How would you handle this situation?
April 22, 2010 1:47 PM   Subscribe

I volunteer in a teacher's class; he says and does some things that I think are counterproductive to what I'm trying to do there. Some of these things seem racially tinged and others are more just irritating. How should I handle it?

I volunteer for a program directed towards at-risk/lower income kids. We make weekly presentations to the kids on topics like their rights and obligations when interacting with police, what to do if they are a victim of a crime, etc. We try to make the information interesting and relevant to their lives, and usually everyone reacts well.

My assignment is in a middle school and their teacher is present when I'm there. Most of the students are black or Hispanic, the teacher's white, I am white and Hispanic but am always assumed to be white. The teacher looks to be in his 60s or so.

When I'm setting up for the lessons, the teacher chats with me. He'll say pejorative things about the students like "don't expect to get much through to them, or "you guys all try hard but nobody can teach them much." After the lessons, he'll say things like, "wow, they were so quiet for you, usually they'll just talk the whole class period."

He lowers his voice a bit, but I am certain that at least some of the students can hear him. His voice is just low enough to make it seem like we're talking about them behind their backs.

For one of the lessons, we all did a skit together, and I gave one of the students my wallet to use as a prop. When the student handed me my wallet back, the teacher sarcastically said "better check and see if she took anything from it."

After one of our discussions about dealing with life in a high crime neighborhood, which went really well, the teacher said to me afterward "you did your best, but the students want to pretend they don't notice any crime they see, it's a cultural problem." I thought that one was over the line.

I worry that these comments will mess up what I am trying to do there, because if they see me as someone who thinks she is superior to them, condescends to them, or thinks bad things about them, they will become less open to me and what I have to say. I don't want them to think that I think I'm in any sort of "white club" with this man that insults them behinds their backs.

So far, I have just been tuning him out and responding to his comments essentially with grunts, because I feel really uncomfortable taking him to task in his own classroom.

Normally, I would feel comfortable being very blunt about this, but in this situation I feel like I have to be more collegial/diplomatic than usual, both because I'm doing it in his workplace, and because whatever I say will reflect not only on me but on my program. Am I wrong?

I spoke to one of the project leaders about this (the project is fairly new), and she said they hadn't yet encountered this particular issue before, and maybe I could emphasize to the kids that I appreciate/value their participation. She said that it would be fine for me to use my judgment to deal with the situation in other ways, if they would work better. It seemed in general she was hesitant to give me specific advice.

What do you think? How should I deal with this?

This is a more minor problem, but he interrupts the lessons I give all the time, and it drives me crazy.

He'll interrupt me to interject more "facts" about what I'm saying that are actually incorrect. Again, I feel awkward about telling him he's wrong in front of the class.

He will yell at the kids for whispering in the back even if most of the class is engaged with me and I am fine with scattered whispering. Meanwhile, he'll spend the entire lesson off to the side chatting to his aide.

He also answered the class phone that was right behind me, indicated to me that I should keep talking, and spent the next several minutes chatting and laughing in almost a full voice to the person on the other end. I asked him if I should stop, and he said no.

In that situation, should I have just stopped talking and had everyone wait till he was done?
posted by Ashley801 to Education (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What you're actually teaching these kids is to keep your head down, ignore belittling behavior and racist/classist remarks, and not rock the boat. Is that truly your goal?
posted by restless_nomad at 1:55 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've team-taught in a classroom (in Japan) where the lead teacher hit students (it's allowed in Japan) and exploited classroom divisions to divide and conquer. It was pretty unpleasant, but there was not much I could really do except provide the students with positive words of encouragement (I usually try to tell students that they are smart and capable, and produce good work - it really helps with their self-esteem, which is a major cause of behaviour problems and poor performance), and I also tried to engage the students outside of class by saying "hello" in the halls.

As far as interrupting you, just stop what you're doing and stare neutrally into space. It is not a good idea to telegraph your feelings to the students, as it is subversive and will confuse them.

