By Karen Deger McChesney, Contributing Writer
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?
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.