Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from around the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut.
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York.
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas.
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina.
My daughter, an eighth-grader, is a doodler. She doodles while thinking, doodles while writing, doodles while doing homework. So when she turns in, say, her math, in addition to the various correct and incorrect answers, the sheet of paper often features medieval illuminations and little anime characters in the margins. I think it helps her think and stay focused on her work. One of her teachers, however, keeps writing YOUR HOMEWORK IS NOT A DOODLE PAD and threatening to take away points. How can I get the teacher to relax about a quirk that, in my view, doesn’t actually inconvenience her and helps my kid do better in her class? Or am I wrong and the teacher is right?
In my two decades of teaching, I have come across many a doodler, and I’m also married to a doodler of epic proportions, so I understand exactly what your daughter is going through. It’s a tricky one. On the one hand, we all have our ways of maintaining focus. Some people squeeze a stress ball. Others take notes on what is being said. I like to stand during a meeting when I’m feeling antsy. I once worked with a woman who knitted during meetings because it forced her to sit still and pay attention to the matter at hand. And yes, some people doodle.
On the other hand, we teachers are constantly teaching students about presentation in all its forms. Spelling counts. Your report shouldn’t be crumpled and wet. Don’t do your math homework in purple crayon. You can’t be sitting upside down on your chair during my math lesson (I said this today). We teach kids that they need to demonstrate pride in the work they do. There is nothing more frustrating than a student who fails a spelling test but somehow found the time to draw complex pictures of hot air balloonists along the top of their paper. It sends a message, and not a good one.
So with my doodlers, I compromise. I don’t want you doodling on your assignments and tests, I say, because presentation counts, and because going forward—in high school, college, and your career—doodling on work that is being assessed will not be accepted or appreciated. But what you can do is have a second sheet of paper or (even better) a sketchpad on your desk for doodling, and you can feel free to doodle as long as you’re not taking a timed assessment of some sort and as long as you’re completing your work on time.
That said, not every teacher will be enthusiastic about this proposal. My advice: Let the teacher know that you fully support her desire to keep the doodles off the assignments and tests. Thank the teacher for enforcing such excellent standards. But also explain that doodling has been a highly effective strategy for your daughter to maintain focus and avoid distraction. Then offer my compromise, cross your fingers, and hope for the best.
It’s almost parent-teacher conference time. Our son’s kindergarten teacher has asked parents to attend conferences without kids. (If they need to come to school with us, they’re supposed to sit outside the classroom while we talk with the teacher.) I don’t like this! Shouldn’t kids be involved in the conversation about how school is going? Won’t this just make him feel like he’s being punished out in the hallway while adults share secrets about him? Obviously I’m going to do what the teacher says, but can you explain why she does it this way?
—The Room Where It Happens
When you need to talk about, say, financial planning for your son’s future, would you invite him to have that conversation? Or would you have it when he’s elsewhere? I’m willing to bet you’d want him to be elsewhere. It’s not that you don’t want him involved in discussions about plans for his future, but that’s not a conversation he’s ready to be a part of yet, developmentally.
It’s not the same with your kindergarten teacher, but it’s close. Having your son there will distract you both, because he’s going to want your attention to engage you both in whatever he’s interested in doing, which is probably not sitting at a table and talking about his growth. And if the teacher wants to involve your son in conversations about his progress, she’ll have to use very different language, language that is often less precise. The conversation involving your child about their own progress isn’t necessarily a productive one the same way the conversation with adults is.
When I taught middle school, we encouraged the students to come to conferences because they had the language skills and maturity to engage in a frank discussion of their progress, even if that discussion was hard. But your 5-year-old isn’t a teenager, and he’s not at a place yet where he can talk about benchmarks and milestones and progress the same way a teenager can. You should absolutely have conversations with your child about his progress, and I’m sure his teacher is already having some of those conversations with him. But parent-teacher conferences are a time for adult conversation, and your kindergartener isn’t old enough to participate yet.
