Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we’ll feature an assortment of teachers from around the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
I’ve got a question about parent-teacher dynamics. My son is in third grade, and I’ve been very active in volunteering/helping the teacher, who I’ll call Ms. Smith. I have come in to the classroom multiple times, keep in touch with Ms. Smith via email/phone, and have donated a lot of supplies to the classroom. I emailed Ms. Smith earlier this week to kick off planning for the Halloween party, which I know the kids love so much. Well, today she wrote me back saying that she’s going to keep the party small this year, “so the kids can focus on learning,” and that she doesn’t need help with it. I think this is such a bad decision, and when I told my son, he was really upset! I know that teachers are busy, but it’s frustrating to me that when she has a parent who’s ready to pitch in and help she’s not seizing the opportunity. Am I being unreasonable to think she’s being ungracious?
In short, yes, you’re being unreasonable. I don’t want to diminish the contributions you’ve made to the class, and I’m certain Ms. Smith appreciates them. But do you understand how much pressure teachers are under to produce results, and how often we have to justify what we’re doing every single minute in class? I was once asked if I couldn’t just show part of the movie version of a novel my class was reading … and comparing and contrasting two versions of the same narrative is literally one of the standards I’m supposed to teach. It’s possible that Ms. Smith’s principal sent down an edict about the length of holiday celebrations, or maybe it hasn’t been stated explicitly, but Ms. Smith feels the Data Overlords breathing down her neck. Either way, she’s probably shoving as much instruction and practice as she can into the time she has.
You made two other mistakes. First, you should not have told your son that his teacher rejected your offer of party planning services. In doing so, you have driven a wedge between them. Children need to believe that their parents and their teachers are on the same team at all times (unless, like, the teacher is duct-taping them to a chair). And second, you assumed you were owed something. If you want to volunteer, wonderful. Donate supplies? Fantastic. But if you’re doing those things under the assumption that it gives you special access to the teacher or classroom, that’s uncool.
My sixth-grader is dealing with some very annoying boys in her class who tease her, argue with her, etc. From what she describes, it doesn’t sound like bullying, exactly, but just like sixth-graders being assholes, the way I remember sixth-graders being. Now that she’s in middle school, there isn’t really a single teacher who’s focusing on classroom dynamics, so she doesn’t really know who to talk to. Do teachers know about the various interpersonal flare-ups between their students, or does this kind of thing fly under your radar? When do you view it as your job to step in and help?
—Boys Are Dumb
Let me let you in on a little secret: Your daughter’s teachers probably talk about interpersonal stuff nonstop. Middle-schoolers are notorious for their drama, and I’ve never met a middle school teacher who doesn’t want to hear about it. It helps you organize your room (can’t put Billy next to Shane if they’re feuding, etc.), and it gives you a clue when a student who normally acts one way turns a total 180. And, frankly, a lot of us love the drama of it all. It’s a little bit like watching a TV show about teens—we’re invested in the characters, and we can empathize because we were teens once ourselves, but it also makes us grateful that we survived our own teen years. It’s one thing that makes kids this age so fun to teach.
So I’m sure they’re at least aware. As far as stepping in, that’s a little dicier. At her age, your daughter is starting to feel out what kind of autonomy she has to solve problems on her own, when she should get a little advice from a teacher, when an authority figure should mediate, when it’s best to leave it in an authority figure’s hands. You don’t want to take that autonomy away from her, and neither do her teachers. If there is a teacher she’s comfortable talking to, any teacher at all, she can always start there. If the situation is above that teacher’s pay grade, they will point her in the right direction.
If there’s not one specific teacher she’s comfortable with, this is a great way to build trust! She can go talk to her homeroom teacher or adviser or guidance counselor for help picking a pathway to solving the problem. The key here is that this is a safe environment for her to start feeling out solving social problems on her own, so make sure she feels empowered to try but also to ask for help if she feels she needs it.
Is there really an advantage to holding kids back from starting kindergarten before 5? My youngest turns 5 in December, has been in day care since infancy, seems quite ready for reading and writing, and is 4 feet tall and a head over most of her classmates. The public school has hard and fast rules preventing her from starting kindergarten this year, ostensibly to protect her self-esteem and confidence, but I can’t help but think it will be harder on her to be constantly mistaken for much older. I think the $13,000 I could save from this year of day care would make a tidy nest egg for her higher education of choice and be a better application of the money for her overall development. Does a blanket policy really benefit all kids? Please tell me candidly how teachers feel about policies like this and whether there’s more to it than I understand.
—Krazy for Kindergarten
Blanket polices like this are usually in place for a reason, and most of the time they benefit both students and teachers. But even if you don’t buy that, here are four reasons you shouldn’t send your 4-year-old to kindergarten.
