Care and Feeding

Should My Son’s Teacher Support His Love of Unicorns?

Hell yes.

A young boy does ballet.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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 or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

My son is 6. Among other things, he loves fairies, unicorns, stories about girls, and the color pink. Good for him, right? My son and my daughter have both been brought up to know that everything is for everyone. Only trouble is the other kids haven’t been brought up that way. The other night my son couldn’t sleep because he really wants to read a unicorn book at school but doesn’t want his friends to laugh at him. My question is should I keep asking his teacher to step in and try to teach these kids that your gender doesn’t have to determine what you like? Or would I just be setting my son up to be bullied by causing him to be singled out? When it comes to issues like this, does the teacher have any sway, or are they always fighting a losing battle against parental influence?

—My Son the Unicorn

Dear MStU,

Hell. Yes. Keep the pressure up on his teacher. I watched this play out in my classroom this year with one of my students, unicorn book and all. I say “watched” because after one big classroom conversation, the issue was over, and now all of my boys are fighting over who gets to read the unicorn book next.

Speaking candidly, teachers have a responsibility to build safe and inclusive learning environments, and sometimes we are really terrible at it. Even today I kick myself for avoiding tough conversations with my students during my first year of teaching. And honestly it was mostly due to fear of parent pushback. But now that I have a few more years under my belt, and a better sense of job security, I’m much more direct with my students about how they should treat people who might think differently than they do.

What this really boils down to is courage on the part of the teacher. If your kid is brave enough to be his true self in class, his teacher should be brave enough to support him. And yes, teachers have an incredible amount of sway, because we dictate the classroom culture. I get it: Conversations about this type of issue are often seen as political, and many educators try to avoid addressing it directly. But that doesn’t excuse them from their commitment to building an educated and inclusive society.

—Mr. Hersey

My seventh-grader is a kind and funny person. The problem? His grades are horrible and have been since first grade. The root of the problem is that he just doesn’t do his work, and this extends to test-taking as well. He would rather sit in class and stare at the wall before he puts pencil to paper. I can control the environment at home with homework and make sure he’s staying on task and not just sitting there daydreaming, but I can’t hand-hold him while he’s at school. He does his homework every night, but many times he doesn’t bother turning it in, resulting in a missed assignment.

Over the years, I have tried every imaginable approach ranging from harshly punitive to laissez-faire lenience to over-the-top rewards. I try to stick with each method long enough to be consistent, and a few things have worked for a time, but then he just goes back to old habits and is no longer motivated.

I’ve asked his teachers in elementary school if they think there may be something like ADD/ADHD or dyslexia at play, but they’ve reassured me that what they’re seeing doesn’t indicate that. I’ve told his pediatrician about the problem, and it’s noted in his record, but they’ve never recommended further screening for him.

Teacher conferences are next week, and we’ve been through this so many times one would think it would stop hurting so much, but I am dreading it, and I’m sure my son is too. My son has said a few times recently that he doesn’t believe he’s capable of being a good student, which breaks my heart. I’m at a complete loss for new things to try. I, too, was terrible at completing class work and homework, but I was a great test-taker so that saved me more often than not. What can a parent do to help him? And what is reasonable for me to ask of his teachers when I’m enlisting their help?

—12 and Troubled

Dear 12,

This is a critical time for your son. His lack of motivation is undoubtedly affecting the learning that should be taking place in school, and in two years, his failing grades are going to begin affecting the choices that he has in terms of higher education.

I don’t know your son at all, but my first instinct would be to return to your doctor and ask that he be screened for ADHD, if only to eliminate this possibility. The testing takes very little time and costs very little, so why not ensure that this is not the problem or one of the problems? This testing can also indicate if issues with anxiety, depression, or executive functioning are contributing to his struggles. My gut also says that your son could benefit from speaking to a school psychologist or outside therapist, and that those mental health professionals might be able to offer some insight. I know many instances in which children are reticent to speak to their parents but are able to open up to a caring outside professional.

