Help approaching a teacher -
September 15, 2011 2:16 PM   Subscribe

How to approach a public school substitute teacher that may have something against my niece? My niece needs to improve her grade, and I don't know the best way - long -

I want to set up a meeting with a substitute math teacher, and talk to her about what my niece can do to improve her grade. What is the best way to approach it? background below -

My niece came to stay with my mom last summer, and never left. Let's ignore that bit of family drama, and just say that it was very upsetting to her, and we're working on it in therapy. She was in 5th grade last year, and did not do as well as she could have, due to dealing with the drama. My mom did the best she could with dealing with the teachers, but it was difficult - my niece was the only white girl in the school, and met with a lot of teasing, etc from the other students.

Enter 6th Grade (clayton county schools, GA). She loves her school! Her classes are great! Except, wait - her math teacher is out on pregnancy leave, and there is a substitute. A substitute, who, according to my niece, yells so loudly at the kids that the other teachers come down the hall to see what is wrong. My niece has told the teacher to "get out of her face" (her mom was emotionally abusive, and she has anger issues). My mom has talked to my niece, and told her not to do that - we think her attitude in class has improved. She also spoke with the teacher, and explained my niece's background (and the reason for the anger issues, and that we were working on them in therapy), and that she would respond better if the teacher did not yell at her. She explained to the teacher that she had a 10th grade education, and the teacher laughed at her. The teacher suggested that it was a problem at home, and she should have the school send child services out to inspect the home, and my mom said that she would welcome any help/assistance that the school could give. The teacher said that ALL of my niece's teachers were having trouble with her, not just her. (My mom will be meeting with all other teachers next week to see - at least one teacher has said they have no problems). The teacher was yelling at kids during the phone call, and it cut off abruptly. My mom thought that everything was going better in the classroom after this call. (Yes, she was upset about what the teacher said, but does not want to cause trouble for my niece at school, and is trying to be nice about everything).

However, there was one piece of homework that was not turned in (my niece didn't know how to do it, and they had not given out books yet); my niece turned in her composition book (possibly without her name on it, she is not sure) and she has not gotten it back, the teacher says she does not have it, and the teacher has refused to accept homework from her several times. (Currently, she has a 0 for one of her grades, possibly the composition book. Since she only has 2 grades so far, her grade in math is a 13)

My mom has tried to get the teacher's email - since the teacher is a sub, there is not an official email. She has requested a meeting with all of my niece's teachers, which is monday afternoon, but I suggested that we meet with this teacher separately, as it may take some time, and I don't think the other teachers necessarily need to sit through it!

We are trying to get a meeting with just her, and I want to be there.
My goals are as follows -
1. Find out what the problem is with the homework, and why it is not being accepted. Find out if my niece can make it up/turn it in now.
2. Find out what was in the composition book, and if my niece can make it up.
3. See what we can do to help her do better in math - maybe the teacher could give us the assignments ahead of time, so we understood them and could better explain/help her with them? Is this unreasonable? (Even if we just knew what chapters they were going through, it would help)
4. Ask the teacher to notify us if she does not receive/accept homework or classwork from my niece. Is it ridiculous to ask her to sign for it?

My mom is afraid that since my niece is one of the few white students, the teacher may be picking on her. The teacher is only temporary, so we just need to deal with her until the other teacher comes back - but my niece can't fail this class, and I don't want her to get behind, and then do poorly in 6th grade math.

What's the best way to approach this teacher? My mom is pissed and angry, and isn't thinking straight. I think I need to go to the meeting, so that there is someone who is rational there.

Is there anything else I should be asking the teacher/dealing with?

We just want her to do well in school - she's reasonably intelligent, and there is no reason why she shouldn't be able to do the work with help.

Any other thoughts on what I can do to help (from a distance, as my ability to go to the school and meet with teachers is limited!) would be great.
posted by needlegrrl to Education (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
One thing to remember: That teacher has a boss, the principal. And you should definitely approach him/her if you feel that this process isn't going well. Depending on the size of the school there may also be a math department head, or director of instruction, etc. Especially because this teacher is a sub, I wouldn't be at all hesitant about involving her superiors.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:22 PM on September 15, 2011 [12 favorites]

You definitely need to have someone else from the school in the room besides you, your Mom and the teacher.
posted by dgeiser13 at 2:24 PM on September 15, 2011 [17 favorites]

It wasn't so long ago that Clayton County Schools were losing their accreditation. I am not saying that to say the school is bad - I don't know - but I am saying that for the sake of making the point that if this teacher really is yelling so much that the other teachers feel like they need to come check it out, there is a good chance that *someone* in the system will want to know so they can deal with it. If you end up dealing with higher up people, the accreditation issue is one I would learn about and keep in mind.

