What you should do when your kid has a bad teacher

How to cope when your kid doesn’t like his teacher.

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Caedmon Dunbar was bored to tears by his fourth-grade French-immersion teacher.

“He’d come home and say, ‘I can’t stand it—it’s the same worksheets every day! She just talks at us!’” says his mom, Andrea, who lives in Prince George, BC. Even little things, like the fact that his teacher insisted on keeping the classroom curtains closed, made Caedmon—a nature lover—miserable.

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The teacher, says Dunbar, just didn’t connect with her son. “At parent-teacher conferences, her comments were really generic. She’d say, ‘He’s doing great, he’s a smart boy.’ But then his report cards said very different things. It was like, ‘Is Caedmon actually in your class? Because you don’t seem to know who he is.’”

The final straw came during a bullying incident. “Some kids were hitting Caedmon, and he tried to talk to his teacher about it,” says Andrea, “but he couldn’t get the words out in French, and she said, ‘I can’t understand you,’ and walked away.”

As the year wore on, Caedmon became increasingly frustrated. “He’d cry on school mornings saying he hated it,” recalls Dunbar. “By the end of the year, he didn’t care about his work. Nothing motivated him.”

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When a child and his teacher don’t get along, it can feel frustrating—for both kids and parents. Fortunately, says Katherine Clarke Murray, a fifth-grade teacher in Calgary, most student-teacher clashes are one-off events—an unexpectedly poor grade, say, or being separated from a friend for talking too much—that can be fairly easily resolved with a conversation.

But when student-teacher difficulties are ongoing, they can be the result of a mismatch of interests, personality, or learning or disciplinary styles, says Harriet Petrakos, a school psychologist and professor of education at Concordia University in Montreal. For example, a child who functions well with a lot of structure may flounder with a more casual teacher. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, says Petrakos: Kids benefit from learning to interact with different kinds of people.

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It’s time to take action if your kid’s complaints are persistent; if, like Caedmon, he doesn’t feel safe in his classroom; if he doesn’t want to go to school, or if you notice symptoms of stress (like stomach aches, headaches, trouble sleeping) or mood changes, says Petrakos. The first step is to suss out—as neutrally as possible—your kid’s side of the story. Then, with your child’s permission, make an appointment with the teacher. “Don’t barrel into the classroom right before the bell with a list of grievances,” cautions Clarke Murray. “That’s the best way to put a teacher on the defensive.”

The most productive conversation, says Clarke Murray, is one where you stay calm and position yourself as the teacher’s collaborator. And as tempting as it may be to go directly to the principal, it’s respectful to start with the teacher, say both Clarke Murray and Petrakos. Only if things don’t improve (or get worse) after a couple of conversations should you escalate.

And what if your child and his teacher never get along? While switching classrooms isn’t impossible, says Clarke Murray, it’s typically a last resort when different solutions fail. “Children shouldn’t see a switch as running away from a problem,” says Petrakos. “They need to understand that they can’t simply change classes every time they come up against a challenge.”

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As for Caedmon, when Dunbar talked to his teacher about the bullying incident, she apologized and intervened. And while she never turned into the ideal teacher for Caedmon, says Dunbar, “at least she tried. We’re crossing our fingers for a better fit next year.”

When talking to your kid’s teacher, keep it calm and friendly, says Clarke Murray:

Instead of accusing —“Why are you always yelling at Jenny?”—try collaborating. Say: “I’m concerned because I want Jenny’s school experience to be great. Right now, she’s coming home every day saying that it isn’t. What have you noticed? How can we work together to make things better?”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 2014 issue with the headline “Drama class,” p.60.

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