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 email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
How do teachers really feel about kids missing school for a vacation? My kids range in age from upper elementary school to middle school. For years, I’ve watched families visit Disney World in the dead of winter to beat the long lines, or take advantage of lower airfare during nonpeak travel periods to head off somewhere warm. I’m envious. I’m a rule-follower and feel like school is school. But I also feel like I may be missing out on quality time with my family. We don’t have a lot of discretionary income and taking a vacation when prices are lower would help us take a vacation we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. Is it a big deal for my kid to miss five days of school for a vacation?
—Wanna Get Away
I understand your hesitation. A few years ago, a rule-following friend was in the same predicament after her kids’ school stopped excusing family trips, even educational ones. Because their October beach trip with the grandparents didn’t align with fall break, her kids would miss five days of school.
“So what?” I asked.
She squirmed and said, “They’ll have unexcused absences on their record.”
Again, I said, “So what?”
Seriously, so what? The school is not going to take you to truancy court for going to Disney World for a week. (I should clarify: Some states’ truancy laws are more stringent than others so check them before you book travel, and I’m assuming the rest of your kids’ absences will be excused—illnesses, college trips, what have you.) Take the vacation.
A few suggestions (you may want to take these or leave these depending on the ages of your children—a high-schooler making up a week of calculus may have a harder time than a first-grader missing a week of subtraction):
1. Check in with your children’s teachers beforehand and make sure there are no standardized tests that week. (But if you can’t reschedule, go anyway.)
2. Get your kids to collect their assignments ahead of time and work on them in the car or on the plane. (Or don’t—just enjoy yourselves.)
3. Help your kids catch up on missed work after you get back. (Or not. It’s not the GRE. Your kids can still have a bright educational future if they get a C in third-quarter sixth-grade social studies, and they’ll always remember the whoosh of Space Mountain.)
I will say this: Any time you ask for class work ahead of time or your kids turn things in late, it creates more work for the teacher. So thank her. Tell her you know it’s an inconvenience and you appreciate the extra effort she has to put in. If you want to, you can get her a fridge magnet from your destination, or a $5 Starbucks gift card, but the acknowledgment is likely enough.
In any case, take the vacation. Save money, have fun, and make memories. You won’t regret it.
Dear Ask a Teacher,
Last year, not having yet read your column’s wonderful advice about not going over the teacher’s head to the principal when there is a problem, I did just that. My son related to me a teacher’s comment (not his classroom teacher)—I’ll call her “Ms. X”—to an assembly of several classes rehearsing the winter concert music together. I thought the comment was racist. In my opinion it concerned half a school full of children—not just the child the comment was directed at, but all of the other children present as well, who might see it as normal—and so I notified the principal.
I ended up with Ms. X screaming at me after school one day, in front of my two children and their classroom teachers. She never denied having said it, but she insisted that I had overstepped because I had taken a comment said in jest out of context and made a big deal about nothing. My children’s teachers agreed with Ms. X.
I actually had no doubt that the comment was said in jest and that was precisely why I found it offensive. Comments like that normalize a mild, chronic racism, which is the No. 1 thing that propagates racism.
My question to you is: Is this still a case where I should have talked to the teacher first? Even before this episode, Ms. X seemed to be someone very set in her ways who is never wrong. If I had a problem with something regarding my son directly, I’m sure I would have spoken to the teacher first. But in this case, I was sure Ms. X would dismiss my concern out of hand and continue to act the same way.
—Was I Right to Tattle?
Dear Was I Right,
Had you asked me how to handle this situation prior to taking any action, I would have said:
1. Since you’re hearing this comment secondhand, tread lightly. I’m not implying that your child was lying or even incorrect in his characterization of the comment, but children can often misconstrue a situation. The rational part of the human brain is not fully formed until well after a person’s teenage years, so whenever my own children tell me something, I take it with a large grain of salt. You should do the same.
2. Speak to the teacher first. If you do, this does not prevent you from speaking to the principal later if the teacher’s response is not satisfactory, so why not start there? Based upon her unprofessional response, I doubt she’s capable of serious introspection, but at least give the teacher the chance to realize the mistake she’s made. We all say things that we regret. Giving the teacher a chance to respond appropriately is the right thing to do.
For example, I recently handed out a permission slip that asked for the names of the student’s mother and father. It was an old permission slip that I copied without reviewing. A lesbian couple approached me the next day, pointing out how inappropriate and insensitive the permission slip was. I agreed. I made it clear that it was not my intent to be insensitive but that I was clearly guilty of carelessness. I apologized, and two very angry parents quickly forgave me, and we’ve had a positive relationship ever since.
This is what I would want from every parent. An opportunity to recognize my mistake, apologize sincerely for it, and move on.
3. If the teacher’s response is not satisfactory, then by all means alert the principal to your concerns. I would probably tell the teacher that I was going to take the issue to the principal, but this could escalate the encounter, which you might rightfully want to avoid.
