Care and Feeding

Bring in Mini Marshmallows … Tomorrow! Dress as Your Favorite Book Character … Tomorrow!

I get no advance notice from my child’s teacher, and I can’t take it anymore.

A parent makes a mask for a child.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Peter Muller/iStock/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:

Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut

I have small kids—preschool and kindergarten—and so am fairly new to the full-time school routine. But I’m trying to figure out what is reasonable timing for schools to request materials or contributions from families. For example, the holiday show at my kids’ school is in a week. Apparently they need costumes, but only one of the teachers has bothered to tell us what costume should be provided. I think this is outrageous—things like this can potentially require hours of work to pull together. What about snacks? Last year, my kid’s preschool director informed me with less than 24 hours’ notice that I needed to provide snacks, and the school has a very restrictive snack policy. The list goes on—posters, family photos, etc.—all requested with 24 to 48 hours’ notice.  

I would really like to ask the principal to implement the following policy: Teachers should provide families with a full week of notice for any needed supplies outside of a standard (pre-issued) school supply list. Two weeks’ notice should be required for anything especially unusual, like costumes or idiosyncratic food requests. Or do you have some other strategy to suggest? Given that teachers are often working moms, I don’t understand why they think this is reasonable! Their failure to plan does not constitute an emergency for my family, but I don’t want my kids punished.

—Overworked Working Mom

Dear Overworked,

Man, that’s annoying.

I also have young children and have been nonplussed when told I need to bring a dozen Easter eggs prefilled with hypoallergenic nonfood items. Tomorrow. Of course these requests were often on the monthly newsletter I forgot to take out of my child’s cubby. But it sounds like you’re a pretty organized mama, so perhaps their lack of foresight is especially galling to you.

However, before going to the principal, share your ideas with the teachers. I’m particularly irritated when a parent goes over my head. Another possible resource is your school’s parent-teacher association. Our neighborhood elementary school’s PTA actually negotiated discounted beginning-of-the-year school supply boxes with a local retailer. PTAs are also the place where hero moms and dads stock up on poster boards and make last-minute Target runs for glitter glue. (I’m not that mom. It’s OK that you are also not that mom.)

Keep this in mind: It’s possible these teachers feel as overworked as you do and sometimes drop the ball. Each year, my employers add more to my plate without taking anything away. Offer up your ideas in the spirit of constructive criticism with compassion for how hard they are likely working. Explain that you are happy to provide requested supplies but that you require more notice and imagine other working parents do, too. The teachers may support your efforts or provide helpful insight.

And I fully support your right to say “no.” So your preschooler is the only one not wearing a costume at the holiday show? Or she’s actually wearing a Halloween costume you found under the bed? It’s not that big of a deal. She’s not likely to remember it anyway.

—Ms. Holbrook

After loving it for the past two years, my high school sophomore is struggling with Chinese this year, and I believe the issue is the teacher. They have a combined Chinese 2/3 class, and the teacher is using the same materials and expecting the “2” class (including my kid) to keep up. They aren’t. This teacher grades kids harshly for participation, loses quizzes, and frequently yells demeaning things. My child comes home every day frustrated, sad, and sometimes depressed over this class (she’s getting a C in this class, but A’s in all her others). I’ve said repeatedly I’m willing to talk to the teacher or guidance counselor if she wants me to, but she’s trying to “fix” this herself. At this point, three months into the semester, I think this needs to be escalated. Should I? How do I help my child succeed here?

—Meddling Mother?

Dear Meddling,

That’s really tough. I feel for your child, and for her teacher. To give you some perspective from the teacher’s standpoint: Combination classes are a nightmare. Yes, there is often overlap in grade level content (what we call “spiraling curriculum”), but sometimes the coursework is entirely different. And even when it does spiral, students are expected to build on what they know. If the foundation from the previous class is missing, there’s nowhere to build. Teachers are not given enough time to plan, teach, and grade for a single subject, much less two at the same time. So is this teacher pushed beyond their limits? Likely.

That being said, the issue does need to be addressed. Teachers should differentiate for needs and abilities, teachers should keep up with paperwork, and teachers should not demean their students. This teacher needs to hear these things.

And while I believe kids should be taught to advocate for themselves, your daughter is not going to “fix” this one herself. The teacher has not created an environment in which your daughter feels comfortable sharing her concerns, so you are going to have to do it. Tell your daughter your plan, deal with that fallout, and then set up a conference. Speak your piece as dispassionately as you can. Try to be curious, rather than righteously indignant, even though it sounds like you have reason to be. Your argument might sound something like this:

My daughter is really struggling in your class, and I want to do whatever I can to support her. It’s not about the grade, of course, but generally, she’s a straight-A student, so a C is odd for her. Let me just go over a few things that I’m hearing, and you can tell if I’m understanding the situation correctly. First, is she expected to learn via the Level 3 materials even though she hasn’t had Level 2 yet? 

You can then go into the missing quizzes (although I’m not sure I understand that part). Did your daughter get a zero because the teacher misplaced an assignment? If so, you can say: She says she turned it in to you. Can she retake the quiz or do a makeup assignment?

