When Your Child Gets a Terrible Teacher: Respect Authority or Question It?

If you’re located in the United States, your child spends roughly 943 hours in elementary school each year. We rank fourth in the world for highest number of classroom hours (surpassed only by Chile, Mexico, and Australia). That’s a pretty significant amount of time...especially if your child is counting down the seconds!

While we’d all like to imagine that every minute of our children’s school time is spent in the most fun and productive way, forging wonderful memories for a lifetime, the reality can oftentimes be less than ideal.

And I’m not talking about bullies. Bullies can, at least, be avoided, fearsome though they may be. They can be explained away...Johnny is jealous or Suzie grew up in a broken home. They can get suspended or expelled. They’re the object of national attention...the media is all over it and against them. And happily, bullies aren’t running every second of that 943-hour show.

But what about terrible teachers? They likely have tenure. They’re safe, untouchable, and free to reign and wreak havoc. They are running that 943-hour show. They aren’t getting media attention...what’s to be done with them anyways? Bureaucracy will have the tenure system in place for good. So no, they cannot be suspended or expelled or thrown out (unless they commit a crime). That means the burden of the terrible teacher falls on you...can you explain them away?

Now, you’re faced with a dilemma. Hopefully, your children don’t encounter a terrible teacher until middle school or high school, when the problem won’t be so bad. Lucky you. But what if their first run in with the terrible teacher is at age five, or six, or seven...those very youngest years when children so want to love their teacher...now your dilemma is that much more significant and you have to make some big decisions fast.

So are you going to teach them to respect authority or to question it?

If you go the respect route, how will you be affecting your children’s own self-respect? Are you teaching them to cower meekly in the face of authority, rather than stand up for themselves...or for what’s right? Will you be negating so many other lessons you’ve tried so hard to drill like treat others how you like to be treated? Are you teaching them to suffer? Are you creating a martyr...or a hardened child?

On the flip side, how can you possibly teach a five or six year old to question authority so young? So much of what they need to learn, to grow, relies on authority. They need to respect books and teachers and adults...and you. Besides, you don’t want to tarnish the rest of their school years with an attitude of rebellion, an unwillingness to learn, or a distrust for teachers...

So what do you do?

Well, it’s a very personal decision that depends on your own values and philosophy. Personally, I had a very tough time deciding so I let my child decide for us.

I knew his teacher was terrible in so many ways but I didn’t tell him that throughout the year. I would ask him about his day, about how he felt in class, and about whether he liked his teacher. He mostly wouldn’t answer that last part.

We would talk about his previous teacher – how great she was, how lucky he was to have had the best Kindergarten teacher ever, how passionate she was about teaching...but I never made any judgements on his current one.

After months of this, he felt comfortable enough to bring up the subject himself indirectly. He would recount stories where other children were victims of unjust punishment and asked what I thought about them. I would tell him how I might have handled those situations differently, again without saying that his teacher was wrong or bad or inept.

Later he started asking directly, “Do you think Ms. Jones is a good teacher?” or “Who do you think is better Ms. Jones or my Kindergarten teacher?” I would take the passive approach and let him make up his own mind, “It’s hard for me to say. You spend so much more time in the classroom than I do...what do you think?” HE had to decide.

And as he came to the conclusion that he, in fact, had a year with a terrible teacher, we kept talking about his amazing teacher from his Kindergarten year so that the joys of learning with a proper authority figure wouldn’t be in too distant a past. He managed to show respect for authority in class but carved out a space, in his own mind, where he also questioned it. And that worked for us.

What about you? How will you teach your little one to handle a terrible teacher?

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