Also, on preview, dgeiser13 is absolutely right. Perhaps one of your niece's teachers that does not have the same set of issues with her?
posted by Medieval Maven at 2:26 PM on September 15, 2011

Nthing the request for another school authority to be present at this meeting.
posted by blurker at 2:30 PM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

You've attempted to resolve this problem with the teacher directly and been dismissed. Take it to the principal. The teacher has also told you that this is a school wide problem with your niece, so you have the perfect opening to engage with the principal in an effort to resolve this.
posted by IanMorr at 2:30 PM on September 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I also have a handheld recorder - would it be a good or bad idea to ask to record it?

Should we bring the principal in for the first meeting? I was hoping that there was some sort of misunderstanding that would be fixable here, but I'm completely new to all this.

On preview, maybe we should just meet with everyone at one time, so there are witnesses - I'll make plans to be there for the meeting on Monday, with the rest of her teachers.
posted by needlegrrl at 2:30 PM on September 15, 2011

Please contact the principal to discuss this matter. You have totally valid concerns about your niece's substitute teacher. Don't bring up the race concern - give people the benefit of the doubt. Besides from what you have written, the sub's behavior and attitude is very inappropriate (laughing at a parent about their lack of education, yelling at the students while on the phone, saying all the other teachers had problems with your niece too, refusing to accept homework) If any teacher in any school I've ever worked at spoke to a parent like that and behaved that way, they'd definitely be reprimanded.

If other teachers are having to come in because of the yelling, I'm sure the principal already has a heads up about this sub anyway, but you should contact them to voice your concerns. While you're on the phone with them, ask to include a guidance counselor at the meeting to address your niece's emotional needs and how the school can help her. Because all you want to do is get some answers as to how best help your niece.

You do not need the recorder at this stage, you're just going in for a meeting and to talk things over with people. You have a list of questions you'd like answered, stick to that. Try to calm down a bit too.
posted by NoraCharles at 2:40 PM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Talk to the principal about this joker. Don't take a tape recorder - bring someone else, preferably someone calm, female and diminutive so that the principal won't get its back up.

Don't concede any points initially (my niece has behaviour issues).

Just say what you want: how can my niece improve her grade?

Explain all the steps you are taking to support your niece study at home.

If you can, don't bring up the shitty stuff the teacher is doing. However, you should document everything beforehand (the yelling, the stonewalling, the unkind remarks) to use as a trump card if the meeting with the principal is not going well.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:43 PM on September 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: IANATeacher, but I do work in a public school.

At this point, you need to go above the teacher. Get the administration involved. That is their job. Also, don't go into this as a confrontation between you and the teacher. There are too many parents who assume that the teacher is lying and their little angel could never do any of the horrible things those other children do, so if you go into this in confrontation mode, the school is going to start on the defensive. If you go in with an attitude of "I'm hearing two different stories, and I want to know which is closer to the truth so that we can have a successful outcome.", the administration and teachers won't throw up their defensive walls before you start.

I wouldn't have any meetings with this teacher at all until you've gotten the administration involved. You've made an attempt to solve the problem with the teacher directly, and been unsuccessful. Now you should call the school and ask to speak with the principal or the dean in charge of student issues. Explain the situation as objectively as possible, and ask if they have any suggestions as to how to proceed.

The other issue is that, as it seems from your description of the situation, you are not the student's legal guardian, you may have no standing at all. In IL at least there are fairly strict privacy laws that protect students, so they may not be willing to speak to you about any of this, but IANAL in any sense.

And related to not being a lawyer, be very careful about recording anything without permission unless you're very, very sure of privacy laws in your state.
posted by Morydd at 2:45 PM on September 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

Yeah, don't drag it out. By-pass this substitute teacher that has dismissed your concerns and get to the bottom of this with the principal and other teachers. Hopefully you won't piss off the substitute too much.

I like riffing off the sub's concern that "all of your niece's teachers have problems with her." She said it, she can't fault you for following through on that with the principal. You are concerned, of course you would follow up on that!

Tell your mom to calm down because this substitue teacher seems to feel fine abusing her power and you want to spare your niece the drama. Tell your mom if the sub can see that your family is involved and proactive, that should be all that is required to get this bully of a substitute teacher back into line. You want the sub teacher to save face, not humiliate her, for she will simply turn around and humiliate your niece in turn. Play it smart.

My absolute best to you all. I'm so glad your niece has you in her life!