I would also find a mentor for your son. Schools often have mentoring programs in place, but if not, there might be a community-based organization that matches younger children like your son with a high school or college-age mentor. A positive, school-age role model could make a big difference in your son’s perception of the future and could offer more concrete, hands-on advice about achieving success in the classroom than a parent or teacher ever could.

As for his teachers, I would make them aware of your concerns and especially of how your son is feeling. No teacher ever wants to hear that a student is unhappy or feeling like a failure. That should be enough for them to take action, but if their response is slow, lackluster, or ineffective, you have every right to call for a meeting of school officials to discuss your son’s struggles. In Connecticut, this is called a Planning and Placement Team meeting, or a PPT, but every state by law has a similar system in place to ensure that parents, teachers, specialists, and administrators can come together to determine what students need when they are struggling.

Lastly, I would propose a tour of some college campuses. It’s so hard for human beings to plan far into the future, and for a 12-year-old, trying to imagine life six years from now after graduation is literally half a lifetime away. Connecting effort and achievement today with something tangible in the future can often make an enormous difference to a kid, so bringing him to a variety of college campuses and allowing him to see what life could be like if he works hard might be an excellent motivator. I take my fifth-graders on a tour of college campuses every year for a similar reason, and for many kids, those first steps onto a college campus can be life-changing.

This was a hard question for me to answer because I know how difficult situations like this can be for parents. My heart goes out to you and your son. I hope you find a path that is right for him and his future.

—Mr. Dicks

Why are you doing this? What are the benefits here? High-schoolers are ridiculous and dumb, and you can trust me on this seeing as I’m soon going to be one. I know this might be a broad question, and maybe a stupid one, as I can assume you really love teaching, but why did you chose high-schoolers specifically? They’re capable of higher-level thinking, but I, personally, would rather boss around first-graders.

—Skeptical Eighth-Grader

Dear SEG,

Most high school teachers have a passion for their subject, which is one reason we don’t get bored. I’ve been teaching Life of Pi for 10 years and students still surprise me with their interpretations. I’ve been reading essays for 15 years and still regularly find myself moved to tears, laughter, and amazement. And teaching is important! All grade levels are important, but what’s uniquely important about high school is that we’re trying to prepare young people for adulthood. We’re the last stop. And we want students to leave us with the tools they need to be competent, empowered adults.

One other thing. This may be bold, but I think I used to be a lot like you. Much of the time, I hated high school. Ironically, I was very good at it. I made excellent grades, and most of my teachers liked me. I was involved in lots of things and excelled at some of them. But I wasn’t good at making friends; I felt like a misfit. I made statements like the ones you’ve made, assuming that all the other teenagers were stupid and therefore not worth my time (while simultaneously wishing desperately for their friendship). I couldn’t wait until I graduated so I could get the hell out of there.

Now I should not assume that is your experience. Maybe you’re really popular, or maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re a straight-A student, or maybe school is a struggle for you. I wish I could guarantee that high school will be a wonderful experience, but you might actually find it grueling. It’s true that teenagers can be immature and ridiculous and cruel and foolish. But they can also be wise and hilarious and kind and brilliant.

If I could travel back in time and give my younger self advice, I would tell her to give more people a chance. Teenagers may surprise you. They surprise me all the time. Which is one reason I love them.

—Ms. Holbrook

Our 3-year-old, Cleo, is inquisitive, curious, and excited about preschool. Or at least she was! Somehow she’s ended up with a teacher who is the one person on the face of the Earth who is not charmed by Cleo. At least that’s what I can grasp from the very specific progress reports Miss Jill sends home every Friday, each one telling us nothing about fun things Cleo has done or things she has learned but instead explaining all the things that Cleo has done wrong that week. (We’ve asked other parents in the class, and their letters seem normal.) When we asked to speak with the teacher one afternoon, both me and my wife were left nearly in tears as she scolded us—in much the same tone as the letters—for our daughter who doesn’t listen, who doesn’t put her things away carefully enough, and who talks to her friends when she’s supposed to be working. “I just don’t think there’s any way she can continue here if she doesn’t change her behavior,” Miss Jill said.

