School

Ask a Teacher: I Heard My Kid’s New Teacher Is Terrible

Back-to-school advice from inside the classroom.

Photo illustration of a mom on the phone and a child.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash and Caleb Woods on Unsplash.

Ask a Teacher is Slate’s back-to-school advice column. If you’ve got questions, send them to matthewdicks@gmail.com.

If your child gets put in a class with a teacher you have heard bad things about, should you try to get your child switched to a different class?

Probably no. Over the course of my 20 years of teaching, I know of parents who have sung my praises as a teacher because:

1.    I worked in other industries before teaching and therefore I “understand the real world.”
2.    I graduated from the parent’s alma mater.
3.    I don’t wear ties or dress formally.
4.    I’m a Yankees fan.
5.    They like my wife.

Note how none of these things have anything to do with my ability to establish meaningful relationships with students, motivate children, or deliver effective instruction.

I’ve also been told by parents that they were initially upset about their child being placed in my class because they thought I was:

1.    Unapproachable.
2.    Too demanding.
3.    Unprofessional.
4.    A Yankees fan.
5.    A man.

Nos. 4 and 5 are actually correct, but none of these were, in fact, problems once the school year got underway.

It’s impossible to know why a parent or student might like or not like a teacher, and just because one parent or student doesn’t like a teacher doesn’t mean that you’ll agree. While personalities sometimes clash and methods work better on some than others, it’s impossible to predict these things. Parents sometimes worry that children are placed in classes haphazardly, but I promise that’s not the case: Teachers and administrators put great thought and consideration into deciding upon where each student will land in the coming year. Unless you know of something very specific and especially terrible—so terrible it should be reported immediately to the principal—trust the system and the people involved.

My 17-year-old foster is starting at a new high school. He wants to be allowed to wear pajamas, and says he’s never had to wear actual clothes to school before. I know kids wearing pajamas to school is something that happens. Should I give in to this ridiculous trend or hold firm and insist that pajamas are only appropriate for bedtime?

Don’t fight this battle. Your 17-year-old son is searching for an identity, pushing back on boundaries, and trying to carve out a space for himself in this world. In short, he’s being a teenager.

If pajamas help him feel good about himself, fantastic. If his friends are wearing pajamas, and he wants to feel like a part of the group, by all means allow it. If wearing pajamas make him feel rebellious and free, wonderful. Kids have been wearing things that annoy their parents for years. Save your resistance for the things that really matter.

My teacher says my kid has to do 30 minutes of some educational app each night. I don’t want my kid on screens any more than he already is. What should I do?

Ask the teacher for an alternative assignment.

I’m with you. I’d rather have my students playing Monopoly with their siblings or going for a walk as a family or even watching the latest incarnation of American Idol together. Anything to promote conversation, sportsmanship, critical thinking, or simple togetherness. Kids will spend their lives staring at screens. No sense requiring any more than necessary.

Any reasonable teacher will understand your request and either offer an alternative assignment or simply suggest that your child spend the time reading instead.

What is so great about Ticonderoga pencils? When the supply list says “Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils” is it OK to send in some of the million Halloween/Valentine themed pencils we’ve gotten over the years instead?

I had to reach out to some of my colleagues on this one. Personally, I don’t send my students a supply list. I grew up poor and remember well the struggle it was for my mother to pull together supplies for me and my siblings each year, so I never ask for anything except that each student arrive to school with a book in hand to read and share with the class.

I also understand that I may be fortunate enough to work in a district where I can purchase these supplies with my classroom budget, but I would also argue that a public education should come with some basic expectations, including pencils. If your child’s school isn’t supplying pencils to students, it’s time to make a fuss.

That said, the Ticonderoga pencil is apparently a special one, for two reasons:

1.     It sharpens quickly and is less likely to break during the sharpening process. It is truly annoying to watch a student fight with a pencil sharpener for minutes while they’re supposed to be taking notes, solving problems, or answering questions. As I’ve said before, teachers are in the business of maximizing instructional time, and even a little delay adds up over the course of a school year.

2.     It erases well. When it comes to the many perfectionist students that fill our classrooms, the ability to erase well can be the difference between a student feeling good about something they have written and the desire to tear it to pieces.

So is the Ticonderoga pencil essential to your child’s success? Of course not. But surprisingly, it might just contribute in a small way to helping your child be slightly more successful at school.