Back to school can be a glorious time for parents. Your squabbling little ones are no longer underfoot. Routines have returned.
But back to school can also be extremely stressful for parents. A new human being—a complete stranger—will be spending more time with your child each day than you do. This stranger will be responsible for educating your child. Ensuring their happiness. Keeping them safe. Will this new teacher understand your child’s quirks? Keep a close eye on the most important person in your life? Love your child almost as much as you do?
I’ve been an elementary school teacher for the past 20 years in West Hartford, Connecticut. For the past 10 years, I’ve also been working at middle and high schools throughout the United States and around the world, both public and private, teaching writing and storytelling and helping teachers improve their craft. For the next few weeks, I’ll be answering back-to-school questions here at Slate. If you’ve got a question for Slate’s back-to-school advice column, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are your feelings about parents being Facebook friends with their kid’s teacher? So many of my friends have friended their kids’ teachers. I get it if you’ve had them in a previous year and you got along and wanted to keep in touch, but that seems just too close to me.
I agree. Teachers and parents can often become friendly as the school year progresses, and these relationships sometimes continue beyond the school year. The godparents to one of my children are the parents of former students, and many of my closest friends are the parents of former students. I golf with them. Celebrate holidays with them. Join them for monthly book-club meetings. Many are my nearest and dearest friends and, as a result, are also Facebook friends.
That said, I did not engage with any of these parents personally, including on social media, during the school year. The teacher-parent-student relationship is an unpredictable one. A perceived slight, an accusation of unfairness, or a disciplinary decision can quickly result in a contentious situation. It’s not unheard of for ugly legal battles to arise during a school year.
For these reasons, I think of the school year as a 180-day-long first date with parents. While I want to establish productive, friendly, and even less traditionally formal working relationships with them, I’m not ready for them to pop onto my Facebook page and have them witness my latest parenting blunder, read my most recent political tirade, or view that photo a college friend tagged me on.
I strive to be my authentic self with the parents of my students, but I strive to be my best authentic self. Once the school year is complete and our working relationship has ended, I’m happy to admit that I eat too much ice cream, lose my temper in traffic, and am blocked by Donald Trump on Twitter.
Say my child doesn’t tell me he has homework until right before bed, despite the fact that he has rules that homework must be done before any and all after-school activities. From a teacher’s perspective, is it better to let him own his mistake at school and face the consequences of not having his homework done, or to figure out a way for him to get it done? Should he stay up late or wake up early?
Homework was assigned to your child. Not you. When teachers assign homework, they not only want to see what your child knows and can do, but they want to see how your child manages time, accepts responsibility for his actions, and understands long-term consequences. I advise parents to stay out of their child’s homework life. They are responsible for providing their child with a quiet working environment, a time when they can complete their homework, and the materials needed. After that, it’s up to your child to succeed or fail. Childhood is the time to fail, when you’re young and not responsible for a mortgage payment.
A reminder is fine. A rescue operation is not.
On the occasions when my daughter has suddenly recalled a homework assignment just before bed, I’ve always said the same thing: It’s bedtime, and your bedtime is a nonnegotiable. Sleep is important. I’m sorry that you forgot to do that assignment. Maybe tomorrow we can find a way to help you remember in the future. If you want to get up a little early and try to finish it while you eat breakfast, you can, but I can’t do anything for you now. It’s time for bed.
She may be upset. She may even cry. But lessons like this are so important. More important than whatever lesson that homework assignment was meant to teach.
I read this answer to my daughter and asked for her impression. Her response: “I used to think that if I forgot to do my homework, it would ruin my life. Now I know that it’s bad but not totally bad. But bad enough to try not to forget.”
How do you address a teacher in an email? My kids’ teachers all seem to address me as “Lucy,” so replying to them as Ms. Lastname seems weird. But they’re teachers! I just can’t bring myself to call them by their first name, no matter how they signed off.
If a teacher uses their first name in communication or has asked to be called by their first name, do it. I understand that for the first couple decades of your life, every teacher was identified as an honorific, but you are now an adult. A full and complete partner in your child’s education. If you want a truly collaborative relationship with your child’s teacher, it starts with establishing trust. Sometimes this level of informality can help the process.
More importantly, in today’s world, are these gender-binary and marriage-defining honorifics even appropriate or necessary anymore? You might argue that the use of these honorifics is a means by which parents can indicate respect for these figures who have authority over their children, but I would argue that this is artificial respect at best. (I have seen plenty of Mr. Smiths and Mrs. Jones be routinely disrespected by students over the years.) If your child’s teacher is trying to drop the honorifics, embrace the decision. It’s a wise one.
Please solve an endless debate in my house. Do kids need water bottles in class: YES OR NO?
Yes. If your child’s teacher has requested or permits water bottles, absolutely send one in with your child. Teachers are in the business of maximizing time spent learning, and every time a thirsty student needs to stop working to get a drink at a fountain on the other side of the room (or, even worse, the hallway), valuable time is lost.
I know. You’re thinking, But I didn’t have a water bottle at my desk when I was a kid, and I was fine. Maybe, but you might’ve also spent your childhood in a constant start of low-grade dehydration. You were probably thirsty all the time. Probably annoyed and distracted by it too. If you were like me, you drank from hoses every chance you got. Just because your grade school teachers failed to make your life a little less miserable doesn’t mean that we need to do the same to today’s students. I’m far from a coddling teacher or parent, but simple hydration hardly strikes me as overly comforting.
Do you enjoy quick, easy access to water while you work? Of course you do.
Your child should have it too.