Square peg, round hole: When your child's teacher is a bad fit

When Janice's eight-year-old started feeling anxious about school, she learned her daughter had a teacher who was a bad fit for her child. It was difficult, but it opened the door to a conversation about the relationship between some adults and kids.

'Not every adult is necessarily a safe adult or trusted adult,' says mom of 8-year-old

Some teachers and students just don't fit. (Shutterstock / Robyn Mackenzie)

Some of life's most valuable lessons come from blocks, which might explain why the simple toys have transcended time, spilling out on the floors of one generation's living room and onto the next.

They taught us you can't fit a square peg in a round hole, but what happens when it's the only peg available?

"My daughter wouldn't want to go to school. She would come home and she'd be sad. We'd put her to bed at night and she'd say, 'I really don't want to go. I'm not happy. I'm really upset,'" said Janice, whose real name is being withheld to protect the identity of her daughter.

It took some time for Janice and her husband to figure out what was making school such a bad fit for their daughter, who had previously loved going to school. They considered the curriculum and the new expectations for a higher grade level, and then they wondered whether their daughter was having trouble with her peers, Janice said.

In our lives, we're going to come across people we don't connect with.- Marlene Meaden, Grade 4/5 teacher

After exploring several other options, it became clear that the source of their daughter's anxiety was her teacher, Janice said. That's when they went to the school counsellor for advice.

"I didn't want to come to the teacher directly. With some of the things that my daughter was saying, I was worried she would feel I was attacking her or she would feel insulted, and I certainly didn't want to create a bad relationship with myself and the teacher or my daughter and the teacher," said Janice, who also noted that her daughter struggles with anxiety.

The school principal and counsellor said they were managing the situation, but Janice said her daughter's attitude towards school failed to improve.

She then decided that if the situation would not change, perhaps her perception could.

"We started talking to our daughter about how she could deal with it instead, which might seem like a lot of responsibility to put on a child, but we felt it was important for her to realize that not everybody in the world is the same. Some people are not going to be happy all the time and are not going to be pleasant all the time. Even teachers, policemen, principals, nurses, doctors — they're all going to have a bad day," Janice said.

'Learning to be resilient'

The lesson of perseverance is one that Marlene Meaden applauds. Meaden is an elementary school teacher now but remembers a time as a student when few teachers left a positive impression on her.  

"In our lives we're going to come across people we don't connect with or who we have negative or adversarial relationships with. Part of the learning process is learning to be resilient and to work through those challenges as opposed to running away from them," said Meaden.

When possible, though, Meaden encourages parents to talk to their children's teachers.

"Sometimes as a teacher we might not understand that child's quirks, behaviour or personality, and the parent is the best source of information to understand the child," she said.

Meaden said she understands the perspective of a parent who is fearful about approaching a teacher, but she believes a team approach is often the best approach.

"For me, I would like my students to feel like they can talk to me, and if there is that disconnect, for the parents to have the courage to say 'Hey, my kids not really feeling you as a teacher.' It does require a lot of humility on the part of the teacher, and sometimes on the part of the parent, to also make that connection for the child," said Meaden. 

Janice said the teacher-student connection was strengthened after she encouraged her daughter to start giving her teacher a hug on the days she felt the teacher was yelling too much or having a bad day. It was a tool to help her daughter manage her own emotions, she said.

As for Janice's emotions, she decided to focus on the positive.

"She is a very strict teacher and a lot of kids respond really well to that, so I know that my daughter has improved quite a bit with her math and some of the other things she was struggling [with] before. The teacher hasn't acknowledged that she has improved, which is really frustrating for me, but even though the teacher doesn't do a lot of positive reinforcement, I get to do it at home," said Janice.

Dealing with the misfit relationship between a strict teacher and a sensitive child created space for another important conversation for Janice and her daughter, about the unhealthy relationships that can exist between children and adults.

"In a tamer situation like this, where a teacher isn't doing any specific harm but there is that negative feeling there, it was a really good lesson to bring up with my daughter about how not every adult is necessarily a safe adult or trusted adult. There are all different kinds of adults in the world, and I think it opened up the doors for that communication, too."