(And no - if you have a meeting with the principal and other teachers, please please don't record them because that will seem very hostile. By the same token, I believe the substitute teacher should NOT be contacted further... unless it is to tell her specifically that you appreciate her concerns about your niece, that you were unaware your niece had similar problems in other classes, and that you plan to follow through on that revelation with the principal and your nieces other teachers directly. Thank her again and move up the chain of command.)
posted by jbenben at 2:45 PM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Bring the principal in ASAP. Your niece may (unfortunately) not be the only child having trouble with this teacher and the more documentation with the principal the better a chance at getting him/her replaced or getting your niece moved to a different class. Many schools also have a social worker/counselor on staff who you could connect with for additional guidance.
posted by macadamiaranch at 2:45 PM on September 15, 2011

I'm not comfortable with the hostility of responses to the teacher here- while she may be at fault, you haven't yet got confirmation that this might not be a problem with you niece's behavior- either as well or instead. People don't make jokes about the way they gave the sub teacher helll for nothing- although your niece is young it is not uncommon for students to respond negatively and disrespectfully to teachers they don't know well. This may not be the case, of course, but as a fellow teacher I hear a different possibility- the teacher yells all the time? I don't know any teacher who would enjoy this. Yelling at the class while she is on the phone? Why on earth is she expected to be dealing with the class while she is on the phone to a parent? That sounds incredibly stressful to me. Re: the homework- I she has lost it that would be embarrassing for her and unpleasant for your niece- but again, you say that your niece may not have named her work? I would get the full picture here rather than assuming that the teacher has a problem with your niece. It sounds as though the teacher is struggling manage the class' behavior. This is a truly awful experience as a teacher and I cannot imagine why she would be seeking any outcome other than calm in this.
The one really inapproriate behavior that sounds concrete to me is the laughing at your sister (? I think sister). Even this, though, should have both sides- it's possible that the teacher misread the conversation and thought your sister was being self-deprecating. Possible, I say. Go in with an open mind if possible. Teaching is a difficult job, though a rewarding one. I have never met a teacher who was a misanthrope or bully who enjoyed picking on students. I have heard that accusation leveled at dozens of teachers over my time as one, always in the context of a teacher dealing with classroom management issues. Which is not to say that it never happens. But the disparity is food for thought.
posted by jojobobo at 3:46 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry, one more thing- I think you sound quite calm and rational about this- it's the responses that sounded disproportionate to me. Also- the not accepting homework thing-
I would bet money on there being another explanation to this. Teachers are under a lot of scrutiny. No one, even of they wanted to, would believe that they could arbitrarily refuse to accept homework.
IMHO on the details: no recorder, yes to upper management presence, though I wouldn't go for principal personally- they tend to have less dealings with day to day business than head of campus/pastoral care/department/year level. But I am at a high school, fwiw.
posted by jojobobo at 3:51 PM on September 15, 2011

I had a similar issue with a teacher when I was in Jr. High. For some reason this guy just hated me. He also "lost" my folder and I had big fat zeros. When my report card came home with A's and B's and one glaring F my mom wanted to know what was going on. I told her the teacher hated me, yelled at us all the time, and he said I never turned in my folder.

My mom called the principle and asked for a meeting with the teacher and the principal. My missing folder was suddenly found and he tried to use it as evidence that I didn't pay attention in class because it was covered in doodles. The assignments were all there though, so my grade was altered. He tried to say that class involvement was a large portion of my grade and my mom asked the principal to ask some of the other kids in the class whether I participated in discussions. I have always been a total chatterbox, so my mom knew it was very unlikely that I avoided joining in when I got a chance to voice my opinion. I don't know if the principal ever did check up on that but my grade was finalized at a B. (I aced every single test and quiz and turned in every piece of homework, I still don't know why I didn't get an A.)

There is no reason not to ask for a meeting with the teacher and either the department head (if they have one) or the principal. Having a supervisor there to witness can make a huge difference.
posted by TooFewShoes at 4:23 PM on September 15, 2011

I think talking with your niece's other teachers is a great idea. It will give you a better idea of what her school day is like and how she handles herself in other classrooms. Talk with the principal. Find someone that can be an advocate for you at the school, like a teacher who really likes her or a guidance counselor. Someone on the spot who can help you help your niece.
posted by Foam Pants at 5:53 PM on September 15, 2011

Remember that much of what you're getting is second-hand from an upset kid, though the parts that aren't sound pretty screwed up. I've had students who 100% provably cheated tell their parents stories that were very quickly undercut when I just pulled out the papers, for example. I've had parents meet with me who have no idea what's going on with their kid, though in this case it was just the reverse (I knew the student was really engaged and interested but had trouble learning; they thought the student was a problem).

When a student is having trouble with more than one class, it's pretty normal to have an assistant principal or guidance counselor around for a meeting. The line about all her teachers having problems actually gives you cover for asking for an administrator to be there without it seeming like you're gunning for the teacher, even if it's not true.

Give the teacher a chance to provide her account; it may be that in a calm setting she can satisfy you that your niece actually is the problem. If not (and this case does sound pretty sketchy), then you can bring up "this is what my niece is telling me and I'm concerned." It's all about phrasing, really. "She says the classroom is very loud and it is affecting her ability to learn", "she swears that she's turning in the homework, can you suggest a way to verify this?", or "are there steps we can take to turn this quarter around for her?" Either the sub will be forced to cooperate and you'll have a witness to help hold her to it, or she'll expose herself as an angry incompetent.

