Child's teacher appears to be off the rails--suggestions for a parent?
March 5, 2014 7:32 PM   Subscribe

I've got a third grader in public school who's having a rough year with her teacher. The teacher is out half the time, with a rotating cast of substitutes. When she's there she's explosive and calls the kids names and told them that she starved a beloved class pet to death over the holidays. What should I be doing?

So far I have sent two emails to the principal and the vice principal outlining what has gone on in the classroom, and tonight I cc'd in the district ombudsman. I have suggested, even though it's not my call and I seem to have zero sway over her classroom experience, that the teacher be sent on leave for the rest of this year, so the kids have a shot with one consistent substitute. (I have heard the teacher's husband is having health problems this year, which I am sympathetic to, to an extent.)

She calls the kids "pains in the butt" and "spoiled brats" en masse, and has called my quick daughter a "know-it-all", and it sounds like my daughter and the other kids do not take any of this as a joke (it's yelling, not "affectionate"). Another parent complained about the starved bunny bomb that she dropped on them after the holidays, but the teacher is telling the principal her class is difficult liars. The principal is interim and is not returning and generally seems disengaged with the school. This is a good public school that I believe in and our prior experiences have been good, as have the experiences of her older sibling, who is in her last year there (I am not interested in removing her). Before this year there was a strong principal who was very engaged, but he got kicked up the ladder.

Has anyone faced this in a public school setting? I am documenting and complaining but I really want the verbal abuse to stop. Is there anything else I should be doing?
posted by Lardmitten to Education (31 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a parent, but I would get the principal or other authority figure on the phone (not email) and demand that my daughter be put in another class immediately.
posted by kitty teeth at 7:41 PM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Superintendent of Education for your district? Any school board member you can contact, esp. The one for your voting district?
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:41 PM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I had a difficult period with my daughter in 5th grade and went in person to talk to the principal. I find that interacting with the school staff in person is so much better than email.

Go and meet the principal, yes, it may be an interim, but my dad was an interim school superintendent with 50 years experience so those are often the best people.

Don't be swayed by this or that. Get the facts. Sometimes it's a mix of your kid said this and the reality of what really goes on, so please, relax, and try to find out the truth of the matter.

In the case of my daughter, who was in 5th grade, the boys really were being jerks. And the principal stopped it, but it was only after I set up a meeting with him, as the teacher was not really responsive to my concerns.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:43 PM on March 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Email isn't working, so get on the phone. Go in person if that's what it takes. Be calm but firm. Go up the food chain as far as you can.
posted by radioamy at 7:43 PM on March 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

This is phone calls and in person meetings. The more parents you can get together at the same time the better.

It is tough. I had a unstable teacher once. She was fired when someone video recorded her (this was in 2002 ish so before the way prevalence of recording phones, I think the recording happened on a field trip) going off on one of her rants to us.

Of course, sending a child in with something to record with these days probably amounts to much more discipline than the pre (or just after) zero tolerance days. We were in high school if that makes a difference.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:45 PM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Seriously, call the Superintendent of Schools. That is what my father did for his career, and his father was a school principal. And my dad was a teacher before that. So they would really want to hear about any of this in their school district. And everyone in my family was not only about education, but about children, so please, report any problems you have in your school district.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:50 PM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

If there's any way you can do this with your face, go do that. If you can get that other parent who heard the starved bunny story to go with you, all the better.

I believe there comes a time when calm cool crazy gets jobs done, so if you need to sit in front of the principal and threaten to get a court order to put a responsible adult observer in the classroom, or wire one of the kids, or report the teacher to the police for animal cruelty, do it. School districts seem to operate entirely on a squeaky wheel policy, so go squeak until you are a bigger pain in the ass than the teacher is.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:50 PM on March 5, 2014 [15 favorites]

Meet with the principal.

