When to switch your child’s teacher

A great teacher can change a kid’s life. But what do you do if personalities clash?

Helen Marshall’s son Scott has Asperger’s syndrome and can be, as Marshall puts it, “a little quirky.” His grade one teacher had no patience with him. Marshall says: “If she asked him a question and he didn’t answer, she’d send him to the principal’s office.”

Not meeting students’ special needs

Marshall goes on: “He’s not good at transitioning from one activity to another, so I talked to her about giving him a five-minute warning. But she wouldn’t do it, and he’d get upset.” The principal would simply call Marshall and have her take Scott home.

As the winter break approached, Scott came to his mom crying. “He told me he didn’t want to go back to school, and could he just get a job at McDonald’s instead?” recalls Marshall.

Since the teacher had already told the principal she didn’t want Scott in her class, having him moved was simple. The new teacher was calmer and kinder, but Marshall still felt Scott wasn’t getting what he needed. The family had been considering moving homes, so Marshall did some research into schools and principals to make sure they moved into the right school district. In the fall, Scott started grade two at a new school with “a teacher who treated him with dignity and respect,” says Marshall. “He came home from school one day and said, ‘I think my teacher really likes me.’” The connection with his new teacher, Marshall says, “changed Scott’s life and our whole family. I don’t think he’d be the kid he is now without that teacher.” In fact, she’s delighted with the entire school’s supportive approach.

As a parent, you know your child’s teacher is hugely important, especially in early grades when kids are with one teacher most of the day. But when personalities clash or a teacher is simply ineffective, it’s tough to know what to do. Should you ask for a change, or try to make the best of the situation?
Low learning expectations

Sometimes seeing what else is available helps you make the decision. When Diana Carson’s* six-year-old daughter, Anna, started grade one, Carson quickly realized that Anna was bringing home work geared to letter recognition when she could already read quite well. Carson was concerned that Anna would soon be bored. She asked the teacher to send home more challenging books, but the teacher replied defensively that she didn’t have books at Anna’s level, and added, “I have kids in this class who still can’t recognize letters.” Carson talked to a parent whose child had a different teacher. “The experience in that class was drastically different — independent reading, computer exercises to build comprehension, advanced phonics and writing exercises for the kids who could do them,” says Carson. “My child was getting the short end of the stick.” She asked the principal about switching Anna’s teacher.

The family was delighted with the change. “The level of work was decidedly accelerated compared to what she’d been doing. Anna was excited and loved going to school. We felt like we’d won the lottery.” Anna is in grade three now and still doing well.

When to stay put

Tina Archer* made a different decision when her eight-year-old son, Jack, had difficulties with a teacher. “He’s a bright kid, but he got C’s on his first grade two report cards, and complained about stomach aches almost every day,” she says. “He’s always been kind of an anxious kid, but it was getting worse.”

Finally, Archer called Jack’s teacher. “She was clearly exasperated,” Archer says. The teacher said that Jack, who was outgoing and talkative at home, seemed shy and never spoke up in class. Archer realized the teacher’s authoritarian approach was intimidating to Jack.

“My husband and I decided this could be a good life lesson,” she says. “We told Jack, ‘You’re in this class — you need to make the best of it.’” The Archers felt it would be good for him to learn to accept and deal with people in authority even if they weren’t the best match for his personality. Jack finished the year with the teacher, and he’s doing much better now. The Archers feel good about their decision, as do the parents who opted to request a new teacher.

“One teacher can have a huge influence,” says Marshall. “It’s important to advocate for your kids when a situation is not in their best interests.”

*Names changed by request.