1. Maturity. I know it can be hard to grasp the concept of maturity when talking about 4-year-old kids, but stick with me. Last year a close friend of mine was teaching a kindergarten class, including a student who was an early starter—meaning he was 4 years old but was deemed capable of comprehending the curriculum. Everything went fine until about halfway through the year when, for no explicable reason, the student stood up and started crying. When he calmed down, he simply said, “This work is too fucking hard!” I don’t know if your daughter would hit a wall like this child did, but it’s worth remembering that just because she seems ready at the beginning of the year doesn’t mean she’ll perform throughout.
2. Stamina. School is long, difficult, and occasionally quite boring, and I can’t even imagine how the students must feel. The simple truth is that there is a vast difference in rigor and cognitive demand between preschool and kindergarten. For example, in kindergarten, students are exposed to standards and grading for the first time. Here they begin to learn the difference between quality work and scribbles. While to us the difference between developing fine motor skills and counting up to 100 might seem rudimentary, there is a vast amount of learning and development that takes place in that year between 4 and 5 that is crucial to academic success. Plus, while most preschools are isolated spaces, kindergarteners are a part of the larger school culture, which means they will be exposed to really scary and sometimes unsettling things like fifth-graders.
3. Friendships. We actually begin to learn a lot about how to make friends in kindergarten and making sure your child is developmentally ready for those types of interpersonal connections will serve her well as she grows. Carrying on a conversation, knowing the difference between jokes and insults, regulating emotions: These are all small but important nuances that begin to develop around age 5. If your daughter isn’t savvy in these types of interactions, she may struggle in kindergarten; even a kid who’s a head taller than everyone else can still be thought of as babyish by her classmates.
4. Foundation. Kindergarten is the start of a 13-year uphill marathon. It is so important to start off on the right foot. I’ve had kids in my class who were early starters and even in second grade there were noticeable differences in their behaviors as compared with their older classmates: immaturity and oversensitivity, for example. I guess what I’m really trying to say is slow down! Give your child the opportunity to be a carefree kid for as long as possible. Even though I know that 13 grand is tempting, just remember school isn’t going anywhere, and in the long run, your child and her future teacher will thank you for your patience.
How does it feel to be in a profession where one of the main constituent groups (parents) consistently think and act as if they know how to do your job better than you do? How do you manage this while also addressing the real needs of your students?
—Parents Know Best
The parent-teacher dynamic is so complex, isn’t it? At first glance, parents and teachers would seem to be natural allies and partners, united by a shared goal. The reality is often much trickier. Parent-teacher interactions can often feel fraught, even a little adversarial. And, yes, a contributing factor to this is that teachers commonly do struggle with feeling doubted, judged, or underappreciated by, well, everyone—including the parents of their students.
I think there are two factors behind this challenge. One is systemic: If parents undervalue teachers, it is merely symptomatic of the fact that our entire society undervalues teachers. Most people (not just our students’ parents) take their personal familiarity with school, and the experience of having been taught, as evidence enough to confidently form opinions about teachers’ skills, decisions, and practices. (It is not.)
There is also, of course, the fact that teaching is an overwhelmingly female profession; nearly 80 percent of public school teachers in the United States are women. So, through the lens of our flourishing patriarchy, teaching is noble, it is nurturing, it is selfless and service-oriented—but it is also fundamentally lacking prestige, unserious, and unskilled. After all, if women can do it, anyone can.
But the other factor is much more personal. Teaching and parenting have a lot in common, actually. Both feel heavy with import and long-term significance. Teachers and parents both see their work not just as a job but as a deep reflection of themselves. They both feel called (and pressured) to perform their absolute best while intimidated by the perilously high stakes and frustrated by the bounds of human limitations. Neither teachers nor parents are provided the concrete resources that would make their task easier, and both are dogged by a persistent anxiety about the potential that could be realized, if only. There is the daily, almost minute-by-minute, potential for human error, blown calls, and miscalculations.
But it’s these similarities, I think, that contribute to parents and teachers approaching interactions with pre-emptive defensiveness. Work this important and this difficult makes everyone feel exposed and fragile. A parent’s advocacy for her child can quickly feel like skepticism of the teacher’s judgment and competence; a teacher’s feedback can be received as a rebuke to parenting practices or a rejection of the child. It’s really hard.
So how do we manage it? We try to approach all our conversations with perspective and empathy. We try to demonstrate that we see a parent’s child, really see and know them, and that we’re doing our level best to support and respond to them. We feel frustrated and discouraged when it seems like we’re being doubted or questioned, and then we try to see the good intentions and continue. There is no perfect solution, but that’s what we do.