In your meeting, be both extremely reasonable and extremely persistent. Do not use any loaded language, exaggerate anything that's been reported to you, or act emotional. (That may not be an entirely fair thing to ask of a parent in your situation, but it's the thing that's going to be most effective, so aim for that stance, even if it's hard. Principals deal with a lot of parents who exaggerate or are irrational when it comes to their kids. You don't want to get lumped into that group because it's going to make it harder to get what you want.) Explain the impact of the teacher's statement on your daughter (again, factually, not emotionally). Have a goal in mind. In this case, your best bet is to ask for your daughter to be moved to another class.

Teachers can (despite public opinion) be fired, but the process is too slow to be of use to you at this point. Teachers cannot usually (depending on the contract) be forced to take leave. Another class is what you want.

Good luck.

-A teacher

P.S. Threats don't help. At least give this idea a chance: act like a reasonable person and people will try to help you.
posted by leitmotif at 7:50 PM on March 5, 2014 [26 favorites]

I'm a teacher in a California public high school, and have worked in many bad and failing schools over the past decade.

Here is the advice I would give:
1. Critical mass. If you can organise with the other parents, your voice means more. Especially parents with strong ties to the school or other kids who are or have been successful.

2. Observe. Show up and volunteer in the classroom and record your observations. In California, any parent has the right to observe class, although the teacher does have the right to ask them to return the following day instead. But observations are 100 times more likely to get traction than a second-hand account by a third grader (and I'm not saying your child's account is in any way inaccurate. I just know how school officials think).

3. Follow the chain of command. Start with a face-to-face meeting with the principal, where the teacher isn't invited. Then ask for a meeting with her to discuss options for resolution. Document the hell out of it. Then if those meetings don't change anything, take it to the district. This is where critical mass will make the difference. Understand that dealing with a bad teacher when the principal will not do anything is like turning around the Titanic after it was half-way underwater. But school board officials are elected and do care about their constituents. So take as many people to a board meeting and talk during the public comment section - you will have a time limit, but you don't have to be on the agenda. And everyone who wants to generally is allowed to talk.

4. Treat this as an issue of learning and your students falling behind (especially on standardised tests). Data is the language administrators speak, and one class of 3rd graders not learning can be devastating to a school and their test scores. Now, with the transition to Common Core, testing isn't as important this year. But it still is a huge concern for most administrators.

5. Be clear about the ideal solution (replace with a competent and caring teacher) and the mediocre solution (replace with a long-term sub) and the most likely action (no change) and stay clear about it. Make that the conversation, no matter how the school tries to spin it.

6. Be persistent.

7. See if your daughter could qualify for special services (either SPED or GATE) that could necessitate a move to a different 3rd grade classroom, even temporarily or for certain parts of the day. I was allowed to move up a grade when it was time for math because my school was too small to have multiple 3rd grade classrooms, and a solution like that could ease the tension your daughter experiences.

8. Stay polite, calm, rational, and firm. Document everything. Tell them you're documenting everything. Remind them of what has been said and agreed upon. Be a pain in their ass.

Good luck. Feel free to gmail me (same as my name here at gmail dot com) if you have questions. I hope it works out.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:57 PM on March 5, 2014 [22 favorites]

I agree that the time is here to contact the principal in person and then the superintendent. My guess is that the issue is not with the interim principal being disengaged. It is with the union contract. Firing a teacher is near impossible. Tenure protects both the good teachers and the bad. To send her on leave is a good solution, but an expensive one. She would get paid and they would have to hire a long-term substitute.

When I spoke to the superintendent, I would ask specifically to have my child moved. The superintendent will say no, they do not move children to avoid specific teachers plus the other classes are full, etc. etc.

Press for your idea of a full time leave replacement teacher and tell them that the money they spend will be well spent as insurance to avoid a all the parents coming in en masse to voice their concerns.

If you get no satisfaction in about a week or so, I would show up at the next board meeting and voice your concerns there. In public. Have as many other parents there as are willing to attend.

