Issue #3: Ready to Burn It Down

What to do when your kid's teacher has made you mad

Dear Kristin,

I have a sweet, sensitive 6th grader who is internally motivated and excels in school.

His homeroom teacher is old school and has the reputation of being a hard ass. My son has said that he likes her, but he’s afraid to get on her bad side. Well, today he did.

He forgot his laptop at home. And according to her, he didn’t forget his laptop, he “chose not to bring it because he doesn’t care about his education.” She also made him call me on her phone, in front of the class, and ask me to bring it to school. (I did not. I was at work and I’m not insane.)

She then gave him a zero for the day - icing on the cake.

He came home humiliated and worried that he was going to fail her class. He has never left his laptop at home before this so this isn’t a repeat offender thing (not that it matters, anyway!).

I want to burn something down.

My question is: What things should I include in my email to her that won’t land me in jail? Do I need to get administration involved?

Holding the matches in anticipation,

Mama Don’t Play

Dear Mama Don’t Play,

Wait! Before you strike that match! I have some thoughts!

To start, this is your son’s teacher and he has to see her daily. Realize this is not a faceless customer service agent from your cable company (those people do deserve your wrath). This is a person who is professionally trained to work with children. That does not mean they are infallible, don’t get me wrong. It means that popping off via email might feel good for like five minutes, after you hit send. And then you will realize your son has to sit in her class tomorrow, with your nasty message, looming out in cyberspace.

Step 1: Calm down. I did connect to your anger over how your son was treated. I run angry. It does not take much to get me going. Happy to take on other peoples’ anger, too. This article is helpful for us little anger gremlins who have to find a way to communicate, through clenched fists.* 

Here are the strategies:

  1. Find the trigger. Look past the obvious, the teacher. What is it about her actions that are the most upsetting? Telling him he didn’t care about his education? Making him call you in front of the class? The zero for the day? It’s a crappy cocktail for sure, but what brings up the most difficult emotion?

    If you are up for digging deeper, explore that trigger. Why do you think that one aspect sets you off more than the others? This isn’t about trying to control your anger or to push it down, it’s about sitting with it and learning about it. The more you understand your triggers, the more prepared you can be, when you have to face them again.

  2. Pay attention to how your body feels when it’s mad. Like a big ball of rage, of course, but what else are you feeling? Leaky gut, runny butt, knots in your back, neck’s out of whack . . . ? What is this, a nursery rhyme for the middle aged?

    Being aware of how your body feels will also help you notice the signs that some big emotions are coming. Or that they have arrived.

  3. Take a break before you respond. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP. I realize you aren’t likely to follow every step. Who has the time? Or patience? This one, though, it’s the most effective way to get the anger to fade long enough to think more clearly.

    Take a walk, sleep on it. Talk it out with your spouse or other trusted adults who care about your son. Take a boxing class, eat an entire pizza by yourself. Email Kristin at Ask a Teacher . . .

  4. Write out a script before a confrontation. Where my overthinkers at? Who loves to play potential conflicts out in their heads, on a continuous, unforgiving loop, when we should be drifting off to sleep? Instead, how about writing out that confrontation, giving it up to the universe, and then literally closing the book on it, before bed? Sounds better, doesn’t it?

  5. Do equal talking and listening. This would require a phone call/in person meeting. Most of the time, you can defuse a lot of high emotions by meeting face-to-face. More on this one in my final conclusion.

  6. Use “I” statements. “I” want to murder you isn’t what I’m talking about. More like, “I felt it was unfair to give my son a zero for the day.” Focus on your son’s feelings, too. It’s difficult to argue or be defensive when someone is telling you how they feel.

  7. If the convo can’t be respectful, skip it. The damage done by a disrespectful message is not worth it. I know from experience. I fired off a long, accusatory message to a co-worker once. I was certain I was in the right and I was going to get her to change her ways, via email. I was overtaken by my anger and let it flow out onto that keyboard.

    Of course, what ensued was an equally mad response. It spun out into an email back-and-forth that, if today, I was faced with the choice of having to re-read it or receiving a mammogram, I would choose mammogram, 100% of the time.

Step 2: Get Kid Feedback. Once you have worked through your calm down steps, there’s another angle I want to explore, before I share my advice. The prepare your kid for adulthood angle. I know, parents never get a day off, do they?

Before you email on your son’s behalf, consider including him in on your anger. Not your scary, ready-to-burn-it-down anger, more of your simmered down, palatable version of angry.

Discuss with your son that he could have a boss one day who manages like this teacher – with belittling remarks, not afraid to humiliate and punish. Aside from teaching your son early about how to file a grievance with HR, what else could you teach him about this moment?

