Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across 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:
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
We have a conundrum. Our daughter excels in her eighth-grade science class, and her teacher seems to like her. What’s the problem? The teacher is horrible. For example, once when I was in the classroom, the teacher put on a video without any context to the lesson. The video was far too advanced for the children watching it (heck, it was too advanced for me). My daughter says this is the norm and not a one-time thing.
We’ve talked to the principal (who is new to the school) about it. His response was to apologize but put it back in our laps—he encouraged us to talk to the teacher. How are we supposed to do that? It seems like that would be extremely awkward. My daughter does not like science, but I think she could love it if she had a teacher who actually taught. Advice?
—Taking All the STEAM out of STEM
First, I want to challenge your assertion that this teacher is “horrible” and doesn’t “actually teach” based on the evidence you’ve offered: one anecdotal observation of your own and the secondhand reports of your daughter. I’m not sure why you happened to be in the classroom to catch an eighth-grade science lesson to begin with, but it doesn’t sound like you had any context or explanation for what the teacher was attempting to do, even if the video did strike you as too high level. And while I’m sure your daughter is a hardworking, honest, great kid, she is an eighth-grader, and eighth-graders can be unreliable narrators. Altogether, it’s not a lot to go on. The confident, wholesale judgment you’ve made about this teacher’s skill and effort is very common and immensely frustrating to teachers; in fact, it’s the very first topic I addressed in this column! I encourage you to start by walking it back from “the teacher is horrible” to “I don’t understand what the teacher’s methodology is, and I’d like to know more.”
Your brand-new principal is absolutely right: You should talk to the teacher. (You should have talked to the teacher before you talked to the principal, actually. A tip: Immediately bringing a concern to the principal’s attention before attempting to communicate with the teacher in question is not cool! The school principal is not a neutral third party or an adviser; the school principal is our boss—responsible for supervising, observing, and evaluating us! Going straight to the principal is a common move for parents unsure of how to open a potentially fraught dialogue with a teacher, but it’s not the right one. It only serves to escalate the tension you were afraid of in the first place.) This conversation will most definitely be awkward if your opening gambit is, “I perceive you to be terrible at your job. Thoughts?” You’re much more likely to be successful with a genuine question rather than a criticism (or a criticism thinly disguised as a question).
You could say that your daughter seems to have limited enthusiasm for the subject, you’d like to encourage her, and you’re wondering if the teacher has suggestions for engaging her with the content. You could bring up the video you saw, mention that it’s been a long time since your own eighth-grade science days, and say you’re curious about it. You could say that you like to stay up-to-date with what your kids are learning so you can discuss with them at home and ask for a quick overview of what they’re up to in class. You could even go with, “I love science! What’s your approach to your curriculum?”
All that said, is it possible that this teacher actually is horrible? Yup, absolutely. Teachers are human and, as such, run the full human spectrum from excelling and flourishing in their chosen work to sucking at it. But you don’t know where this teacher falls yet. Start with some open, friendly questions. Take a look at the materials your daughter’s bringing home. Check in with her now and then about what they’re doing. If the teacher doesn’t answer your questions or can’t articulate any clear plan for their content, that’s a red flag. If the materials are confusing, extremely sparse, or completely incongruous from day to day, that’s another red flag. If your daughter consistently and urgently reports a lack of faith in the teacher, with specifics, that’s another one. Then you can elevate the conversation from “I’m curious…” to “I’m concerned…,” and finally loop back to the principal if it feels really dire.
The thing is, though, even if your initial assessment is correct, you can’t actually solve this problem. You can communicate your concern to the teacher and eventually to the principal, but as long as the classroom isn’t so volatile or hostile that you’re worried about your daughter’s well-being, this is a staff performance issue that is the principal’s responsibility. Hopefully, the principal can coach the teacher into stronger classroom delivery. Or … your daughter may spend the year with a lemon of an eighth-grade science teacher. That’s too bad, but it will also be OK, in the long run (you did say she’s excelling, in fact!). Your daughter’s education is a long game, and she will get many more passes, with many excellent teachers, at becoming proficient, mastering, and maybe even learning to love science.