Ultimately, I do not think you have much leverage and I think the administration's hands are tied and they are just going to try to ride out the storm until the end of the year. Sorry
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:58 PM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

On preview, I missed AlexiaSky's comment. My students successfully had a change in teachers after recording a typical lesson and showing their parents. Then the parents showed the administrators. And they now have a new teacher. Worse case scenario is they get the phone taken away. You can get it back. But that video is worth far more than even written observations from a class because it captures tone and context and leaves little room for justifications.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:59 PM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Argh! I swear I'll stop after this one last thing: the tenure in most districts is just a guaranteed job. That's it. You can be moved grade levels and even school sites so long as your credential covers you. This teacher most likely has a K-8 credential, which means she could easily be given an assignment that is far less suitable for her as a means to force her to quit. That happens all the time. That is the kind of thing most members of the public don't really know.

And in some states, there are rooms where teachers go and sit because they were promised a job when they got tenure, but for whatever reason, they can't be in front of a classroom. If you're in New York, there is lots of precedence on that.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:03 PM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

she starved a bunny to death? report her to the police, maybe they can do the heavy lifting here. it sounds like there's a whole classroom full of witnesses to her confession.
posted by bruce at 8:12 PM on March 5, 2014 [12 favorites]

Please report this woman for animal cruelty and child abuse. Call the police and ASPCA about the animal cruelty. If the principal/superintendent downplay the verbal abuse, go above their heads to your local authorities. She is verbally abusing her students and she willfully neglected an innocent animal to the point that it died. She's got problems and she's taking them out on the children and animals under her care. That's not acceptable. Not at all.
posted by i feel possessed at 8:16 PM on March 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

Nthing many of the answers here, but if you're seriously concerned about your daughter going to school with this woman in the near future before something is resolved, is there any way you, or another parent, could sit in on the class?

If the woman is so deeply disturbed that she continues with her negative behavior with another adult in the room, I would deem her a possible danger to the kids.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:01 PM on March 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

I only scanned the comments, but I wonder - have you asked to observe the class? Met with the teacher yourself to discuss this stuff with her and gauge her response?
posted by Miko at 9:02 PM on March 5, 2014

Just chiming in that you need to have a face to face meeting with the principal. Emails are easy to miss, or ignore. Even fully engaged principals sometimes don't reply to emails, because they get so many. Going in person makes you impossible to ignore, and also signals that you are very serious. Its easy to fire off an email, it requires time and effort to turn up in person for a meeting. If you can get another class parent to join you, that would be great.
posted by Joh at 10:06 PM on March 5, 2014

I once spent a day in my 2nd grade son's classroom after the teacher called to say his behavior was bad. What I learned about that teacher that day was enlightening to say the least, and my son and I effectively fixed his "bad behavior " by focusing on how he could walk on eggshells around her horrible behavior...and through a meeting with the teacher in which I suggested changes she could make to help him (but were really to change her own horrible habits.)

I guess what I'm saying is: getting in class for a day couldn't hurt, for helping you understand what you're really dealing with.
posted by davejay at 11:00 PM on March 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

(You don't write which country this is; it might make a difference.)

Yes I've been through a situation quite like this (minus the bunny), and as I was the chairman of the parent's organization at the time, I had to deal with the aftermath as well.
One question: aren't there any parent's meetings at all?

In our case, it was during a parent's meeting that the complaints became so detailed and massive that the teacher in question got up and quit her job on the spot. That was unexpected and too drastic by all measures, albeit self-inflicted--I sympathize that you sympathize with the teacher of your kid "to an extent".

On the other hand, this kind of stuff is going to stay in the memory of your kid, too, so it should be dealt with. Teachers who act like this are unhelpful as a role model, and they help to shape--in largely negative ways--what the children expect of education in general, and of hierarchical situations specifically.

The red flag here is to call the class as a whole any names, and especially "liars". This is not a pedagogue at her best at all, and in this state of emotion she shouldn't have to stand in front of children and try to teach.

I agree with others here that a situation like this can best be handled by meeting the responsible people in person, and by showing them that you are caring, reasonable, articulate, and concerned on real grounds.
posted by Namlit at 11:18 PM on March 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'd have yanked my child out of that horribly abusive situation by now, so I have no personal experience advice if you're determined to leave him/her in it... but by all means, escalate and ensure that all the parents are aware of what is going on.