I’ve never shied away from a good fight.
In 20 years of teaching, many parents have come to me concerned, angry, or even outraged over something I have said to a student or to my class. In many cases, confusion or misconception on the student’s part was the source of the problem. But when the fault was my own, I always appreciated that the parents approached me first, not because I was afraid of my principal finding out, but because this is the best way to preserve an important professional and personal relationship.
I am looking for advice on how to deal with an incredibly disruptive student in my daughter’s fourth-grade class. This girl, let’s call her Jane, has already established a reputation as a bully at two elementary schools. She threatens to hit kids (and has hit kids in the past) who don’t do what she says. She uses that fear to box out whoever is “on her list” on any given day, saying that nobody can talk to this person or that person (sometimes my daughter, sometimes not). She has punched children during recess (in one instance she broke another child’s glasses), and she has been returned to class later that same day.
She regularly seriously disrupts class with her fits and meltdowns. In the first two months of school, my daughter’s class has had to sit and wait in the library for one to two hours while Jane has had a cursing, chair-throwing fit in the classroom. On one occasion, Jane stood outside the classroom door threatening to hit any kid that left. Because staff is not authorized to use physical force to restrain or move Jane, my daughter’s class missed a significant portion of lunch because children could not exit the classroom without getting punched.
While I understand where this rule is coming from, is the school really powerless to stop a single student from robbing the rest of the class from hours of education time? Speaking with other parents, I have learned that Jane has exhibited this pattern of behavior since first grade.
I know a child who has acted like this since she was 6 has some serious social/emotional development problems, and I want to be sympathetic. I don’t want to launch a campaign to get a special needs fourth-grader removed from school. But my own child is anxious having to deal with Jane’s volatility, and I’m genuinely concerned for my daughter’s safety. I know this girl has to be on the school administration’s radar, but the stories keep coming, and I have no confidence that they have a plan for dealing with her outbursts or improving her behavior beyond just “wait it out.” Do I have any options here to make the school year safer and more enjoyable for my daughter?
—Sympathy Has Its Limits
You and your family have my sympathy! Schools should be a place where students feel supported by one another, not threatened. I’ve got some advice that assumes Jane does not have an individualized education plan or any other special education services. (If she does have an IEP, then your only option may be the last resort mentioned below.)
First, I find it hard to believe that no one is trained to physically restrain Jane. Most schools have at least one employee who is Crisis Prevention Institute certified, which means they’ve been trained in the best way to restrain a child while minimizing risk of harm. These employees are specifically taught to manage situations where students may pose a threat to themselves or others. I’ve worked in schools where CPI-certified staff are integral to basic school safety. In our district, most principals are CPI certified. Even if your school does not have any CPI certified employees on site, your school’s leadership can ask for help from the district.
Ask your school’s counselor who in the building is CPI certified, and you can go from there. Knowing this will give you a place to start a conversation with either the principal or the counselor about your safety concerns. If no one is CPI certified, you can raise your concerns about Jane (while still being sympathetic) and say you’re wondering if the school can get help from someone CPI certified in the district. If someone is CPI certified, you can ask why that person has not yet been enlisted to help when needed. You can also use this meeting as an opportunity to inquire more generally about the school’s safety plan for the classroom. Most schools have these in place—it’s their blueprint for how and who will respond if and when Jane becomes violent.
As a last resort, you can also consider requesting a classroom reassignment for your daughter. To be clear, I only suggest this in extreme circumstances. Moving a child at this point in the year could have serious ramifications on her social life and academic performance. However, if Jane is as much of an issue as you make her out to be, you may have no choice. If your kid can’t feel safe, then she can’t learn. And no bully, big or small, should keep her from that.
If my 6-year-old bombs standardized tests, how worried should I be?
—Not the Best With Tests
Probably not very worried.
The current discourse around testing in American public schools is, uh, heated. Like, people basically burst into flames at the merest mention of the topic. It’s important to remember, though, that a standardized test is merely a skill assessment administered and scored to a large group in a consistent manner. The term implies nothing about the duration, difficulty, or significance of the test. At 6, we may well be talking about a simple five-minute assessment of letter sound recognition. A snapshot, in other words! One quick data point, in isolation, at one moment in time. Not meaningless but also not an irreversible determinant of your child’s future.
Think of it like the milestone checklists you received at your kid’s well visits during babyhood. It was darkly tempting to commence a panic spiral if your baby hadn’t smiled by the six-week appointment, but really, each milestone is more of an indicator and a starting point for a conversation about the whole picture with your pediatrician. Same idea for your school-age kid. Feel free to use the test performance as a discussion opener with your child’s teacher if you’re worried (though, again, you shouldn’t be very worried). If either of you has observed multiple other issues that seem like developmental red flags, the test performance will be useful information to add. If there are no concerns other than the test scores, well, you’ve got one quirky outlying data point that doesn’t indicate much in the grand scheme of your child as a learner. Keep a level head! It’s probably fine.