The teacher is a dud

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  April 7, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara, My 1st-grade daughter has a rookie teacher this year.  Trouble is, a girl who used to love school is now bored and unexcited most of the time.  Other parents report the same thing.  What do we do?
From: Jimmy, Brookline


Hi Jimmy,

First of all, do you absolutely, positively know the problem is the teacher. Any chance she needs glasses? Or is having trouble hearing? Or that her best friend moved halfway through the semester? You may be right, that it is the teacher, but you never know.

Here's something else to consider: First grade is considered the hardest of all elementary school partly because it's more structured and that is a big adjustment for kids, and partly because kids are moving into a new stage of cognition. A first grader may look at the kid at the next desk and notice that he writes his name with upper and lower case letters. Five months ago, he may have noticed that difference as just a difference but now he may see that difference and conclude, "He writes with big and little letters. I write with all big letters. He's smarter than me." A child can come to this conclusion over almost anything: the way another child holds a pencil, or reads chapter books, or draws inside the lines.

It's a form of magical thinking, of course, and you may never even know it's happening. But it's certainly enough to make any child not be happy at school.

No matter what the reason why she doesn't like school as much as she used to, the first step for you is to talk to the teacher. Don't go in accusing her of anything, don't even go in with complaints;  that will only put him or her on the defensive and get you nowhere. Instead, start by assuming the two of you -- parents & teacher -- are members of same team, with the same goal: to help your child get the most out of her first grade year. Tell teach that your daughter loved school before but doesn't seem to be enjoying it now and you're wondering what she's noticed. Has she seen a change in her over the course of the year? Does she seem engaged and happy, or bored and uninterested? This kind of conversation is most likely to get the teacher to pay more attention to her, which just might help with the problem.

If you've already talked to the teacher; if you talk to her and she shows no interest in being helpful  or she dismisses you; or if you talk to her & some time passes and nothing changes, then it's time to go to the principal. You mention there are other parents who are having similar experiences. Encourage them to go as well. (Although I would advise them to talk to the teacher first, too; school systems are a hierarchy and it's never a good idea to immediately go over a teacher's head.  If a teacher needs mentoring, a principal needs to know. If a teacher is not responding to parents, a principal needs to know that, too.

Meanwhile, don't despair that this one dud of a teacher (or one bad school year) will ruin her for life. While it is always disappointing, in the course of every child's school career, there is always one (only one?) teacher who will disappoint for one reason or another. But kids are resilient. Usually all it will take to bring a child to love school again is a terrific teacher next year.

What experiences have parents had with this kind of problem? Do we have some teachers or principals who have suggestions?

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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9 comments so far...
  1. My child had a truly awful teacher last year, and despite this teacher having a track record of being unresponsive and basically just giving lots of busy work, the principal does NOTHING. Neither does the superintendant. All of the parents in the school know that this grade is a throw-away year (the other teacher is also awful), and do what they can to make the best of it at home.

    That said, we've had tons of other good experiences where working with the teacher, we were able to resolve an issue. Definitely open a dialogue with the teacher. One of my children has a first-year teacher this year, and the teacher is wonderful. She's not perfect, but she's very receptive to constructive comments. It's fine to say "Ms. X, Susie really seems unhappy about school this year. I'd like to work with you to understand why, and to see what we can do to change that." I had a situation once where my son was miserable because there was another child sitting nearby who was constantly bugging him. I spoke to the teacher, she rearranged the seating, and my son was happy again.

    One other thought - has your daughter been unhappy all year? If so, why did you wait until halfway through the year to write about it? If the development is recent, I doubt it's the teacher.

    Posted by A. Nonymous April 7, 10 07:05 AM
  1. This teacher may actually be a dud, but please don't blame it on her newbie status. Most teachers are actually MOST enthusiastic in their first few years, especially before they learn to pace themselves. I speak from experience.

    Posted by C April 7, 10 08:44 AM
  1. I also want to agree that one dud year does not ruin your entire academic experience. My sister and I went to a small Catholic school with one class per grade. You knew you were going to get the cranky old hag who should have retired 20 years ago for first grade. You just knew it, and you had to suck it up. So you learned early to deal with difficult people. That made every subsequent teacher seem like angels from heaven. And we still got into college and survived.

    Posted by bms April 7, 10 01:47 PM
  1. Jimmy from Brookline, did you really need someone to tell you to go to the school and talk to the teacher, or if that doesn't work, to go to the principal? This is your kid, you are her advocate, just do it!

    Posted by patches02 April 7, 10 07:51 PM
  1. It's been a few years but I recall there being a fairly significant difference between kindergarten and first grade in terms of the playtime/learning time ratio. It could be the teacher but I'm thinking give her the benefit of the doubt - it might be your daughter not adjusting to the new environment that well. It may take your daughter a little longer to get into the new routine or maybe she just doesn't like school as much as you thought she did (that's not bad - maybe she'll like it better in 2nd grade or not until 6th - every kid is different and liking school in 1st grade is probably not a great indicator for the rest of your life).

    I'd be interested to know if the letter writer or the other parents they are talking to have older children and this comparison is being done to what they've seen in their other kids or are they just guessing that this is not normal?

