Knowing our kids are happy at school allows us to drop them off with confidence and get on with our day. When our child refuses to go to school, then we are filled with doubt and insecurity and our hands feel tied, knowing it is not as simple as changing schools or teachers.
In talking to kids about teachers that they don’t like it is essential to find a balance between listening while being emotional supportive and not undermining the position of the teacher as an adult to respect. (If you think the teacher is a complete idiot, that is something to talk to the principal about—but never in front of your child. Even if it is so bad that you are going to remove your child from that teacher’s room, in the meanwhile, your child does have to sit in that classroom every day and he needs to believe that you are keeping an open mind towards the teacher.)
Start with listening and emotional support.
When your child comes home and complains Mrs. Smith doesn’t like me, don’t rush to reassure you child that she does. Instead, acknowledge the child’s truth and emphasize with how hard that must be. When you use language like, “You feel that Mrs. Smith doesn’t like you,” you are not agreeing with the statement, but you are allowing it to be true for your child. And if that is how your child is feeling, that certainly is hard to be carrying around, so follow up with, “It must be so hard to sit in class feeling your teacher does not like you.” Having offered acknowledgement of the child’s truth and feelings, a wise parent now gets quiet. Perhaps the child will need to say more about that. Perhaps he will need to cry some. If he says, “I don’t want to go to school,” just repeat back to him, “Feeling that Mrs. Smith doesn’t like you makes you not want to go to school.” Again, you are not agreeing with the child that the teacher doesn’t like him, nor are you saying he doesn’t have to go to school; you are just continuing to acknowledge his truth.
Don’t ask the child for proof of the teacher’s dislike
Your first instinct as a parent might be to ask the child for reasons why she believes her teacher doesn’t like her. In counseling students, I actually find it more helpful to ask, “How would you know your teacher likes you?” Your child might say something like, “She wouldn’t yell at me.” Stay positive, don’t ask why the teacher yelled, rather ask, “How would you like your teacher to talk to you?” Your child might respond, “She could just tell me nicely to please not talk to my neighbor.” Start by acknowledging your child’s desire, “Oh, so you would like it if your teacher just asked you nicely to not talk to your neighbor. I totally understand why that would feel a lot better to you.”
Only slowly introduce the teacher’s perspective
Now that you have spent some time listening, being curious and acknowledging your child’s perspective, you can begin to help your child see the wider picture. You might say something like, “It certainly is nicer when people don’t yell, and at the same time, I wonder if Mrs. Smith was frustrated because she needed everyone's attention at the front of the class. It must be very hard to give instructions when the students are talking to each other.” Notice how soft and general this language is. As a parent, you are still not turning on the child and accusing him, “Well, you should’t have been talking!” Using words like wonder and everyone allows the child to see the situation in the abstract rather than as a personal attack. Non-combative language leaves space for the child to consider the teacher’s point of view. He might even now confess, “Yeah, Jose and I were talking about what we did on Minecraft last night, and I really wanted to tell him the best part.” Again, acknowledge how hard it is to focus on the teacher’s agenda when he has something exciting to share with a friend and then ask, “When is another time you might have told your friend about your victory?” He will probably agree that he could have waited until recess and might even be ready to acknowledge that it would help Mrs. Smith out a lot for kids to not talk in class.
Brainstorm ways to improve the relationship
Chances are your child is not going to be able to move from one teacher’s class to another teacher’s class. Schools almost never do make those changes. That gives your child the wonderful opportunity to learn to deal with difficult people and be proactive about establishing a more positive interaction. You might think, isn’t it the teacher’s job to establish a good relationship with my kid? Well, yes, of course it is, but the teacher’s ability to track the feelings of 30 individuals is limited, so she is likely entirely unaware of how your child is suffering. On top of that, she is human. She is going to have days where she is a little more patient and days where her tone is a little more sharp. Help your child see that. Model empathy for the teacher and say, “It sure doesn’t feel good to get yelled at, and at the same time it must be really hard to see to the needs of 30 kids at once. I wonder if there is anything you could do to help Mrs. Smith feel more supported.” As long as your child has had plenty of time in the previous steps to off load his hurt and anger, he will likely be ready to stand in Mrs. Smith’s shoes for a moment. He can probably come up with some ideas of what will make her feel good—straighten the book corner, bring her something nice to eat, help her pass out papers. Having concrete ways of making the teacher’s life easier not only gives your child a positive reason to go to school the next day, it will help the teacher see your child is a friendly light. Yes, in an ideal world, every teacher would like every student equally. But in the real world, teachers respond to warmth with greater warmth. That is a lesson that will serve your child in all her relationships.