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The Red Light Teacher

Posted Jun 09 2011 12:00am

At the start of every school year, many kids and parents anticipate the annual question, “Who’d you get?” At our school, they post the class lists two weeks before school starts. Kids and parents head up to see who their teacher is and which friends are in their class. For most people, “who you got” is an exciting time! For parents who have been burned by a teacher who has been less-than-kind to their child, it can be an event filled with anxiety and dread. If you’ve been there, you know that the experience of watching your child be openly disliked by a teacher is something you aren’t willing to risk ever again.

I like to apply three levels of compatibility where teachers are concerned. Green Lights are the ones who fit wonderfully with your child’s personality – they write things like, “Potsie is a joy to have in class and I am excited to see him learn more this year!” Green Light years are the best – it is such a relief to send your child off to school knowing they have a teacher who will make them feel safe and loved in the classroom. Parent-teacher conferences are reassuring, problems get addressed and communication is clear and open. Yellow Lights are the teachers who just don’t click well with you or your child – either in personality or learning style – or don’t communicate as often as you’d like. Yellow Light years aren’t always easy to get through, but with clear expectations, early intervention and patience, you and your child can usually manage to navigate the year with minimal damage. Then, there are the Red Lights.

If you’ve ever had one or if your child has had one, you know exactly what a Red Light Teacher is. Your school may even have an infamous Red Light Teacher - "You don't want Mr. Scissorhands! He makes all the kids drink raw eggs before school!" Red Light teachers not only don’t fit well with your child’s personality and communicate poorly, they display open contempt toward your child. Contempt is not something you ever want to see in the teacher/student relationship, and yet I worry that it happens more frequently than we know. What does contempt look like? Sighing. Eye-rolling. Exasperation. An inability to apply any positive meaning to any actions. Criticizing your child in front of you or in front of other students.

Red Light Teachers can be difficult to identify at first. Usually everything starts off fine because everything is new, and the classroom dynamics haven’t started to form yet. It can begin with subtle things you read in a teacher’s face, a tone of voice or a tersely worded note. In the worst cases, it can begin with an all-out dislike that can breed resentment and frustration and damage your child’s self respect and sense of safety at school.

I should clarify that I don’t think all Red Light Teachers are Red Lights to every kid. And thankfully, Red Light Teachers are rare. But it does happen. What are your options if you suspect that your child may have a Red Light Teacher?

First, listen to your gut. I remember sitting at back to school night of my son’s second grade year. We had been burned by a Red Light Teacher in Kindergarten (I still marvel at the fact that we had a Red Light Teacher in Kindergarten – aren’t they all supposed to smell like play dough and smile a lot?). I was NOT willing to let that happen again to my son. We were lucky enough to have a fabulous Green Light Teacher in First Grade, and I had written a letter to the school identifying the qualities we thought our son needed in a teacher for the next year. On Back to School night, sitting in that ridiculously small desk, listening to my son’s new teacher talk about second grade, something didn’t feel right. Maybe it was the way she pursed her lips when talking. Maybe it was the way she repeated the phrase “second grade expectations.” Heck, maybe it was the fact I remembered an offhand comment made by another parent that this teacher “didn’t like boys.” Whatever it was, she immediately rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t listen to my inner voice, because I had written that letter and figured that surely they had taken my letter into account when assigning teachers. I told myself that I was being too harsh and judgmental because of what happened in Kindergarten, and that I needed to give the woman a chance. Fast forward six months, and we had a big problem. I didn’t listen to my gut, and because of that, I let precious time go by where I could have done something to prevent the damage that was incurred from a Red Light Teacher.

Second, get curious and make sure the teacher is really a Red Light. Clear out all the stuff that is possibly triggering you – Does he or she remind you of a Red Light Teacher you had? Is there another person in your life who you feel this way about? Once you process through that stuff, you will hopefully be able to focus on just the teacher’s behavior and not someone else in the past who has hurt you. After you’ve done that work, clarify for yourself what is not working. If your child is complaining that the teacher doesn’t like her, LISTEN and get specifics. Take him or her seriously and don’t side with the teacher or say things like “Oh, give it some time, it will get better.” Your relationship with your child is the most important thing, and they must know that you are there for them and will help them work this out.

After you’ve heard what your child has to say, schedule a meeting so you can nip whatever is going on in the bud quickly. When you have the meeting, avoid getting angry or making accusations about the teacher. Use phrases that foster curiosity and dialogue, like “I’m concerned…” and “I thought I would let you know…” Use whatever Zen/Calming/Spiritual power you have inside yourself to stay calm and focused. You’ll want to make sure you come across as a resource to help them work this problem out, but all the while knowing that you are on your child’s side. Be prepared to hold your child accountable for whatever contribution they may have in how things are going, but continue to direct responsibility back to the teacher.

In the meeting, come up with a plan to address the problem and stay on top of your teacher like frosting on a cupcake, flies in ointment, or whatever sticky metaphor you want. They need to know that you are watching and you are holding them accountable for working out this problem. If the teacher is unwilling to talk about what he or she can do differently and is only placing blame on your child, it’s time to go to the Principal. Repeat to yourself: TEACHERS HAVE POWER. Kids do not. One rule of thumb I use for distinguishing between a Yellow Light Teacher and a Red Light Teacher is that Yellow Light situations can be hurtful but can usually be worked out. Red Light situations are downright harmful.

Third, document everything. Most of you are already well-versed in the good ol’ “document everything” spiel, so I apologize for being obvious. Write down everything that is said to you, emailed to you, and reported to you. Write it down with a date, and be specific. You will get a lot further if you have a well-documented, fact-based account of what has happened. If you’re not getting the results you want from working it out directly with the teacher, go to the Principal. Don’t trash the teacher to the Principal, but firmly let them know (with all of your dates, facts and times) there is a problem that needs to be addressed quickly. Principals can’t do a lot with a parent crying in their office, “He hates my daughter. I can’t tell you specifics, but I know he just hates her.” However, they certainly can do something about hard facts, dates, notes and attempted solutions placed in front of them. Red Light situations can do lots of damage to a kid’s self esteem, and the school has to make sure that they provide a safe environment for your child.

The vast majority of teachers out there are working so hard with very few resources. They deserve our respect, and they are doing the best they can to be there for our kids. We owe it to our children to make sure they have safe experiences with their teachers and create meaningful relationships with them. However, it only takes one Red Light Teacher to bring a kid’s love of learning to a screeching halt.

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