has the strength to be able to learn and benefit from dealing with difficult situations). Make sure that you can stay calm and not get reactive. Promise yourself that it is something that you and your son will be able to talk about and learn from later. There is another question on the website quite similar to this...so you might go look at that answer too. Your son is lucky to have parents who care as much as you do!

Best wishes,

Jody McVittie, M.D. Certified Positive Discipline Associate.