Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,My ten-year-old daughter has shared with me that her teacher is using words like “damn,” “stupid,” and “shut up” in the classroom. These aren’t words we use in our home and they are making her uncomfortable. She said the teacher made one boy who was misbehaving stand up in front of the class and tell the class he was a “stupid idiot.” I told my daughter I wanted to talk to her teacher about this, but she started to cry. I don’t want to betray her confidence, yet I do believe there is a need to talk to the teacher. I am looking for advice on how to address the teacher.
No child beyond the age of eight wants mom or dad to talk to the teacher—for reasons we can all understand. And yet your daughter has described a situation that needs to be addressed, and addressed quickly. So you have two issues: How do you let your daughter know what you’re going to do, and then what do you say to the teacher?
First, your daughter. Thank her for sharing her concerns with you. Explain that under most conditions, when she talks with you and wants you to keep a confidence, you will do so. Also explain that there are some things that she might tell you that you simply can’t allow to continue without saying something. Calling a child a “stupid idiot,” cursing, and using harsh language falls into this category.
Tell your daughter that she was right to be alarmed and you will say something to her teacher. Point out that you’re merely going to share your concerns. You won’t be angry with the teacher or make threats, you simply want the teacher to know what standards you hold, and you’re going to ask him or her to be sensitive to your views. Don’t negotiate with your daughter over whether you’re going to speak; however, ask what she thinks about what you’re going to do. Listen carefully and work through any issues she may have.
Now for the teacher. I have a daughter who taught the second grade for several years and have learned from her just how challenging the job is. In addition to trying to teach concepts to young children while managing the classroom, teachers have to continually respond to requests from the administration and deal with the one big scary wild card—the parents. That’s you. Believe me when I say that when you talk you’ll have his or her undivided attention. A harsh word from you and other parents could have a negative impact on the teacher’s career.
Tactic #1: When you talk to the teacher, start by establishing Mutual Purpose. Explain that you want to make sure that the classroom remains a healthy learning environment for all concerned. This is certainly a goal that the teacher shares. Also point out that you realize that this calls for instructional methods that encourage the sharing of ideas while ensuring that the students stick to rules of common courtesy and classroom deportment.
With children, of course, this balancing act can be a challenge. Recent information that your daughter has shared with you has you concerned about some methods the teacher has employed that you fear may have crossed the line. The methods may have been too forceful, even insulting, and you want to find out what really happened. Explain the words that were reported to you and ask how they were used and in what context. If necessary, share you views on what you think should and shouldn’t be said. You have a stake in the matter and your view is as valuable as anyone’s. Listen to the teacher’s view and come to an agreement about how similar problems will be handled in the future.
Tactic #2: The more I think about it, this situation is so extreme that I’m not sure you should chat with the teacher at all. Anyone who shapes the minds and hearts of the youth of the world and who feels free to curse as well as to make fun of a child in front of the entire class may not be cut out of the right cloth to teach—period. If you believe that the teacher isn’t likely to change or improve based on a single conversation, you probably should talk directly to the administration who may eventually take more drastic steps.
On behalf of those of us here at VitalSmarts, allow me to extend my thanks to you, a concerned parent who is willing to step up to an awkward situation and deal with it. Concerned and willing parents such as you provide an essential role in the monitoring of our education system. Thank you for sharing this challenge with us and I hope your efforts yield the results you desire.