Care and Feeding

To Friend or Not to Friend?

A student’s parent reached out to me on Facebook. What should I do?

A cursor hovering over a Facebook icon displaying a new friend request, on a background of loose-leaf paper.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Facebook.

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
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

I am a third-grade teacher who works at a school where we are truly a family: Everyone is warm, supportive, and close with each other, but always professional. It is a fantastic place to learn and grow, both for students and teachers! This year, one of my most challenging students is also the son of one of our cafeteria workers. I’ve worked hard to develop a trusting relationship with her so that her son knows we are a team. We have a good rapport, and she’s been very supportive when it comes to my decisions about consequences for her son’s behavior. However, she just sent me a friend request on Facebook. I’m torn. I’ve always had a policy of not accepting friend requests from parents, but this mom is also my colleague. Most people in our school’s network are already Facebook friends with each other (several teachers are also even friends with our principal, though I am not). I don’t want her to think I’m rude for ignoring the request. What do you think I should do?

—To Friend or Not to Friend

Dear Friend,

My first instinct was to say go ahead and friend her. I long ago gave up on the idea that anything I post on Facebook is truly “private.” And some of my closest friends are people I’ve met through teaching. Over time, my personal and working worlds have collided.

But then I thought about it more. There is value in setting boundaries. Many careers creep into our personal time these days, but this is especially true in teaching, where we must give so much emotional energy to our work. We deserve spaces free from the demands of our careers, and if Facebook is that sort of place for you, deny her friend request.

It’s possible she rarely posts except to share an amusing cat video or an occasional picture of her kids looking cute. You might hardly notice her in your feed. But it’s also possible you’ll learn way more about her and her family than you care to know, potentially damaging the professional relationship you’ve worked so hard to build.

Of course, maybe Facebook is just another app on your phone that you very occasionally check. If that’s the case, you could friend her to avoid an awkward conversation. However, that could result in ensuing requests from other parents.

Let her know how much you value the work you’ve both done this year to help her son succeed, but you feel it’s inappropriate to be Facebook friends. Simply tell her about your policy of not engaging with your students’ parents on social media. Thank her for understanding.

I feel for you—this sounds super awkward. But I don’t think you need to feel bad about it. You’ve set up a perfectly reasonable rule. Keep it.

—Ms. Holbrook

I’m the stepmom of a very bright seventh-grader who hates school. He started the year complaining that “it’s boring,” which seemed like normal seventh-grade griping. As we’ve pressed him for specifics about what’s boring, however, he’s given us concerning answers. He says that in most of his classes, students do lessons and work on computers without much teacher interaction, and that most students spend their time playing games on their computers or on their phones. When I ask him why this is allowed, he says the teachers don’t care.

My first question is: How can I verify that what he’s saying is accurate? He’s not a pathological liar or anything, but I know that kids are prone to hyperbole, and I don’t want to take any action without being sure of what’s going on. I also don’t want to get more information in a way that’s problematic for the teachers, or that implies I know better than they do how to teach kids.

Second: Assuming there’s some truth to what he’s saying, what can we do to help?  I don’t want him to lose his love of learning or be insufficiently challenged. The situation is especially disheartening because the school is known as an academically rigorous magnet school. It also means that, short of private school, there’s no obvious place to move him. Help!

—Concerned Stepmom

Dear Concerned,

Ah, the double-edged sword of technology! Information! But games. Speed! But distractions.

Until this year, I had always taught in schools where technology was sparse, inaccessible, and/or unreliable. This year I moved to a school where the kids bring their own laptops, and we provide one for those who don’t/can’t, and it’s a different job altogether. Yes, I still make copies, but I have the option of posting the assignment online instead. Yes, I still have to grade some things (like writing, obviously), but for vocabulary quizzes, multiple-choice tests, and such, I can use Google Forms, which scores the assessments and sends me spreadsheets of the results.

Yes, kids lose their homework, but they can access it on our homework webpage. And yes, once in a while, I have to debate a student about whether or not they turned something in on time, and that’s when I pull up Google Classroom and show them the timestamp—or, as the kids say, “the receipts.”

In addition, I rely on a ton of web resources to teach and reinforce concepts, from who vs. whom to the similarities and differences between persuasive and argumentative writing.

I’d estimate my new students do about 75 percent of their work online, versus 5 percent at my former school.

That doesn’t mean I’m sitting around doing nothing. While the kids distinguish dependent and independent clauses on NoRedInk, I’m walking around—observing, explaining, and answering questions. While they work on their writing pieces, I’m adding comments to their Google Docs. While they’re doing research on the pros and cons of testing Olympic athletes for performance-enhancing drugs, I’m inquiring about why they think their sources are reliable.