You could share how you would respond, if this person were in a position of power over you now, as an adult. Explain some tools you have had to build as an adult to endure a poor manager. Examine how he can survive this teacher, as it sounds like this is how she has been operating for some time and will likely continue to do so. As we all know, that character ain’t gonna build itself!

Giving your son a voice in what happens next will also give him some agency over the situation. His opinion matters here and it will give you some guidance on how you respond, if at all.

Step 3: Options. At a loss on how to contact the school, when your child’s teacher has made you mad? I have made a handy parents’/guardians’ guide, detailing out the proper course of action, depending on the end result you are seeking:

I ran out of room, but I wanted to fit in pros and cons to each choice. Maybe for my next flowchart . . .

Step 4: Resolve. Finally, I will share what I have found to be the best method for working through hard situations. This method I discovered through trial and error, during 12 years of teaching. I have had to resolve issues with parents angry at me, and vice versa. It’s what you should do, so the teacher can really hear you. Plus, if you have done all of this calming work and you have grown your son’s character, don’t you deserve to tie this situation up in a nice, shiny bow?

You probably won’t like what I am about to say. Our society has strayed from this method because technology makes it easier to get our messages off rapidly, full of emotions and tones that we may or may not want to convey. I didn’t even put it on my flowchart because no one wants to resolve things this way.

Having a sit down, in-person meeting. Face-to-face. Like it’s the freaking ‘80s.

I know. I KNOW!

You might be thinking, really? I mean, I am mad, but I don’t know that it’s worth a sit down.

We should normalize sit downs. Especially if she’s upset you this much. It’s the best way to ensure nothing gets lost in translation.

Plus, based on what you have shared about her, I don’t see an email convo going well. Re: my last issue, some teachers should be fired and never are. I am not saying this teacher deserves to be fired, but my gut instinct is that this isn’t a one off for her. I bet she routinely embarrasses kids and makes sweeping negative generalizations about them over trivial things. It's likely that an email convo would result in a long, arduous back-and-forth conversation where she won't take ownership.

If you and your son have decided that you should speak with her, do it in person. You do not need to start with her administrator for this situation. Try to work it out with her first. It will set off alarm bells for her, so, if you want to put her at ease, explain that you communicate best in person, and it will just be the two of you. (You could also see if your son wants to be a part of the meeting. It could be a bit much for him to deal with, so give him an option to sit it out.)

Also, decide in advance, what a resolution looks like to you. What is your main goal for this meeting? With meetings that involve conflict, you should think about your expectations. You are coming into this meeting, having done a lot of work on yourself. She, most likely, has not. Think about how you want to handle it, if she disappoints you. 

I have had parents come in hot, I mean HOT, to in-person meetings. Their tones over email would be worrisome, so I would get my administration involved because I was sure they were going to lay hands on me. And then, we met. I became an actual person to them. Not just a body behind an email account. The anger took a back seat and we talked it out, keeping in mind the common goal: What's best for the child.

In your meeting, you will also have a common goal: to talk this issue out so she can get the hell home. Oh, and your son. You will hear her side of the story. It will not match up with your son’s side. That’s okay. You can decide what the truth is later.

Most importantly, you will get to tell her exactly what your sticking points are for this situation. What bothered you the most. She won’t be able to dodge it because it’s not an email. Hold her accountable but also be prepared to walk away, if she won’t meet you there. (She may deny acting that way, but it sounds like it was in front of the class. You can offer to ask the principal to interview fellow students about what they saw. Make sure you are iron clad on your son’s version of events, though, before you play that card.)

Once you leave, send a follow up email and thank her for her time. Summarize out what you discussed. It might seem clunky and strange to list what you discussed, but it’s a paper trail for you to keep. If you need to go to her administrators in the future, it will show you put in some work to try to mediate a situation. Do this even if the meeting went well, DO NOT SKIP IT. If she’s smart, she will realize you are keeping a paper trail and she will straighten up. Then, if she pulls anything again, it’s straight to administration.

Thanks for your question, Mama Don’t Play. I really feel for you in this situation. Be kind to yourself as you navigate these waters. Conflict is natural but can feel like absolute garbage to work through. I would love to hear an update on how you decide to resolve this situation.


*The author is a freelance writer with no mental health training. She still gives solid advice on communicating while angry. Also, has an article on time blindness!!

Please share Ask a Teacher right here. Or, go ahead and sign someone up as revenge. I will take ‘em how I can get ‘em.

Also, I need more questions! Submit them right here.

Join the conversation

or to participate.