It's difficult to confront the teacher in front of the students. You could always try connecting with the teacher in private and ask them "I noticed you said XX to XX-student. What did you mean by that?"
posted by KokuRyu at 1:58 PM on April 22, 2010

You need to have a discussion with him, and ask him not to do these things.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:58 PM on April 22, 2010

Have you considered asking the school's principal to unexpectedly "drop in" and monitor the class while you're giving a lesson?

Given that most principals are required to do this from time to time as part of their job description, you should even be able to do this without arousing too much suspicion.
posted by schmod at 2:00 PM on April 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

If this fellow is making racist comments, you should probably document when he says these things (date, approx time), who he says it to, what he says. Once your list exceeds 5 incidents, take it to an administrator and let them know what is going on.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:05 PM on April 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yes, well the schools that need them the most do not get the best teachers, do they?

Don't worry about what he says to you in front of the kids, that's a fraction of the problem, and they've all heard it before. Your on demeanor and words will tell the students who you are and confrontation isn't your problem. If it was me, I'd do everything I could to pretend he was not there, even if he were screaming on the phone (if he were having a heart attack, I'd have a difficult decision about whether or not to interrupt my class.). When he says something wrong, nod to him and then give the correct information to the class, if he makes it a fight, just smile and repeat the correct information.

If you ever get the chance to speak to his supervisor, department head or principle, in the lounge or cafeteria, on the third semi-private talk mention something hypothetically, don't give any names and don't make authorizations until asked to. That chance probably won't happen, so if there is a liaison from your program mention the situation to them and let them carry tails, they will know the school personal better.

I really think that confrontation will do little but make maters worse and get you dis-invited. The kids don't need that, they need time off from Mr. Asshole, and you are giving them more than that, so do what you can.
posted by Some1 at 2:07 PM on April 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree with your assessment that the guy's being a jerk - but maybe a little humility is called for. You're a guest in his classroom, and it's very possible that their good behavior is due in part to his presence in the room - you don't get to be a 60 something high school teacher without knowing how to manage a classroom and it could be that he knows because it's his job that allowing for scattered whispers means the talking will escalate until no one is able to learn. The one thing I think you could ask for is for him not to interrupt - maybe phrase it, like, I have a really specific lesson plan to get through and it's easier for me if you don't jump in and bring me to a point I was going to make later or I really want to get better at working with teenagers and it'd make me feel more confident if you let me do this myself. And if he says something shitty to a kid (that wallet thing, ugh!) just smile or wink at her - you aren't in danger of being thought of as on Team Teacher.
posted by moxiedoll at 2:09 PM on April 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Teacher here. I agree with schmod. While this guy is probably up there in years and has tenure, the administration has steps they can take. he's a bad teacher. If you don't have to be there - why are you with this particular guy?- I'd transfer somewhere else and drop a note to the principal. This guy's actions will be passed down to all the kids of all his students- they will see us as the enemy and react accordingly, telling their own kids that school sucks.
FWIW, if his low test scores reflect this whole racism of low expectations approach he's using, that might help motivate the administration. Get out of there.
posted by flowerofhighrank at 2:11 PM on April 22, 2010

I'm fairly sure that he's not allowed (by the school) to say pejorative things to students, like accusing them of stealing.

Now, if the school's culture is one of belittling children and allowing racist comments to flourish, you're going to have a harder time with the administration.

In any case, praise those kids to high heaven. Like, go overboard. It should have two effects: one, it'll let the kids know you really appreciate them, and two, it'll show the teacher that you're on their side.

You're smarter than me, it seems, because there is no way I'd be able to keep my mouth shut if I were in your place. You've kept your head and that's a good thing. Document everything from here on out and talk to an administrator.
posted by cooker girl at 2:12 PM on April 22, 2010

When he makes those comments, question them in a playing dumb kind of way. For example, when he says "'s a cultural problem," ask, "Oh, how so?" Stuff like that. He might get flustered having to basically explain his racism. If there is some way you could mention your heritage, in context, of course, that might shut him up as well. The problem is, if you deal with him on it, he'll probably just stop saying that stuff around you, but still say it around the kids.
Also, I memailed you.
posted by ishotjr at 2:43 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh good lord, he's a jackass. Avoid accusatory language, he's just going to tell you that he couldn't POSSIBLY be racist/thoughtless/disrespectful/wrong and have taught these kids for this many years.