What is an appropriate frequency to check in with a high school teacher about how a kid is doing in the class? What is the balance between Helicopter and Neglectful? Up until now I’ve relied on the kid to self-report, and her report card usually bears her out, but high school feels like a whole new game.
First of all, I am jealous that your district has apparently not invested in cloud software that allows parents to feverishly check whether teachers have entered grades for the quiz students finished 20 minutes ago. If you read that and thought, Man, that sounds nice! you might be a helicopter parent. But you’re definitely not neglectful, because you’re writing to me.
To answer your question, you should contact high school teachers only when necessary. Each year I have about 150 students. I do not have time to answer 150 emails each week. I do have systems that keep students and parents informed about assignments and grades. You surely already attended your school’s back-to-school night. You’ll also likely get a progress report halfway through the grading period, which will give you a sense of how your daughter is doing and whether you need to step in before those grades are final.
Continue relying on your kiddo to keep you posted. If you get her progress report and find that she’s doing worse than anticipated, it may be time to step in. However, instead of immediately checking in with the teacher, start with your daughter. How does she plan out her time to study and complete homework? How does she balance school with other things going on in her life, like extracurriculars and friends? Has she attended tutoring or sought the help of her teachers on her own? The two of you may identify the issue and problem-solve together.
Middle and high school are different beasts, and the transition to freshman year is difficult for some students. However, many adapt just fine. I understand your concern: High-school students are building a transcript with ramifications for college acceptance, so it is wise to monitor your daughter’s grades and see where she needs help. But it is just as important for her to learn responsibility and develop autonomy.
My daughter just started kindergarten at our lovely little neighborhood school. So far, she’s enjoying it—but I’m concerned about the way she describes one of her classmates. According to her, “JP” is rowdy, angry, disruptive, and has a hard time focusing. Because of these issues, he’s routinely sent out of class during specials, denied access to fun events like extra Friday recess, etc. It sounds like this poor kid is off to a really rough start with his education, and I find it kind of heartbreaking—not least because I have a master’s in education and I question some of the teacher’s discipline choices. I’m also worried that since JP is black and male, he’s getting treated extra harshly. I’m trying to teach my daughter to be empathetic and compassionate with this kid (and all her classmates), but part of me wants to address this student’s struggles with the teacher and ask if I can help in some way, such as by volunteering in the classroom. Be honest: I should mind my own business, right?
—How Can I Help?
Yeah, that’s a hard one. You should probably mind your own business. (Stay with me, though.) There are people in the school whose job is to help this little boy learn and develop adaptive skills, but you are not one of them. And you may have a master’s in education, but you don’t know the particulars of the situation. I had a colleague who would tell parents at Open House, “Don’t believe everything your children say about me, and I won’t believe everything they say about you.” I’m not saying your daughter is lying—just that we get information filtered through our kids’ little eyes and brains, and you’re certainly getting a partial picture.
So don’t call up the teacher and voice your concerns, is what I’m saying. Now, if you want to volunteer in the classroom, do. Ask the teacher what she needs and then do it. If appropriate, while you’re there, give that little dude an extra smile or hug if he wants it. Try not to go in there on a reconnaissance mission, but if you notice that he has trouble at particular times, like transitions, you can ask the teacher, “Would it be helpful if I walked JP to music a few minutes ahead of the class and got him settled there?”
The teacher may welcome your help. She may in fact agree that her discipline methods are not working but be unable to do something else because she doesn’t have the support she needs. (If I had a microphone that communicated to all public school parents, I’d say, “TEACHERS ARE GIVEN TOO MUCH TO DO AND NOT ENOUGH TIME AND RESOURCES TO DO IT,” and throw it toward the amp so it made that shrieking feedback noise.) Or she might say no thanks, in which case you just have to back off.
Obviously, if your daughter reports or you see anything abusive, contact the administrator posthaste.
You’re doing an important good by teaching your daughter to be empathetic. Keep doing that. Teach her about prejudice and social justice and all that stuff. Just don’t share specific criticisms of the teacher with her—or do, but wait until summer.