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My Son Hates His Algebra Teacher

By Karen Deger McChesney, Contributing Writer

Question:

I have a ninth grader who is failing his algebra class. He tells me that he hates the teacher. He hates the way she dresses. He hates the way she looks. I have met with her several times and we both are frustrated. I can't get my son motivated to do the work and turn in his work. She is the only 9th grade algebra teacher. I can't move classrooms. My son lacks motivation. I do let him know that math is very important for his future and for college. What else can I do?

Answer:

There's a lot you can do! You have a tremendous opportunity to help him dig deeper and learn about himself, not just about passing algebra. I recommend shifting your focus from the importance of math to that of skills that are critical to his future - communication and relationships. Why? In the words of Wayne Johnson, vice president for Hewlett-Packard's worldwide university relations: "It really matters very little if students can perform well on multiple-choice tests. We need more of them to be able to communicate, analyze, think critically."

I cannot speculate on the reason you were frustrated by your meetings with his teacher. However, as a high school teacher, I see the emotional rollercoaster that teens ride hour after hour; I see their huge need to have a voice and be heard. They are extremely sensitive. Consequently, it's very difficult for them to articulate exactly why they dislike a class, aren't doing the work, etc.

Your son's comments focus only on the teacher's external characteristics, not her actual teaching. I think it's critical to talk to him about teachers in general and reinforce that it's impossible to connect with or like every teacher, and eventually, every boss. Consider sharing a story with him about a teacher that you did not connect with, giving your past and present perceptions. You'll show him that he's not alone; he's human. Your role is to push him to dig deeper, to analyze his "hate" and take time to think it through. This way, you'll keep the focus on him instead of the teacher and empower him to own the situation. This is a great way to invite him to broaden his perspective. For example, ask him to describe algebra class from the very moment he entered the classroom: describe first impressions of the teacher, the class, the other students, the seating arrangement, the room, etc.

When teens are uncomfortable in a class - perhaps struggling, bored, nervous - it's common for them to say they "hate" the teacher. Unfortunately, they may even internalize a low test grade or a wrong answer, leading them to decide that the teacher doesn't like them, etc. Chances are, your son's struggle goes far beyond his comments about the teacher's clothing. Consider giving him other ways to communicate about his struggle and lack of motivation: have him write a letter to the teacher (that he doesn't send); make a list of things that would help him enjoy and learn algebra; make a list of things that don't work for him (i.e., being called on by the teacher, working in groups, etc.).

You sound frustrated about his lack of motivation. To be blunt, a teacher is not responsible for motivating students; a great teacher models self-motivation. Obviously, neither you nor his teacher can make your son do his algebra homework. I know it's extremely difficult to watch your teen refuse to do schoolwork, become unmotivated and fail. Your son is giving you many signals (i.e., unmotivated, feeling angry toward the teacher, etc.). While he may speak convincingly of his hate for the teacher, he needs a lot of TLC with algebra right now; he needs you to challenge him, comfort him, and ask him questions about his teacher's actions, words, assignments, activities…everything that happens in that classroom. For now, I would discourage meetings with the teacher. It will be much more productive for him to do some self-exploration about the class and subject.


Karen Deger McChesney is a Colorado-based high school English teacher, contributing writer to various magazines and educational publications, and stepmother to a high school student.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