Beyond that, do mention the classroom climate. You don’t have to say: Stop yelling at these kids. Try something like: My daughter didn’t want me to share any of this with you—honestly, she’s a little scared of you. Like most kids, she works best when she is praised for effort and not too harshly reprimanded for mistakes. I know you have a lot of students, and a lot to do in very little time, but do you think you could check in with her periodically to make sure she’s understanding the content? I think it would go a long way toward her academic progress and her comfort level in the classroom. 

This conversation will likely be uncomfortable but worth it. If it doesn’t go well, appeal the issue to the principal.

—Ms. Scott

When I picked my daughter up from kindergarten the other day, her teacher pulled me aside and reported she had a very bad day with my daughter. She said verbatim, “She was bossy and just downright nasty today.” While this is the second time she has referred to my daughter as “bossy,” I was very taken aback by her use of the word “nasty” to describe a 5-year-old. I asked for specifics and was told my daughter snatched something from a classmate and had talked back to the paraeducator. No other details were provided. At home, my daughter was able to provide some more detail and identify areas of growth. She, of course, also had her side of the story.

I sent the teacher an email letting her know the outcome of the conversation with my daughter. I also said that I felt a bit attacked by her choice of language and asked in the future for specific details about incidents without the attached labels like bossy and nasty. I also requested that my daughter be involved in any end-of-the-day conversation regarding behavior. Multiple people read the email and stated that it was kind and fair. At pickup, the teacher would not even look at me and walked past me without any acknowledgment. She has not responded to my email.

Did I overreact by asking the teacher to stop calling my daughter bossy and nasty? Where do I go from here?

—Kindergarten Woes

Hey there Woes,

You did not overreact in the slightest. Teachers’ language directly affects our students. She was incredibly disrespectful to you and your daughter. What if your daughter or another student were to overhear your conversation? This could seriously affect her self-esteem and development. Part of an educator’s job is to thoughtfully communicate how negative behaviors affect the classroom without using words like nasty.

Rest assured, you were in the right to defend your child. Also, your daughter is in kindergarten—this is where children learn how to behave in school. If you do engage with the teacher about this subject again—and I hope you don’t have to—it may be time to set up a meeting so that the two of you can have a productive conversation about your daughter’s behavior. The teacher should have plenty of curriculum-based resources like Second Step or Kelso’s Choice to help your daughter learn more friendly behaviors. If not, you can access many of these lessons online.

As for what you can do on your own? I’d focus on continuing to have conversations with your daughter about her growth. And remember, one of the most successful women in history was once called nasty, too.

—Mr. Hersey

My daughter is in fourth grade this year and has ADHD. Last year, I was concerned she might have a learning disability like dysgraphia or dyslexia because she had poor spelling and handwriting, and those disabilities run in my family.

The tests showed that her issues are mostly with encoding and decoding (i.e., a nonspecific “processing issue”), but her scores were not low enough to warrant additional help within the school setting. (She was 1.5 standard deviations below the mean, and she needed to be 2 or greater to qualify for special education.) Since then, I’ve been working with her teachers. She had a math tutor over the summer and continues to have one now, but her spelling and writing are still atrocious. On any given day, I cannot make out one word of what the child is writing. 

How can I best help her? Should I have her tested for a more specific auditory processing issue in order to get her more help at school? Should I just hire another tutor to help her with the spelling and writing? She reads well enough (fluency could use improvement), but the teacher gave me a paper that stated the school was concerned she’d fail state mandated reading exams (MAP, SBA). I am so confused … if they acknowledge a problem, shouldn’t they help to fix it? What else can/should I do? 

—Worried Mom

Dear Worried,

It can be extremely frustrating when your child is struggling but the level of struggle does not meet the level required for special education. This, however, should not exclude your child from receiving support at school.

From what you describe, your child should certainly receive some form of modified assistance in school. My advice is to use their concerns over the state mandated reading exams to call for another meeting to assess your daughter’s needs. Tutors are wonderful, and if you can afford them, by all means offer your child every bit of assistance you can. But this is a public school with specific responsibilities to your family.

I’ll also add this:

When it comes to writing, handwriting and spelling are the least important elements of the craft. Many world-class writers never master spelling or handwriting and go onto amazing careers. E.B. White, the essayist and author of Charlotte’s Web, for example, had nearly indiscernible handwriting, but it did not hold him back from a prolific and historic writing career. In my experience, parents tend to focus on handwriting and spelling because that is what they can see and understand, but far more important is the ability to communicate effectively using words and sentences. I’ve had many young writers who struggle with both spelling and handwriting who eventually flourish on a computer once both of those barriers are mitigated.

If you look beyond her spelling and handwriting, how is she doing? Does her writing meet the standards? Does her writing compare well with her peers? Does she enjoy writing? Can she communicate with a clear and distinct voice?

If the answers to those questions are yes, fantastic! If not, don’t hesitate to become a squeaky wheel to get her some help.

Either way, focus less on handwriting and spelling. Young writers can begin to hate the writing process when mechanics are placed ahead of self-expression. In fact, I advise parents to never look at their child’s writing—just be an excellent listener as they read it aloud. Writers want to be heard. Let your daughter be heard, even if she’s the only one who can read the words.

—Mr. Dicks