I have a child who hates school. He didn’t always hate school. The kindergartener who upstaged all the other tyrannosaurus rexes loved school. The first grader whose portrayal of Medusa delighted audiences at the end of the Greek mythology unit adored school. His first years of learning were joyous and fun. What happened to my youngest child? What destroyed his love of learning?
Sending my first child to school was scary. My daughter loved her California teachers, but after moving to Utah I learned that all teachers are not created equal. In a perfect world all teachers would be amazing. In a state where high schools often hire teachers on the basis of what sport needs a coach that year, you’d better do your homework. I learned to talk to other parents, but we moved frequently and I had to figure out the politics of four school districts. I rejoiced when my daughter was accepted to the 5th and 6th grade gifted program at Cherry Hill Elementary School. For two years I got to relax; my daughter’s teacher was amazing.
Two years later, I cringed as the Honors English teacher chattered about her amazing adventures in Amway, even when I attempted to steer the parent-teacher conference back to my daughter’s progress in her class. My daughter’s claim that her middle school English teacher was a train wreck no longer seemed like an exaggeration. My daughter doesn’t suffer silently. In high school, when her American History teacher, a basketball coach, popped in a videotape every class period, my daughter wondered if the state core actually required an eight week unit entitled “The Impact of Professional Sports on American History.” Finally, my daughter raised her hand and said, “This is totally stupid.” I empathized with her complaints, but I kept my mouth shut. I couldn’t afford to be a scary parent because I taught at that school and we live in a state where we just want everyone to be nice…
I grew up in Minnesota where all my elementary school teachers were nice. I didn’t meet any scary teachers until I got to junior high. How many of us suffered silently while scary math teachers made us feel stupid because they didn’t know how to teach math? Maybe there are times when we need to speak up and stop worrying about being nice.
My youngest child completed kindergarten and first grade in a private school, where teachers valued his creativity, sense of humor, and love of learning; however, I couldn’t afford the tuition. I cried after his first public school teacher just whined about his handwriting at parent-teacher conference; she had nothing nice to say about him at all. My son and I are both third children in the family birth order — peacemakers who suffer silently. My son never whined about his second-grade teacher, but today, when I read him this paragraph, he recalls, “that teacher was an old, angry alien from outer space. Everyone in our class thought she was a scary alien.” Now I wish I had been less nice and more of a scary parent—maybe if I had, my son would still love learning. Why did I feel so helpless?
Before the end of the school year, I spoke to the kind and compassionate principal. I confessed I was a pathetic single mother; therefore, my son lacked positive male role models. I suggested it would benefit society if my son could be assigned to the classroom of his best male teacher, Mr. R. I knew about Mr. R because my oldest son was in his class. Mr. R wrote on a status report that my oldest son was “an incredible human being. As a student he shines in every single area. I count myself truly blessed to have gotten the chance to teach and be around him. I can honestly say there isn’t another student who shows me more respect. Thanks for raising such a fine, intelligent, creative, kind person.”
My youngest son loved his year in Mr. R’s classroom. Once again he experienced that Tyrannosaurus-Medusa kind of joy. Unfortunately, Mr. R was the last ray of sunshine in my son’s education, until he got to high school. Why did it feel like we were at the mercy of a sick system that protects scary teachers unless they are criminals? Shouldn’t it be a crime to crush the love of learning in our children?
My youngest child seemed to be a scary teacher magnet. In sixth grade he was cursed with the angriest teacher in the school. Other parents would shake their heads like we were discussing the lottery and say, “Oh yes, she’s been angry for at least a decade….sorry you got the worst teacher in the school…” The school would send me threatening letters because my son missed so much school that year. He would feign illness, to avoid exposure to a toxic teacher who hated children. Why didn’t I request that my son be moved to a classroom with a healthy learning environment? I wish I had been a scary parent…
I have now sat on both sides of the parent-teacher conference table. Just as my oldest child started tenth grade, I got a job teaching high school. Teaching in my children’s high school was a tender mercy. I hand-picked their teachers, so my children often had the best teachers in the school. I also got the inside scoop on how my kids were performing in class. My children and I could laugh about lame assemblies, eccentric teachers, and school politics.
At our high school, my youngest son completed all his math credits in the classroom of Mrs. J, an amazing math teacher who actually knew how to teach math. My son still doesn’t love school, but Mrs. J put some of the joy back in learning. She also treated my son with kindness and respect. Mrs. J valued my son’s creativity and sense of humor. My son still thinks that Mrs. J walks on water. I no longer teach high school, but I hope there are elaborate mansions prepared in heaven for amazing teachers like Mrs. J and Mr. R.
Both sides of the parent-teacher conference table are stressful. There are scary parents who intimidate and bully, but most parents just want their kids to be successful in school. Don’t be afraid to share your concerns with teachers. If necessary, don’t be afraid to share your concerns with administrators. I wish I had been more of an advocate for my youngest son. Maybe if there were more courageous parents we could stop the insanity of scary teachers squashing the joy of learning in our children.
- Which teachers have you liked and why? How have teachers blessed your life or your children’s lives?
- Which teachers have you not liked? What have you done to help make a bad situation better? ( please don’t use real names)
- How do you feel about parent-teacher conferences–do you find them to be effective?