10/7/2010:
"I agree with the comments posted by this teacher, but would take it a bit farther. Ultimately, a student's success depends, not on a teacher, but on the parent(s). If a child is not motivated to do homework, the parent needs to do it with him. If the parent is unclear what that homework is, or is untrained in this kind of work (like the parent who 'couldn't begin to help her kids with their algebra') pick up the book and learn. Anyone who can read, can learn algebra or any other subject for that matter. If your 17-year-old child can learn it, you can too. You are the best teacher your child could have and you have a huge advantage over that unlikeable teacher in school--your kid loves you."
02/11/2009:
"This is typical, teachers always infer that the child or the parents have a problem. I am the parent of twin 17 year old boys who have never had problems in school. They scored exemplery on their last state assesment in math but are failing Advanced Algebra. This teacher has had complaints for several years and I am aware that many parents have complained this year. He is the only teacher that teaches this class in our school and currently former A students are getting C's and others are failing. My kids spent 1 hr and 45 min on homework last night and couldn't finish the problems. They are extremely frustrated and have lost all respect for the teacher and I can't blame them. I'm all for homework but schools can not always blame the kids and their parents. Their the ones getting paid to teach. I couldn't begin to help them with their algebra and am considering driving 50 mi round trip and paying 1000's of dollars for tutering just so my kids can pass this class!"
11/19/2008:
"Last year I experienced the same thing with my son not liking his teacher not doing well in algebra. Your advice is excellent, however it cannot be used as 'one size fits all'. I even had a tutor for him who attended the same High School 2 years ago. He claimed the teacher confused him and also that she spent too much time gossiping with the female students. I had a meeting with her and she told me point blank that I should start looking at a vocational school for my son where he can be trained to use his hands and that some children are just not good at academics. I asked her how is he going to do well there without learning the basics of 9th Grade and she couldn't answer me. However, he failed and is now doing 9th Grade math in 10th grade and performing at the top of his class. Some teachers can kill a child's spirit - No doubt. "
09/25/2008:
"My son has teachers he hates too, one in particular. She spends too much time talking, she is boring, etc.. He loved History before he got this teacher. Now he hates it. What can I do? He has this same teacher for another class too. "
04/30/2008:
"I am a 15 year old boy. I hate my dumbass math teacher. He dose not know what he is doing.My dad met with my teacher and my dad belives everything my teacher says and not what I say. I have enough problems with math as it is. Im stressed out as much as possible. I cant stand it any more. I need hlep."
11/1/2007:
"The situation I have is that there is only one algebra teacher and she is from a foreign country and her accent is so bad it frustrates my son because he has trouble understanding her. The other kids in his class are unruly and uncaring I suspect they just gave up due to communication. I brought it up to the school councelor and ther is not a thing they can do as she is the only teacher incidently she teaches the tutorials too. I feel that all hope is lost as I am from a very small town and all the other schools are too far away. Just what can I do to help him. This is the subject he has the most trouble with. "
05/24/2007:
"I have a freshman son, he is the only freshman in his Algebra II and he has the 2nd highest grade. He does not like his Algebra teacher. I have met the teacher and I am not impressed with the teacher. He talks to fast. He constantly refers to the students as 6th graders. I came, unannounced, to attend the class with my son. He asked a question regarding one of the problems and the students gave at 7 different answers before the correct one was given. In my opinion they guessed! I asked the teacher was was the average grade in the class. The teacher replied 'I don't know'. The same teacher was called to the principle's office and asked to bring some of my son's work as samples. He said he could not find any and he brought some old homework assignment and said my son could work the problems out and turn them in. This was not what was asked. I can't honestly discount my son's opinion of the teacher. But the Algebra teacher will be the math teacher for his next math clas! s and he has to focus. "
05/24/2007:
"Being the parent of a teenage boy in 9th grade, you forgot to mention that this is also normal for MOST teenagers. My son has gone from being a straight A student to barely passing.. even his favorite subjects. When I talk to parents of other teenagers they're saying the same thing. I just trust that all the hard work we've put in up to this point will be a strong foundation for our kids to bounce back with."
05/24/2007:
"To be blunt, a teacher is not responsible for motivating students; a great teacher models self-motivation. Agreed, However, in my humble opionion it is the reposibility of teachers to inspire students. I'm not sure how a teacher models self motivation..?? By showing up for work on time?"
05/24/2007:
"Hi Great article except for one point: Teachers absolutly are responsible for motivating youth (and parents too). Good teachers suceed at this and consequently have students learn bad ones blame the child and literally 'Leave Children Behind'. Certainly kids must be held accountable, but in world where teachers are measured by test scores they need to consider motivating youth as a key element in classroom management. Honestly I have years of experience consulting with teachers and good teachers know how you motivate students and that it is more important than how you disipline them, becuase their is boatloads of research showing that most behavior is motivated by positive reinforcement not punishment. Stop and consider this simple point, how many of us would go to work without the reward of a paycheck. Not that you have pay your kids tons of dollars. For my son that 'hates geometry' done home work is translated into the amount of time he can use his x box. Of course I ll be d! arned if I can get the geometry teacher to understand her role in this issue lets call that teacher motivational syndrome. How you teach material is waaaaaaaaaaaay more important than what you teach, if not we could simply translate those state standards into some nice software and skip the teacher, however that isnt the best approach becuase a teacher that understands how to build postive relationships even with those surly teens will surpass that computer every time."
05/24/2007:
"Hello, I am a parent who has the same problem with one of my students and a teacher. I agreed whole heartly with your suggestions. What is important to emphazise is what impact the student has with his/her progress presently and in the future. We must as parents stress the truth. No one gets along with or likes everyone they encounter. The important point of self-exploration allows another dimension of interpersonal interaction to come to the fore. How do we create for ourselves a mindset that will push us past the personal angst? Thanks for a meaningful response."
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