Care and Feeding

Stop!

Is it OK for a teacher to yell at her students?

Photo illustration of children with visible stress, ostensibly because a teacher is yelling at them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Highwaystarz-Photography/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Katie Holbrook, high school teacher, Texas
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington

Is there an acceptable amount of teacher yelling in the classroom? My son’s fourth grade class is quite large (30-plus kids), and it often seems like his teacher gets overwhelmed. He said she yells a fair amount when kids get out of line. As a parent, I’ve reached the yelling point as well, so I don’t want to be overly critical of a teacher who seems like she’s doing her best. We’ve checked in with him, and he’s personally not too bothered by the yelling, even when he’s the recipient. However, he has said a couple kids have cried when she’s yelled at them. I’ve got some bad memories of unchecked teachers who yelled at kids until they cried (myself included), and I don’t want to dismiss it because my son isn’t personally bothered. Is this something to bring up to the teacher? The principal?

—Can’t Hear Over the Screaming

Dear CHOtS,

I believe there are only two reasons for a teacher to yell in school:

1.    The teacher needs to get the students’ attention quickly. The noise in a classroom or cafeteria or gymnasium has become so loud that a dramatic increase in volume will inevitably get the students’ attention and immediately silence them.

2.    The teacher needs to intervene in a potentially dangerous situation. A student is running toward the road. A physical altercation has erupted between two students. A student is acting unsafely at recess.

If a teacher is shouting in frustration or anger, then that teacher needs to reflect on the efficacy of this tactic. No child or group of children should be routinely shouted at throughout the schoolyear.

One of the best teachers I have ever known was incapable of yelling. Her voice was simply too soft. Yet she maintained order in her class and commanded the respect of students, often by reducing her volume. Yelling is not necessary in a classroom on regular basis.

That said, even though I’ve never raised my voice or lost my temper, if you asked my students if I have ever yelled at them, they would likely say yes because students often refer to a reprimand as being “yelled at.” I mention this so you can probe a little further in terms of what your child means by “yelling” to ensure that the teacher’s behavior isn’t being mischaracterized. I teach fifth grade, and many students cry when being reprimanded even when I’m speaking at a normal volume. They feel guilty about their actions. Frightened by possible consequences. Worried about what their parents will think. Upset about getting caught.

But if it’s true and your child’s teacher is routinely raises her voice, it may be something you want to mention to the teacher. I’m a firm believer in telling the teacher first, as difficult as that may be. But something as simple as, “Johnny tells me that you yell a lot in class. It must be a frustrating year for you to have to raise your voice so often” can go a long way in alerting the teacher about how her actions are being perceived both inside and outside the classroom.

If that doesn’t work, a conversation with the principal may be in order.

—Mr. Dicks

My daughter attends a public kindergarten located in a suburb of a large metropolis in the South. Her teacher refers to herself as “Mrs. Smith.” I would much prefer to use the title Ms. and teach my children to do the same. I consider Mrs. and Miss to be outdated and sexist. Regardless of how I address the teacher in notes and emails—Ms. Smith or her first name—she consistently refers to herself as Mrs. Smith in her replies.

How should I refer to this teacher? Can I continue to call her Ms. when talking about her with my daughter? Is it rude to call her Ms., either to her or in discussions about her, when she has made her own preference clear by example? She has not directly asked me to do otherwise.

If it is relevant, she is only a couple of years out of school and just got married. I get the impression that she is proud of her newly acquired last name and honorific.

—Ms. Mom

Dear Ms. Mom,

Call her what she wants to be called, which is obviously “Mrs. Smith.”

I sympathize with you—I am married but did not change my last name, and I am “Ms. Holbrook” in my classroom. Many students assume “Ms.” is the same as “Miss,” so every year I explain what “Ms.” means and why I use it.

At the same time, people’s names are important to them. Disregarding her preferred name probably does not feel like respect to Mrs. Smith.

Talk about names with your daughter. Explain why you prefer “Ms.” but dislike “Miss” and “Mrs.” However, acknowledge that some women, like her teacher, want to be called “Mrs.” Continue smashing the patriarchy to raise an empowered girl who will one day be a liberated woman. At the same time, recognize that not all women share our feminist views. While that is frustrating, we aren’t helping ourselves or our fellow women by dismissing their perspective.

If you feel strongly enough, you could bring this up with Mrs. Smith. But it might come off as patronizing, and I doubt very much that she would change her title afterward.