Parent-teacher conferences are coming, and my fifth-grader’s teacher requested that children attend the conference, too. I know that my child is getting older, and she should take more responsibility for her own schoolwork. I also know I should not protect and shield my child from all criticism. But I look to conferences as my time to get a truly honest assessment of my child’s performance—one that’s not sugarcoated with niceties, which is what I worry I’ll get with my child present.
My child is a good student but often does the bare minimum of what is required. Part of me feels like it would be hugely valuable for my child to hear from her teacher, “You need to put forth more effort. You need to take greater care with your work,” especially when I already know this is true (and tell her that). But I’m a little hesitant to give up my one-on-one time with the teacher. Is this a common practice at this age? What are your thoughts on it, and would it be appropriate to ask the teacher for an additional conference just between adults?
—Do I Need to Let Go?
Dear Need to Let Go,
My wife and I recently met with my son’s first-grade teacher for our parent-teacher conference. Charlie was sitting in the hallway as his teacher explained to us that he is a leader in the classroom, although he can sometimes be bossy in that role. Helping Charlie to embrace his leadership potential while being sensitive to his classmates is one of the goals we set for this year.
As we talked, I couldn’t help but wonder why Charlie wasn’t sitting with us participating in the discussion. When teachers and parents are discussing a child’s potential in this way, it’s odd to me that parents then relay the contents of that discussion to their child in some bizarre form of the telephone game.
As a parent, I wanted my son in that conversation.
As a second-, third-, and now fifth-grade teacher, I have always included students in my conferences because there is almost nothing that I will say to a parent that I won’t also say to a student. Human beings, regardless of their age, can only improve through an honest assessment of performance.
Kids need to hear the truth, and there is no time or place for sugarcoating when it comes to a child’s education.
If a student isn’t putting forth her best effort, she needs to hear it. If a student isn’t treating his peers well, he needs to know. Parents need to know, too. It makes no sense to segregate the dissemination of this information. I would much prefer to address a student’s struggles as a team—teacher, parent, and student.
A student should also be present to offer insight into their struggles and to participate in the design and implementation of plans of action. When the student joins the conversation, the chances for success increase dramatically.
This is a topic I’m very passionate about. Ms. Sarnell received a similar question about conferences in this column (the parent had the reverse perspective—she wanted her child to attend the conference, whereas you’re questioning whether your child should be there). I respect Ms. Sarnell’s perspective, and I agree that there may be times when a student’s participation in the conference should be minimized because the student is not developmentally ready for full participation. But I see no reason why a kindergartner can’t be present for at least some of the conference. When it comes to setting goals and expectations, every child should be made aware of the plan on some level. The contents of a parent-teacher conference should not to be a mysterious black box to the student.
I want to add that I always afford parents the final few minutes of a conference for anything that might be considered private. In those final moments, when the child is outside the room, parents tell me about pending divorces, family illnesses, surprise trips to Disney World, and changes in medication. I sometimes use these final minutes to discuss sensitive issues as well. A student might be struggling with hygiene. A change in behavior might have been caused by a newfound crush on a classmate. Or perhaps I overheard a student say something about their home life that has caused me some concern.
Yes, there are sensitive subjects that are best addressed without the child present, but when it comes to academics, effort, and behavior, there is no reason why a student shouldn’t be present for the conference.
If you were your child, wouldn’t you want to be there?
Elementary school has gone great so far, but now my husband and I are disappointed in the level of math that my second-grader son is doing. It seems too basic and covers material covered in first grade and even kindergarten. My husband met with the teacher and has been told that this is grade-level material. If he is doing this math in second grade, we anticipate that he will turn into a classroom terror due to boredom and frustration. Hubby is ready to enroll all our children in private school (currently no space in our budget for this) or sell our house and move to a different school zone in order to get a more rigorous education.
I don’t mind riding this out, but I don’t want my son to fall behind in math at such a young age. For what it’s worth, we are very happy with our son’s reading level and science and social studies work, his handwriting is still pretty lousy, and we think he has above average intelligence but doesn’t qualify for the gifted program. He likes music, recess, and PE, and hates math.