Cleo, for her part, says she still likes school, but her eager chatter at pickup about friends she made and games she played has slowly given way over these past few weeks to chronicles of things Miss Jill said she did wrong. Look, I know that I have a rosy view of my daughter. I’m sure there are times she doesn’t listen! But the account this teacher gives seems way out of proportion to even the greatest mischief I can imagine my kind, rule-following, eager-to-please child getting up to. (We’ve never heard a peep, for example, from any of the day cares in which she’s spent her days since she turned 1.) We’ve asked the school’s director, and she’s told us that Miss Jill is her most trusted teacher. There’s no other teacher to switch to, and we live in an area with oversubscribed preschools, which means the only alternative would be to … bring her to work with us, I guess? How do we make peace with this teacher who seems out to get our whole family?

—Peeved Preschool Pop

Dear PPP,

It seems to me that there are two very important conversations that need to occur. The first is about your daughter’s behavior; if it’s troubling enough that her teacher has nothing positive to report by the end of the week, then that needs to be addressed. Her team—you and your wife, the teacher, at least one administrator, and anyone else who regularly interacts with her—needs to sit down and discuss what her behaviors are, how everyone on the team is going to work to address them, and how everyone’s going to check on that progress. She’s a preschooler, which means that many of her challenging behaviors may be a result of her not knowing what to do, especially if the teacher is busy telling her what not to do. This conversation may be emotionally challenging for you and your wife, but it is important that you address her educational needs as early as possible. Cleo is 3, so she should be chattering about what she did at school, not all the ways she got in trouble with Miss Jill. She needs to feel successful, so something in the classroom has to change to ensure that she does.

The other conversation is about your daughter’s teacher and the way in which she is communicating with you. This is another conversation between you, your wife, Miss Jill, and the rest of the team. Without being there and observing your daughter in the classroom, I can’t say for sure what is happening. What I can say is this: There is a lack of trust between you and this teacher. The fact that you’re worried about either “making peace” or taking your daughter entirely out of school shows me that you don’t trust this teacher.

Now, I don’t know Miss Jill, but I do know that teachers are flawed human beings. I have taught children who pushed all my worst buttons and made me want to kick and scream, and when that has happened, I’ve been fortunate enough to have co-workers who can tell me when I’m not being my best self, and who can help me make the time to put a positive note in every backpack at least once a week. Miss Jill may not be so fortunate as to have such co-workers. Or maybe she doesn’t have the training to express what she means about Cleo’s behavior. It doesn’t matter why she’s not communicating well with you, but she’s not. She shouldn’t be telling you in a meeting that Cleo may not be able to stay in the school without administrator approval and a serious amount of data. She shouldn’t be bringing you nearly to tears in a first meeting in October. And she shouldn’t be writing letters that only contain bad news.

When you sit down with the team to talk about Cleo’s behavior, you also need to ask about the school’s promotional criteria (or whatever the term the school uses for “staying enrolled in preschool here” is) and about how communication can change so that everyone is able to celebrate Cleo’s successes. That means those letters need to say more about what she’s learning, and if there is a problem with Cleo’s behavior, it needs to be reported to you in a way that allows you and your wife to process it, and the team to address it appropriately. If no meaningful changes can be made, you can take more drastic steps (e.g., talking directly to an administrator, without Miss Jill, about your feelings; looking at other preschool options), but the first step is for you and for Miss Jill to address the problem as a team, even if it’s hard to think of her that way. There are still eight months of school left, and you and Miss Jill need to find a way to work harmoniously, for Cleo’s sake.

—Ms. Sarnell