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Parenting : Teacher May Be Trouble : If a child's dislike of an instructor affects ability to perform in the class, the parent must intervene to help solve the problem.

August 20, 1993|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers writes regularly for Valley Life

The 13-year-old boy had always done well in art, his favorite subject in school. So he was stunned when he saw the F on his eighth-grade art project--a painted T-shirt. The reason for the dismal grade? He forgot to put his name on the shirt.

He worked all weekend on his next assignment. But before school Monday morning, he tearfully flung his creation in the trash, saying, "My teacher criticizes everything I do."

His dismayed mother met with the teacher, who opened her grade book to show that more than a third of the class was failing.

"By the time my son got to high school," said the mother, a Newhall resident who asked to not be identified, "he was so traumatized, he refused to lift a pencil in art."

Youngsters dread attending class for many reasons. Often, the difficulties can be traced to physical, emotional or social issues, such as nearsightedness, adolescent Angst or a divorce in the family. Sometimes the troubles have to do with the teacher.

Most problems surface at the beginning of the school year, according to Loeb Aronin, a former junior high school teacher who is director of psychological services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "Youngsters are often stressed during the adjustment period," he said.

A child's September blues may simply be a matter of missing last year's favorite instructor, according to Sue Shannon, principal of Lankershim School in North Hollywood. "Part of life is learning to make changes and say goodby," she said. "In junior high, the children will have six teachers, so it is good for them to learn to work with different personalities."

Aronin, the father of four, remembers when his daughter complained about her high school math class. "We gave it a fair chance and we made it through," Aronin said. "He never became my daughter's favorite teacher, but I think she benefited from the experience."

In some cases, asking the child to grin and bear it only makes matters worse, according to former elementary schoolteacher Guy Strickland, who runs a test preparation program and is writing a book titled "A+ Child, D+ Teacher."

"Sometimes the kid is fine, but the teacher is not," he said. "Maybe they have personal problems and are taking it out on the children. I run into a lot of kids I have to patch back together because their teacher either didn't diagnose a problem, destroyed their self-confidence or just didn't teach anything."

The worst educators, Strickland said, "crush kids who show any kind of enthusiasm, energy or spark of individuality. You end up with kids who know how to walk in a straight line, but they don't know how to enjoy learning."

Truly terrible teachers are, fortunately, the exception. But even caring, competent educators can unknowingly make things tough on kids.

"There may be a mismatch in teaching styles," said Joan Marks, principal of Carpenter Avenue School in Studio City. "Sometimes a child needs a really structured classroom, or a child may need a more open structure. Or there may be a personality conflict between a child and teacher."

Educators may not even realize that their actions disturb a child.

Aronin remembers one such instance from his junior high school teaching days. He and a particularly bright student regularly bantered back and forth in what he thought was friendly repartee. Then the girl's mother complained that her daughter came home in tears every afternoon, crying that he constantly picked on her.

"I thought we were buddies," he said. "I didn't realize how my behavior affected her."

To get to the bottom of what's bugging their youngster, parents must be alert, attentive to their child's progress and willing to intervene if necessary. It may be a good idea to visit the classroom to see how the teacher interacts with students, how instructions are given and how children respond.

"A kid may say, 'My teacher is mean. She doesn't like me,' " said Lankershim School psychologist Diane Kloosterman. "But how do you know it's true? Come on in and see what's going on."

Experts say the most important step parents can take is to form a partnership with their child's teacher.

"Together, we can find out what the problem is and work something out," said Hortensia Padilla, a first-grade teacher at Lankershim School.

But according to Strickland, in some cases, a parent-teacher conference will not solve the problem. "If you ask the teacher how Johnny is doing, and she just opens her grade book and gives you numbers, you know she doesn't have any idea about your child," he said. "If the teacher has comments that don't seem to ring true, you have to dig a little deeper. A bad teacher will try to shift the blame to the victim and say it is the child's fault."

If the issue is not resolved after meeting with the teacher, parents should talk to the principal.

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