Dear Lauren,

I have a teacher in my school that I hate…. And it’s not because of my chutzpah, it’s because he really is a very poor teacher. He can’t control the class, he’s disorganized, and he gives punishments sometimes to kids that don’t deserve it. If I were the principal, I’d fire him. I know I can’t be disrespectful in class, but I also have no reason to respect this teacher. What should I do? And is it ok for me to speak to the principal? I’m afraid I’m the one who will get into trouble.

Lauren Roth

Lauren Roth's Answer

You should always stand up for what you believe is right. I’ve told my own kids maybe a million times, “If there is one most important thing I hope I have taught you, it’s: ‘Do the right thing, no matter what.’”

So should you say something? Yes.

Should you be smart about how you say it? Yes.

I would go to the principal and start by saying, “I don’t want it known that I was the one who said something.” Once you get that reassurance, explain what you’ve seen. Be deferential and as objective as possible when you explain it, like this: “I’m just here to tell you what I’ve seen. It seems to me this teacher punishes unfairly, because when Tom was just sitting there, he was sent to detention. And it seems to me the class is unruly and not controlled. It’s only my opinion, but I wanted you to know.”

Then you’ll know you’ve done the right thing. You’ve given the facts, as you see them, to the teacher’s superior, for him or her to deal with as they see fit. And anything which could be interpreted different ways, you will have said, “This is my opinion….”

And now, for your part. You said: “It’s not because of my chutzpah, it’s because he really is a very poor teacher.” Sometimes we don’t realize that we are affecting others’ behaviors. It could very well be that this teacher is reacting to something in you or in your behavior; so keep an open mind about that. Notice if the teacher tells you things like “Adam, that’s very disrespectful.” Really think about comments you’ve gotten from this teacher and whether they might have some grain of truth in them. He might be behaving badly all on his own, or he might be reacting, somewhat, to a behavior or an attitude of yours—even a subtle one. So keep an open mind about the comments or the looks the teacher gives you.

Finally, an unfortunate reality check: some people, even people in authority, we learn from how NOT to be. This is a sad and unfortunate reality in life. Don’t we wish that all teachers, principals, parents, religious leaders, political leaders (ha!) would be of sterling character and impeccable behavior? Life would be a dream if only that were so. And, one day, perhaps it will be so. Until then, we have to accept that the only things we can do are: 1. Have sterling character and impeccable behavior ourselves. 2. Stand up and tell when we see wrong, if there is someone to tell or some way to redress the wrong. 3. Realize that we can’t completely control other people and their behaviors.

I’ll tell you something else you can do to help your teacher become a better educator. I guarantee you that your teacher feels like a failure, to a certain extent, at his job. I’m certain he’s aware that he is not beloved and venerated by his students. His feelings of failure probably lead him to feel frustrated and trapped, which probably lead him to treat students less than ideally.

Have you ever felt frustrated and trapped? When you felt that way, how did you treat the people around you? Unfortunately, you may not have treated them very well. Because your teacher probably realizes his relative lack of popularity and is probably anxious about his teaching abilities, I would suggest you feel some compassion towards him. I would further suggest that you treat him with kindness and respect so that he can feel better about his teaching. Once he feels even a little bit better about his abilities as a teacher, I believe his attitude towards his students may shift, as well. Even if his attitude changes only ever-so-slightly, anything would be better than how he behaves now.

It’s truly amazing how people respond to respect and kindness.

If you treat him with respect, he very well might treat you better, even if he doesn’t extend the same kindness to the rest of the class. He may even treat the entire class better and more fairly because of your giving him a little compassion and respect. I’ve made that happen many times over the course of my life; it’s truly amazing how people respond to respect and kindness. You get more traction with honey than with vinegar. An entire dynamic in a classroom can be changed by one person changing their approach—and the first person to do it doesn’t even have to be the teacher.

If you follow this advice and your classroom situation still doesn’t improve, repeat. 1. Go to the principal again. 2. Think of what part you might be contributing to the problem and try to toe the line. 3. Dole out more kindness, compassion, and as much respectful behavior as you can to the teacher. And through it all, notice how this teacher behaves. Take careful notes, either on paper or in your head, and remember from him how you never want to be. Notice how he puts people down and let it make you resolve never to disrespect people in your care like that. Notice how he unfairly punishes and let it make you resolve never to punish without a well-thought-out reason. Maybe God put you in this classroom with this teacher to make you a better leader. Perhaps you’ll be a better friend, boss, co-worker, father, husband because of this experience.

Let me know how it goes using the comments section below.