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How I Handled...

A Parent Complaint
About a Teacher Who
Called Her Son Names

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Resorting to name-calling or put-downs is never appropriate behavior for a teacher. Even in the most difficult situations, the teacher must remain the role model for behavior. So what did I do when confronted with a parent complaint about a teacher's name calling?

The Problem:

Mrs. Smith (not her real name) called the school. She was upset about a science teacher who had called her son "a nothing" and his two friends "jackass #1" and "jackass #2" when he found the three goofing off in the science lab. Mrs. Smith wanted immediate punishment for the teacher and she wanted her son removed from the class.

The Solution:

Mrs. Smith's concern was heard. She was assured that the incident would be investigated and that she would be contacted when the investigation was completed.

Each of the students wrote independent statements of the day's event. The teacher then was invited with union representation to explain his side of the situation.

We were able to piece together the situation. It went something like this:
While the teacher was answering a phone call in his office off the science lab, the students were putting away lab supplies and getting ready for the class period to end. Three of the boys began messing around and one boy's lab book was tossed into a storage closet. When the student went to retrieve his lab book, another student tried to grab it from him. The closet door was shoved open, a table overturned, and the teacher's attention was called to the three boys at the back of the room. In frustration, the teacher pointed to two of the boys, called them "jackass #1" and "jackass #2," and asked them to remove themselves to the hallway for a quiet conversation. The third boy followed the other two out into the hallway. Raising his voice at all three boys, the teacher stopped young Smith's protests when he said Smith was a "nothing." He reminded all three that they did not have the right to disrupt the classroom.

After all parties were heard, the three students were able to articulate their misbehaviors and independently apologize to the teacher. The teacher was able to articulate his own misbehaviors and apologized privately to each of the students. Mrs. Smith's son indicated that he had barely passed science last year and didn't want to be in the class this year. That information, along with the results of the investigation, was shared with Mrs. Smith who, with her son, decided that a different class might be in her son's best interest.

While the specifics of the principal's conversation and documented informal reprimand of the teacher were not shared with the parent, the parent was reassured that what she reported would not occur again. She was appreciative that the school wouldn't wash over a legitimate parent complaint.

The Reflection:

At least two issues were involved in this incident:

  • Teachers are responsible for their students and need to keep their students in sight at all times. Left unattended, young adolescents will find ways to amuse themselves.
  • Regardless of how frustrated a teacher gets, he or she must remain a role model for students. It is never appropriate for an adult to address misbehaviors publicly in ways that might embarrass students. It also is never appropriate for a teacher to use sarcasm or name-calling when reprimanding students.
This teachable moment for the science instructor also became a lesson about bullying. Sometimes a teacher's classroom discipline approaches what we'd call "bullying." A bully shows students who is boss; that's much different from showing students you care and have consistent expectations for classroom behavior. When a student misbehaves, teachers cannot assault the character of that student. And, even though they might use derogatory names at home or with their friends, students should never expect to hear those words from their teachers. Being a role model is a difficult and important part of teaching.

About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. Six principals comprise our How I Handled team; two of them are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals. Team members remain anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.

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