I would reply to his comments with polite denials of their veracity of the "um, I don't find that to be the case/I don't know what you're talking about/to what are you referring?" variety. Keep it very professional. You'll need to take the high road if you're going to get anywhere with your other point:

As for the interrupting you in class both by interjecting comments and chatting inappropriately, that is something that can be brought up immediately with superiors, and since it doesn't reply upon anyone's "perception" or "interpretation" it can hopefully be more directly addressed. He's undermining your authority. On purpose.
posted by desuetude at 3:03 PM on April 22, 2010

I work part-time in a "inner-city" classroom part of a national fellowship program in the U.S. (Strangely enough at a high school I myself attended 15 years ago)

Yes, this teacher sucks, and most likely these students know this. This isn't the first time they've encountered such a teacher, and it probably won't be their last.

I just want to reassure you that your presence in the classroom as an adult who views them as people who deserve respect and care means more than you may realize. Without having to confront the teacher, you're already showing by example that his behavior and attitude is ridiculous. It is EXACTLY why he is passive-aggressively interrupting you, etc. Even if there isn't much you can do about this situation, please know that your presence means a great deal to the students regardless.

That being said, do you have supervisors for your volunteer program? My first step would be to talk to them. I agree with what others said about documenting what was said and when. You are a guest in his classroom, and I've noticed some teachers are scared to lose control for a minute, for fear of losing it entirely. Having the principal observe the class may not mean much, when I was dealing with a difficult teacher, she was on her BEST behavior when the principal or other supervisor came around.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 3:57 PM on April 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

20 year teacher here. I think you're already doing the right stuff, modeling respectful behavior to the students. I think there are valid arguments to be made for confronting the teacher/disputing his inaccurate statements/contacting a superior and etc., but overall I think you're better off rising above it/ignoring it with a sense of humor/demonstrating that your reality is not dictated by the jerk you're forced to spend a few hours with.

I also wanted to caution you against 'praising the kids to high heaven'. Most students of middle school age read this as FAKE FAKE FAKE. Let them know you like and respect them, let them know when they get things right and when they impress you, but keep it real. It sounds like you've already built a rapport with them.

Look at this way: you've been screwed, your current assignment is much harder than it had to be and it may be difficult to reach the objectives you're assigned. OTOH, you've been handed a very rich opportunity to teach these kids some vital lessons about self-respect in the face of adversity.
posted by carterk at 4:53 PM on April 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

IMO (as a school board member in an urban district), you should speak to the principal and, if the principal isn't responsive, to the superintendent. And then to the school board. If he can't get his behavior under control, he needs a notice to remedy from the board. NOBODY should talk to students that way.

As a human being, I sort-of think you SHOULD take him to task for it in front of the students, though I recognize that may open an unfortunate can of worms that you're not in a good position to deal with. But you could certainly demand, "Why would you say something like that?" or "I'm sorry, are you accusing your student of stealing? Should we call the principal?" You can try force him to either be an open racist or STFU by responding that way every single time. He will STFU.

He's disrespectful -- to the students, to you, to the profession -- and the principal should know about everything you said here, from the belittling of students to the talking while you're teaching.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:27 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also wanted to caution you against 'praising the kids to high heaven'. Most students of middle school age read this as FAKE FAKE FAKE. Let them know you like and respect them, let them know when they get things right and when they impress you, but keep it real.

That's what I meant. I just didn't say it as well as carterk did.
posted by cooker girl at 7:47 PM on April 22, 2010

You guys have given me a lot to think about. We had another session since I posted. At the end he said to me (within 2 feet of the kids) "that was a great lesson, I just wish I had better kids for you." I said, "I think they're great!" He didn't make any more negative comments the rest of the time I was there, which was nice.

I have made a list of all his comments that I can remember. I'm going to go see the other project coordinator when she's available, and see what she thinks. I like the idea of having the principal sit in on the class, I may ask her if she'd like to come see a lesson without mentioning anything about the teacher.

Thank you, everyone.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:14 PM on April 24, 2010

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