First off, let me say you aren’t alone in your frustration around math. In fact, I find that math instruction is the No. 1 issue for my parents. Either the math is too easy or it’s too hard—but actually, it’s neither of those things; it’s just different. Assuming your son’s school follows the common core curriculum or a close variant (which most do), he needs to walk away from second grade with these big concepts:
1. Being able to fluently add and subtract three-digit numbers.
2. Creating arrays to support multiplication.
3. Being able to read and solve word problems adding and subtracting numbers within 100.
While it may seem like your son’s work is too easy, it’s actually crucial to ensure his future success in math. Math and the way we teach it has changed a lot over the past decade. When I started teaching, I basically had to relearn how to do “simple” math. Gone are the days of lending and borrowing; now we’re more focused on decomposing and making a 10. Put simply, we’re less concerned about the difficulty, and much more concerned about building solid foundational number sense and understanding how numbers work. All of what comes later, like word problems and multiplication, uses strategies that build off what students learn in the beginning of the year.
Your husband needs to chill. It’s only the first quarter! While it may seem easy now, trust me, winter is coming, and the math will get harder. The most important thing for your son at this point in the year is that he has a safe and loving learning environment and solid foundational instruction. Pulling him out of his current school and enrolling him in a private school could do more harm than good, especially if the school is “more rigorous” or uses a different curriculum than your son is accustomed to. You’ve already observed that he “hates math”; don’t make him be the new kid who can’t do the math in some other school.
My advice would be that if you’re concerned about his math and happy with every other aspect of his education, then focus on his math. Enroll him in an online or in-person math enrichment program. They’re way cheaper than private school and provide more individualized targeted instruction.
My 4-year-old is showing a keen interest in trying to read. What are some good “first reader” books? I don’t really want to actively teach him right now, but I’d like some things to have around for him to take a gander at when he feels like it.
—See Dick Read
First, let me say, without a hint of irony: congratulations! Early literacy is an extremely exciting developmental stage for children, and it’s an amazing thing for parents to watch.
At the risk of sounding cliché, the most important thing is for you to surround your child with books that truly interest him. Research shows that children who find reading enjoyable tend to be better readers (duh!) and part of that is providing the right books. Reading at your son’s age is as much about the positive reinforcement and adult attention as it is about text features and pre-academic skills, so you don’t need to limit yourself to books that are strictly “early readers”—you can pick out any books he likes. The local library is your No. 1 resource. Make a big fuss about going and getting him his own library card (if he doesn’t already have one) and then head to the kids’ section. Let him explore the shelves, and if a book catches his eye, he can check it out himself. If he (or you) doesn’t know where to start, teach him how to ask the librarian for help. Children’s librarians live for this—they love to recommend their favorite books!
Once you’ve got some books, you can help him work on the reading. Read it aloud to him. Teach him to recognize one sight word (like I or bus or dog) and have him read it every time it pops up. Help him follow along with his finger, and ask questions about every page (e.g., “How do you think this person feels?” or “What are they doing?” or “What do you think happens next?”).
I suspect you want some titles, too, right? I do have some personal favorites. Obviously, Dr. Seuss has some classics. I’m partial to Dr. Seuss’s ABC because it features alliteration, and it will allow him to work on letter recognition. When I was bringing up my half-brothers, we read Hop on Pop almost daily. Eric Carle, likewise, has some excellent stories with beautiful art. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (which Carle co-wrote with Bill Martin Jr.) is an easy one for little kids, but he might like The Very Busy Spider too. I also adore Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie series. They’re hilarious and are also great read-aloud books, especially if you get really into it. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Helen Oxenbury and Michael Rosen is repetitive, so it’s easy for your kid to read along, and it can be sung or acted out, which makes it more engaging.
If these suggestions aren’t enough, other parents are another excellent resource. I’ve used Goodreads to find books for myself, as well as for my elementary schoolers when I taught fourth and fifth grade. You can find lists curated by other parents of their kids’ favorite books, and I’ve found it to be a tremendous resource. Whether you opt for frequenting your library or doing some sleuthing online, enjoy this exciting time!