Documenting the behavior with an automatic audio recorder in the child's pocket has worked for others, it seems, who have had a child end up in this kind of psycho-teacher-that-ends-up-on-youtube-and-the-news situation.
posted by stormyteal at 11:45 PM on March 5, 2014

Our the grade one girl had a year of a shit teacher - who was an evil freakish vamp. Hated the mums, but the dads - it was embarrassing. In the same breath she would snap at my wife, but reach for my hand to show me something in the classroom.

She wouldn't let the kids out to the bathroom - forcing us back to toilet training. Our vary bright daughter used to say things like "I can't do that, Ms X says I'm stupid"

Sounds like we're talking about the same person.

We had an appointment with the principle - nothing happened. Then after one episode where my wife witnessed the woman screaming at the kids - catatonic uncontrollable screaming - we threatened to write to the education department. By this time the useless principle had received heaps of complaints, and Ms X went on study leave.

My advice is to document everything - dates, clinical description - don't go it alone - organisational change 101 says build a strong coalition for change. Reach out to other parents, and go well armed with evidence. The principle will prevaricate and defend their appointment - but stay strong. We were so pissed off that we took our girl out the year after and started at the school down the road. It's better.

The principle knows about this behaviour - if it's this odd - the principle knows and it says heaps about a school's culture that they will leave the teacher alone.
posted by mattoxic at 12:11 AM on March 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

@guster4lovers response resonates with me because when I was a student in a toxic CA public school, the effective procedure for escalation of an abusive teacher was the same: vice principal, principlal, super-intendant. Document, document, document: what you sent with your daughter to class and what came back every day from the teacher - along with any other parents who are aligned.

If the teacher seduces a parent, as one commenter observed happening in her case, get that crap on tape and ostracize them from your attempts to change things. As others have said, school principals are not incentivized to fix problems because they have no control over their unionized teachers. The union won't want to deal with you. But if this teacher is as nasty as you say - describing euthanizing her bunny appros of nothing, out more than in, calling 3rd graders "pains in the butts" - you have incentive for the principal and the union to fix their employment issue, or you have a strong legal case of educational failure - which should file jointly with other parents (minus any who sleep with that teacher, if any).

Teachers and principals these days... Who would have ever thought?
posted by SakuraK at 1:16 AM on March 6, 2014

To build on a couple poster's suggestion of classroom observation: get as many parents as possible involved in this. Since most adults work, there's no way you yourself can sit in every day; but try to set up a roster with enough parents for two or three to sit in there every week.
posted by easily confused at 2:29 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a high school principal and was a public school teacher for many years. I'm sorry you're going through this.

It's very difficult to fire a teacher. Generally, they need to be officially written up, placed on "Performance Improvement Plans" and given an extended period to demonstrate progress towards improvement. This process can be as long as an entire school year.

This teacher may or may not already be on such a plan. If she is, she's allowed time to improve to keep her position, if she isn't, it's going to take a long time to get rid of her (barring outright abuse to kids).

Kind of crazy is VERY hard to prove and it's VERY hard to dismiss staff over that.

It sucks.

But I'm going to tell you the secret password that may allow you to get results quickly:


Almost every state has laws that address school bullying seriously.

What you need to do is document all instances of the behavior that affected your child's ability to learn in a safe environment. Dates, times, who was there, etc.

Meet with the principal (who probably already knows about all of this, but remember, you're using the magic word). Explain the situation, explain that this class is becoming traumatic for your child, and that your child needs to be moved to another class. Ask if your child can be moved this week or next week.

It is NOT a big deal for us to move a kid to another class. If the principal gives you any pushback, then you get a meeting with the Superintendent of Schools. Same magic word, same discussion.

This is going to get your kid away from the nutty teacher; it's not, unfortunately, going to help all the other kids. If you were inclined, you could contact other parents and make a group effort to move all of your kids. But you have to determine if that's a scenario you want.