    Posted by pomgreen April 7, 10 10:34 PM
  1. I liked the comment about magical thinking and that 1st grade is the toughest year. Also, 1st graders are very dramatic with their emotions and they know if they say that school is boring it will get a very strong response from a parent (attention-seeking). Can you get more involved with the school - go to some afterschool events with your child or volunteer for a field trip? If your child sees that you like the school, it may fuel their enthusiasm as well.

    Posted by 1st Grade Mom April 8, 10 07:05 AM
  1. ",.....used to love school"

    ????? When it was nap-time, play-time, and recess (in kindergarten).

    Let's not start blaming the teacher in the first grade!

    I suspect that being "bored" is code for something else.

    Posted by Cosmogirl April 8, 10 09:35 AM
  1. With all the top-down intense pressure on scores, monetary rewards tied to MCAS results, the lower grades have become aggressively academic. No Child Left Behind / Reading First has some children getting tested weekly, recess eliminated, etc. This adds to everyone's stress and burn-out.

    Posted by Rachel April 8, 10 12:20 PM
  1. My daughter is in first grade and it is the opposite of boring. The curriculum is set by the district, not the teacher and first grade is PACKED with reading, writing and math - a huge leap from Kindergarten. If the teacher is not keeping up with the curriculum or not teaching it properly then that would be a major problem.

    And it's usually the new teachers who are the most enthusiastic. Our Kindergarten teacher was in her last year and was she ever burnt out on those kids!

    Posted by Kip April 8, 10 01:26 PM
 
9 comments so far...
  1. My child had a truly awful teacher last year, and despite this teacher having a track record of being unresponsive and basically just giving lots of busy work, the principal does NOTHING. Neither does the superintendant. All of the parents in the school know that this grade is a throw-away year (the other teacher is also awful), and do what they can to make the best of it at home.

    That said, we've had tons of other good experiences where working with the teacher, we were able to resolve an issue. Definitely open a dialogue with the teacher. One of my children has a first-year teacher this year, and the teacher is wonderful. She's not perfect, but she's very receptive to constructive comments. It's fine to say "Ms. X, Susie really seems unhappy about school this year. I'd like to work with you to understand why, and to see what we can do to change that." I had a situation once where my son was miserable because there was another child sitting nearby who was constantly bugging him. I spoke to the teacher, she rearranged the seating, and my son was happy again.

    One other thought - has your daughter been unhappy all year? If so, why did you wait until halfway through the year to write about it? If the development is recent, I doubt it's the teacher.

    Posted by A. Nonymous April 7, 10 07:05 AM
  1. This teacher may actually be a dud, but please don't blame it on her newbie status. Most teachers are actually MOST enthusiastic in their first few years, especially before they learn to pace themselves. I speak from experience.

    Posted by C April 7, 10 08:44 AM
  1. I also want to agree that one dud year does not ruin your entire academic experience. My sister and I went to a small Catholic school with one class per grade. You knew you were going to get the cranky old hag who should have retired 20 years ago for first grade. You just knew it, and you had to suck it up. So you learned early to deal with difficult people. That made every subsequent teacher seem like angels from heaven. And we still got into college and survived.

    Posted by bms April 7, 10 01:47 PM
  1. Jimmy from Brookline, did you really need someone to tell you to go to the school and talk to the teacher, or if that doesn't work, to go to the principal? This is your kid, you are her advocate, just do it!

    Posted by patches02 April 7, 10 07:51 PM
  1. It's been a few years but I recall there being a fairly significant difference between kindergarten and first grade in terms of the playtime/learning time ratio. It could be the teacher but I'm thinking give her the benefit of the doubt - it might be your daughter not adjusting to the new environment that well. It may take your daughter a little longer to get into the new routine or maybe she just doesn't like school as much as you thought she did (that's not bad - maybe she'll like it better in 2nd grade or not until 6th - every kid is different and liking school in 1st grade is probably not a great indicator for the rest of your life).

    I'd be interested to know if the letter writer or the other parents they are talking to have older children and this comparison is being done to what they've seen in their other kids or are they just guessing that this is not normal?

    Posted by pomgreen April 7, 10 10:34 PM
  1. I liked the comment about magical thinking and that 1st grade is the toughest year. Also, 1st graders are very dramatic with their emotions and they know if they say that school is boring it will get a very strong response from a parent (attention-seeking). Can you get more involved with the school - go to some afterschool events with your child or volunteer for a field trip? If your child sees that you like the school, it may fuel their enthusiasm as well.

    Posted by 1st Grade Mom April 8, 10 07:05 AM
  1. ",.....used to love school"

    ????? When it was nap-time, play-time, and recess (in kindergarten).

    Let's not start blaming the teacher in the first grade!

    I suspect that being "bored" is code for something else.

    Posted by Cosmogirl April 8, 10 09:35 AM
  1. With all the top-down intense pressure on scores, monetary rewards tied to MCAS results, the lower grades have become aggressively academic. No Child Left Behind / Reading First has some children getting tested weekly, recess eliminated, etc. This adds to everyone's stress and burn-out.

    Posted by Rachel April 8, 10 12:20 PM
  1. My daughter is in first grade and it is the opposite of boring. The curriculum is set by the district, not the teacher and first grade is PACKED with reading, writing and math - a huge leap from Kindergarten. If the teacher is not keeping up with the curriculum or not teaching it properly then that would be a major problem.

    And it's usually the new teachers who are the most enthusiastic. Our Kindergarten teacher was in her last year and was she ever burnt out on those kids!

    Posted by Kip April 8, 10 01:26 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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