If you just come in guns blazing with accusations, a good administrator is going to default to trusting their staff, until they hear something to change their mind. Putting your problems into the context of student learning forces everybody to talk about it on your terms.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:34 PM on September 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

As a school administrator, the very first question that I am going to ask you is whether or not you are the child's legal parent or guardian, because if not, I cannot speak with you about the child. You could call to set up the meeting for your mother, and as long as she is present and gives permission, then you can be included in the discussion. She could also give her permission for the school to speak with you; we require it in writing. I am in Texas but this is fairly standard practice in the US due to FERPA.
posted by tamitang at 7:41 PM on September 15, 2011


1. Absolutely get a counselor or admin in the meeting. She may be exaggerating, but I doubt you're the only parent/guardian who has complaned at this point.
2. Remember that the most important thing is that she's learning - not that her grade is low. It sounds like there isn't much learning happening for anyone, but that is truly the issue. In middle school, grades aren't part of the permanent record.
3. Can she be moved into another teacher's class? It may be worth it if you don't seem to get anywhere with the initial meeting. She has a right to an education and if this substitute teacher won't or can't provide it, you have the right to move her out to another teacher's class...even if it's only temporary. If the meeting is stalling, suggest it and see what the reaction is.

Good luck. Stay calm and focused. Her education is what's really important here.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:50 PM on September 15, 2011

I don't know if things have changed, but when I was a young student in another county in Georgia, almost anybody could be a substitute teacher, especially in the earlier grades. This substitute could have very little training in dealing with children, and little equilibrium built up.
posted by amtho at 8:06 PM on September 15, 2011

I like riffing off the sub's concern that "all of your niece's teachers have problems with her." She said it, she can't fault you for following through on that with the principal. You are concerned, of course you would follow up on that!


Remember that the most important thing is that she's learning - not that her grade is low.

Yep, and think of any other ways that you can take the high road and avoid "us versus teacher."

I think that the yelling thing is not a strong argument, because it's very subjective. And put the race thing right out of your head and convince your mom and niece to do the same, it will do you no favors to even secretly think it relevant. (I mean, how likely is it really that this horrid substitute is not being a total jerk to some non-white kid as well?)

I don't think that asking the teacher to notify you if homework is not received is the best approach, because it could be seen as shifting the responsibility onto the teacher, rather than the student. When I was that age and in trouble for not doing in my homework, I was responsible for getting a card signed by my teacher acknowledging that I turned in my assignments...I think I had to do this until I went a certain time frame with no 0s.

Now, I really did have issues with getting my homework done. But I also had one teacher in fifth grade who picked on me and was not cooperative when my folks tried to do the right thing and have the "let's discuss concerns" meeting. My folks were very clear with me at home, privately, that getting my "good" teachers to sign was a deserved punishment for me not doing my work, but that getting the dreaded Mr. Ryan to sign was CYA for us (team desuetude and her parents) to encourage objective grading from the jerk.
posted by desuetude at 9:41 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sidebar question: has your niece always had trouble in math? You might consider getting her on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). An IEP would ensure that she has all the support she needs to get through the school day, especially in math, that the sub (and the returning original teacher) would have to adhere to by law. It takes a bit to get an IEP in place, but since I don't know your entire situation on that front, this is merely a suggestion.

As for the sub being inappropriate, I will echo what others have said about getting a meeting with the principal or the department head in addition to the sub in question. It's good that you have a set of goals in mind in the meeting, but toss out the assumption that your niece is being bullied because she's white. This sub just sounds like she needs a reprimand from the higher-ups about how she runs her classroom.

Best of luck to you!
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 5:30 AM on September 16, 2011

Best answer: Here's another suggestion for helping her math outside of class: Jump Math is a Canadian math program that comes in the form of two books per grade, and works on the assumption that every child is capable of understanding ordinary math, and that most who struggle do so because many intermediate steps are not explained. It has had tremendous success in all sorts of communities. The NYTimes described it in a series of articles.

If your niece were able to start a couple of years back, and go through these books and firm up her understanding of math on her own, her confidence would likely soar and she would be less dismayed by her in-class situation.
posted by Capri at 9:55 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

ThaBombShelterSmith: you can only get an IEP if you have a diagnosed disability that is not correctable (in the sense that poor vision doesn't count if you can wear glasses) and which prevents learning. It's not something you can get just because of having trouble in a subject.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:00 AM on September 17, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone - we're meeting with the teacher tomorrow (who has suddenly called my mom and become *super* nice) and I feel better about it!
posted by needlegrrl at 6:00 PM on September 18, 2011

« Older Father to (adult) son 101   |   In-Wall Ethernet? Woo-hoo! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.