Dear Dr. Yael,
I am writing to you about a problem that I am having with my daughter. She is in 4th grade this year and we had PTA last week. We have never had an issue with her, so I was quite surprised when her teacher made it clear she had nothing good to say.
My first reaction was to lash out, but I held my tongue and listened. Dr. Yael, she broke my heart. I know that I am biased, but my daughter is really a wonderful girl and I can’t understand why the teacher is so negative. How can a teacher say she has nothing good to say about any student, more so a sweet nine-year-old girl?
I am worried about my daughter succeeding in this class, and even more so, about her self-esteem. My daughter is still young and impressionable, and I do not want this teacher to have a harmful effect on her. I see that she is picking on my daughter, and I do not know what to do about it. I once heard that when a teacher does not expect her student to achieve, the student would, in fact, not achieve. Please help me in this very difficult situation!
A Worried Mother
Dear Worried Mother,
You are in a very tricky predicament. First of all, I would like to start by saying that you did the right thing by not lashing out at the teacher. I understand that you are very upset, and rightfully so, but you need to become this teacher’s ally. That means you should try to make the teacher feel as if you are on the same side and ask her for specific things that you could work on with your daughter. Tell her that you want your daughter to succeed and that you heard that she is an excellent teacher. Ask her for suggestions on how to help your daughter succeed in her classroom. In this way, you are making her feel important and needed. If she gives you suggestions, try to implement them so she sees that you value her opinions. That being said, do not implement any ideas that would be harmful to your daughter, hopefully the majority, if not all, of her ideas will be helpful. If many of the ideas are harmful, you will likely have to take this issue to the principal.
As to your daughter, it is important to empathize with her and explain to her on some level what you are doing, without telling her what the teacher said at PTA. Make it clear to her that she has to show respect for her teacher, all the while telling her how special she is and how proud of her you are. If your daughter shares that she feels her teacher does not like her, then let her know that some people have a hard time showing affection. If she says that the teacher criticizes her, let her know that none of the criticisms are accurate. Just convey the importance of working with the teacher in order to make life easier in the classroom.
I once had a case that was very similar to yours. Mrs. Schwartz’s 1st grade daughter, Sorah, came home crying on the first day of school. She said the teacher had yelled at her. Mrs. Schwartz called the teacher that night and the teacher said there was nothing good to say about Sorah. Like you, Mrs. Schwartz was very hurt. After we discussed the situation, Mrs. Schwartz called the teacher back and asked her what specifically she thought was the problem. The teacher has taken a dislike to Sorah based on her appearance – a messy haircut and the clothes she was wearing. Mrs. Schwartz told her that she would get her daughter a neater haircut and buy her some new clothes. Mrs. Schwartz confided in me that the teacher was right to some extent about her daughter’s hair and clothes.
This teacher began to take a liking to Sorah and became an advocate for her in school whenever she needed it. When we make the teacher feel important, we enable our child to have a better year.
Is to your last point about teacher’s expectations and the way it impacts students, there is research in this area. The Pygmalion effect, a theory proposed by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson (1968), states that teachers construct expectations for student performance; students respond to the behavioral cues of the teacher and ultimately, their performance is shaped by these expectations. Robert T. Tauber is his book Good or Bad: What Teachers Expect from Students They Generally Get! discusses how teachers typically teach more to students of whom they expect more and promote greater receptiveness from these students through their verbal and non-verbal behaviors. Tauber suggests using the Pygmalion effect as an education tool to convey positive expectations and even more importantly to prevent communication of negative expectations. Most of the research deals with teachers expectations based on race, however, there is a lot of data that suggests teachers do form expectations based on superficial things. These expectations can cause teachers to change their behavior towards individual students, set lower expectations for some students, provide less or no feedback on student mistakes and less positive feedback after correct answers, as well as give students less time to answer questions. All of these teacher behaviors, when repeated day after day, over the course of a year, can negatively impact student performance.
I hope that you are successful in resolving this situation. If all of your efforts fail, then you may have to take your problem to the principal, but I do not advise doing this until you have exhausted all other options. Sometimes going to a principal or other administrator may make the situation worse.
If you feel your daughter needs some more support, perhaps professional help can make a difference.