Again, I can tell you from experience, once a parent uses the word bullying, administration moves a whole lot faster.
posted by kinetic at 3:37 AM on March 6, 2014 [18 favorites]

I work in a public school and even though calling and writing is what you are supposed to do, sometimes the best method honestly is just to show up. Make your presence known. Emails are too easy to ignore. Also best if you can get some more parents alongside. This is not acceptable for your daughter or her classmates so someone needs to step up. Do not take no for an answer. And in NYC, hey, there is always the NY Post!
posted by bquarters at 4:02 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I omitted it in first comment because of timing (ie if there isn't a meeting for another month) but if your school holds PTA meetings, show up and state your concerns publicly in front of the whole staff (or whoever is there). You need to be heard, in person, and to have your concerns verified and acted upon. Like someone said above, if you start "squeaking" (the wheel analogy) and don't stop, then you will get results. Maybe not exactly the ones you want, but change will occur. PTA meetings or not, definitely go straight to Principal's office though as soon as you can, in person. Insist on a meeting. Troubled schools like to remain "closed systems". You have to show that what is occurring is known and is not okay and needs to stop. (Again, not emotionally, just factually- so that your concerns aren't dismissed).
posted by bquarters at 4:16 AM on March 6, 2014

Before this year there was a strong principal who was very engaged, but he got kicked up the ladder.

If you had a good relationship with the previous principal, and especially if the previous principal is still in the district, I would reach out to them and ask them for their advice. They will know the school setup, the people who can make things happen, the systems, etc. They may have levers to pull that you don't even know exist. Even if they don't have the ability to do anything about this themselves, they will know who you should contact and how you should do so.

I would think very carefully before trying to record the teacher without her knowledge -- the school's policies and state laws about recording may apply. (TBH, if I had been in that situation as a kid and we had had easy video recording, I probably would have done this without my parents' knowledge. But it is a totally different thing for a parent to ask a child to do.)
posted by pie ninja at 5:18 AM on March 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

You have a lot of good info here.

I would recommend banding together with other parents and making this a class effort. Don't just YOU go and observe, see that there's a parent in that classroom every-single-day. As a teacher I WELCOMED it when a parent came to visit. I loved when parents were involved, even if they were just giving their kid the hairy-eyeball for acting up. If I was a shit teacher, I'd hate it. It your rights as parents, so enforce them.

A group of parents is a LOT harder to dismiss than one parent. I agree with kinetic's advice on using the word BULLYING. That will make heads snap and bring quick action.

Meet with the teacher with the principal. Meet with the teacher without the principal.

I had some terrible teachers when I was a kid and it helped me so much when my parents went to school to address my concerns. Just knowing there were on my side, helped me so much.

Reinforce at home that sometimes people are jerks and that it doesn't mean that we're bad people if jerks say that we are. Give your child agency to stand up for herself. "If Mrs. Smith tells you that you're a 'know-it-all' you tell her 'I'm not ashamed to have knowledge.'"

If you can, transfer your child to a different class. Go down to the school, and hold your breath and stamp your feet until it happens.

Sometimes, you have to save yourself.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:56 AM on March 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would also say, in future, skip email and go straight to face-to-face meetings. Email is great for documentation, but never seems to accomplish a whole lot. Faced with an upset parent, though, a principal has much more incentive to make sure they don't get another visit. If you could go at the same time as some other parents, that's even better.

It's a hassle, and I'm sorry your kid is going through this.
posted by emjaybee at 8:23 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

So the principal heard about the bunny thing from you and another parent and the principal has done nothing but accept her repyl that the students are liars?

you need to call the supertintendent and get a meeting in person. screw the principal.

if you can get any other parents to go with you, do that as well, or at least have a letter detailing the actions the teacher has done (yelling, dead bunny) etc, signed by the parents.
posted by sio42 at 8:54 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was thinking along the lines of bquarters who mentioned the NYPost. If the starved bunny story is true then go to the media. That woman should not be anywhere near children but it's news of animal abuse that could get this in the public eye and then the school would have to act.
posted by biggreenplant at 7:32 PM on March 6, 2014

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