October 17, 2019

Helping Kids Cope With Difficult Teachers

It’s a scene straight out of the worst-case scenario parent handbook. Our child — a normally happy student — lands the “Teacher From the Black Lagoon.” She’s evil, he tells us shaking in his Air Jordans. Not to mention out to get him. How can he possibly be expected to learn when his teacher is the scholastic version of Attila the Hun?

Suddenly our primal parental instinct kicks in. The same adrenalin-fueled impulse to protect our young, which once had us lunging for our toddler milliseconds before he stuck his Barney fork in the electrical outlet, is now prompting us to grab his fourth-grade teacher by her ruffled collar and command her to keep her claws off our kid.

Or else.

But we can’t relapse into our primal fury yet, my fellow Jewish parents. Not before we take a good, hard look at the split-screen. You know, like when important news breaks out during a major television ratings event like the Academy Awards, and they split the screen between Halle Berry’s acceptance speech and an oil spill on the interstate. Just like that. Only different, because this screen is split between our kid and, well, our kid.

On one side we see our moppy-topped 9-year-old, with freckles that tug at our heartstrings, imploring us to free him from the wrath of the evil Mrs. Xstein. On the other screen we see him again. But this time he’s all grown up; and he seems to be saying something about quitting yet another job. Mean boss, he tells us, out to get him. How can he possibly be expected to perform at work when he’s forced to put up with the corporate version of Attila the Hun?!

Taken aback, we begin to refocus and then, so does he. It’s still our son on that second screen and he’s still all grown up, but he’s seems different this time — empowered, resilient, menschlich. Mean boss, he says. What can you do? Sometimes you get to work with nice people; sometimes you have to work with cranky people. That’s just the way life is.

It was a lesson he’d learned way back in fourth grade when his mom insisted he march his Air Jordans straight into that swamp monster’s classroom and hold his head high. For hurt her as it might, she believed in her heart that moppy-topped 9-year-olds who muster up the courage to tough out a whole school year with the “Teacher From the Black Lagoon” emerge from those murky waters resilient, empowered, moppy-topped mensches. That’s just the way life is.

By the way, what that boy didn’t know is that once his mom took control of her primal urge, she continued to watch her son carefully for weeks and months to come. She knew that if her son’s complaints persisted or worsened and he started to show signs of extreme stress (i.e. stomach aches, sleeplessness, depression or anxiety) she would march her tuchis right into that school and have a serious chat with the teacher. Maybe even the principal after that. But that didn’t happen. In fact, while Mrs. Xstein never quite turned into the warm fuzzy that the boy and his mom hoped she would be, she wasn’t really the “Teacher From the Black Lagoon.”

Here are some tips for helping your kids cope with difficult teachers:

  • Share your own “Teacher From the Black Lagoon” stories. By telling our children about our childhood experiences with mean teachers, we give them a perspective they may not otherwise grasp. I often tell my kids about my sixth-grade Hebrew teacher, a hulking bearded rabbi who threatened to sit on any students who talked during class. Such tales help them understand that having difficult teachers is a highly survivable, universal experience.
  • Be a sounding board. Do you know how sometimes you just need to get together with your girlfriends, eat a gallon of cookie dough ice cream, and gripe? You don’t really want your friends to offer solutions, much less intervene on your part. It’s often the same when our kids complain about mean teachers; they just need to vent. Rather than making a beeline for the principal’s office after your child reports his teacher forced the class to have a silent lunch period for doing absolutely nothing! Respond with an empathetic, “That’s too bad. I’ll bet you missed talking to your friends.”
  • Help your child see the future. Explain to your child that throughout life, she is going to have to deal with people who are grumpy, unreasonable, and insidious. While spending a year with a mean teacher may seem a dreadful task now, it will teach her that she can succeed with even the most difficult of people.
  • Get involved only as a last resort. According to Dr. Charles Fay, a school psychologist and author of “Love and Logic Magic,” parents should intervene on behalf of their child only when it is clear that the teacher is so incompetent or negative that even the best behaved student would find it impossible to adapt. Fortunately, such educators are few and far between.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids” will be published in 2007.