And please, please don’t call a teacher by his or her first name unless explicitly invited to do so. You probably wouldn’t refer to your dentist by her first name. Show teachers the same professional courtesy.

—Ms. Holbrook

My daughter is in third grade and was recently diagnosed with ADHD. Her teacher is not great, but not horrible either: She is consistently sick at least one day a week and even more at times. She has several illnesses, and I sympathize with her, but all the various substitute teachers have really taken a toll on my daughter’s education. These substitutes don’t know her background or what she requires in the classroom. Is it in bad taste to complain to the principal about her attendance? I’ve spoken to other parents that had the teacher years ago, and they experienced the same frustration with her constant absences.

—Absence Isn’t Making My Heart Grow Fonder

Dear Absence,

Oof, that’s tough. I feel for both your daughter and the teacher. Your daughter lacks the consistency she needs, and, at the same time, chronic illness is no picnic.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to share your concerns with the administration. Maybe “complain” isn’t the right word, but you could illustrate for them what this year has looked like for your daughter and the difficulties she’s had due to the teacher’s absences.

Unfortunately, the principal’s hands are probably somewhat tied. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, and those accommodations might include an adjusted leave policy for her. Likely, she can’t be fired because of her absences.

However, you could inquire about a couple of policies regarding this teacher. First, do they take into consideration children with ADHD when doing class placement? They probably do, but it can’t hurt for them to hear how this class was not a good fit your daughter and how it would behoove students with attention difficulties to be put in a class with a teacher who has good attendance. Second, given that this has been an issue for years, would it be possible to get one regular sub for this teacher? It’s one thing to have a new face in the classroom every week, but it’s another to have the same person stepping in to fill the space. A regular substitute could get to know the kids’ strengths and challenges and stay more up-to-date on the curriculum. It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s something.

In any case, I hope next year your daughter is placed in a class that works better for her!

—Ms. Scott

My daughter is one of those kids who loves to read. She’s spent the past two summers with her nose stuck in a book. Subsequently, when she returns to school in the fall, she is testing a grade or two level higher than when she left school. Unfortunately, for the past two academic years she has made absolutely zero improvement in her reading over the course of the schoolyear. We don’t live in a particularly affluent area, so I know lots of kids require extra assistance just to read on grade level. I’m thankful she’s doing as well as she is, but she appears to be in some weird middle ground between being identified as gifted and being identified as needing extra assistance, and therefore she appears to get very little attention from her teachers. Even her teacher has told me her reading group spends a lot of time doing “independent study.” Spending nine months of the year and not making any progress seriously concerns me, and I don’t want a repeat of the last two years. Who should I raise my concerns to? Next year’s teacher? Or the principal, since this appears to be an issue across several classrooms? What would I even say about a kid who appears to be doing very well?

—Stuck in the Middle

Hey There Middle,

It can be very confusing when you have a driven student who isn’t making academic growth. There could be a couple factors at play here. The first depends on her age and grade. For example, in my second-grade classroom, I have several students who are reading on a third-grade level, some of whom could probably even tackle fourth- or fifth- grade–level text with ease. However, books on these levels are often developmentally inappropriate. A child’s “reading level” isn’t only determined by their ability to read words fluently. It’s also determined by their ability to understand things like figurative language, humor, and inferences. My school uses a reading curriculum called IRLA, which measures a student’s reading fluency as well as their ability to decode unfamiliar words, infer meaning, and compare texts. I suggest talking to her current teacher to find out whether she’s showing growth or improvement in these other areas of reading.

Your daughter’s teacher may also have decided that rather than push your daughter to the next reading level, it’s more developmentally appropriate for her to hone her existing skills instead, which would explain the independent study. This is a common practice for kids who are exceptional readers for their grade who may not be ready to move to the next level quite yet. In some cases, kids just need more time building their skills in things like inferencing and reading comprehension, which can take a significant amount of time for high-level texts. In others, it’s more a matter of building a child’s love for reading books in multiple genres, which most curricula rarely make time for in elementary school. All of these practices make for a more well-rounded reader in the long run.

If you still have concerns about your daughter’s growth once you’ve spoken with your daughter’s current teacher, I would recommend speaking with her next teacher. In the fall, you could say something like, “I’ve noticed that even though my daughter is a very strong reader, she’s made very little growth during the schoolyear. I’m interested in helping her to reach her full potential. What could we do together to make that happen?”

Hope this helps!

—Mr. Hersey