That should be the case with other teachers who rely on technology, but your son says, in his case, it’s not. So, to answer your first question about how you can verify: Ask. Be curious, rather than accusatory, but ask the teachers. Acknowledge kids’ tendency toward hyperbole, and then tell them what your son said. They will probably respond that there’s more interaction than he acknowledges. If it is true that they’re not monitoring students’ activities, at least this conversation will alert them that they’re not getting away with it.

Further, you can ask 1) about the online resources used and what the teachers hope to get out of them, and 2) how you can monitor and support his progress at home. Let the teachers know you’ll follow up with them next month/quarter/semester, and thank them for their time.

As for what you can do to help? In addition to whatever tips you get from his teachers, encourage your stepson to stay on task at school, in spite of any gaming going on around him. Remind him to challenge himself. Teachers do their best to differentiate for student needs and abilities but can’t follow up on every task with every kid, especially in middle school when they often have more than 100 students. Lastly, it’s never a bad idea to check in to make sure everything is OK socially, too—middle school can be tough on kids.

—Ms. Scott


My son’s fifth-grade teacher and I dislike each other.  Should I be concerned that she will mistreat my son?  

Thank you.

—Paranoid Parent

Dear Paranoid,

Man. When I read this, I felt such a sense of cognitive dissonance. Here’s what I can say: I have never personally known a teacher to deliberately and maliciously use a child as a conduit for acting out an adult vendetta. Despite that, I continually hear from parents (in letters to this column and in the parenting realm on social media) that they fear targeted retaliation by disgruntled teachers. I’m not sure how to reckon with that disparity, and I’m sorry it’s such a common concern.

As we’ve said in this column, teachers are human and therefore run the gamut of human behavior. I believe the majority of teachers engage in this work with sincere enthusiasm and good intentions. They carry out those intentions with levels of skill and efficacy ranging from “stellar” to “teeth-clenching emoji.” My experience is that most teachers are flawed but generally good people who aspire toward professionalism, kindness, and good judgment. Some teachers are not generally kind, not generally good, not skillful, and not invested. And I’m sure there are some who are vengeful, shameless assholes, the kind who will purposefully mistreat a 10-year-old to express a personal grudge. There’s also the well-researched fact that, as a system, our public schools uphold racial bias in the ways they manage student conduct—so the answer to this question is likely to change a whole lot depending on the social privilege dynamics at play.

All that to say: I believe this teacher will be decent enough to leave your son out of the personal issues between the two of you. If not, well, write back. And bigger picture, I really hope all teachers and parents can keep working to build more mutual trust and reduce the wariness between them.

—Ms. Bauer

My 5-year-old daughter loves having early-reader chapter books read aloud to her.  She has recently fallen in love with the Magic Tree House series, which she takes out from the school library. We read them to and with her, and we read favorite picture books as well. She’s making wonderful progress in reading at school, and her teacher said she’s currently reading well above grade level. Everything seemed like it was going great—until today: My daughter’s teacher told her that she can’t check out any more chapter books from the library, and she can only check out picture books she can read herself. My daughter was upset. She really loves these books and characters.

What is the reason for putting these books out of reach? I was an advanced reader, too, and lots of my teachers didn’t believe I could read the books I did as quickly and as well as I did. I’m a secondary and college-level English and writing teacher now, and nurturing those special students who really love to read is one of my greatest joys in teaching. How do I approach this? Is there something I’m missing about why a high-performing kindergartner shouldn’t be reading chapter books? Thanks!

—Confused in Connecticut

Dear Confused,

I understand where you’re coming from. Your students are fluent readers. They are at a place as readers where there is some equivalence between what you read aloud to them and what they read independently.

But your daughter, precocious as she may be, is not there. What she can comprehend when you read aloud to her is different than what she can comprehend when she reads aloud to herself, which is different than what she can comprehend when she reads silently to herself.

When we assess students’ reading comprehension in elementary school, we typically assess their reading comprehension three times: once for pure listening comprehension, once for their own read-aloud comprehension, and (when it is developmentally appropriate) once for their ability to read a text silently and answer questions. These scores, combined with their decoding accuracy, give your child a set of “levels”—their independent, instructional, and “frustration” reading levels. For example, an advanced kindergartner this early in the school year might be independent at level D (which is the benchmark level for end of kindergarten), instructional at level E/F, and will hit their frustration point (the point at which reading is too challenging to make for effective teaching) at level G.

When we choose books for reading instruction, we try to choose books at the upper end of the instructional level. And when we ask children to pick an independent reading book, we try to encourage them to look at their independent level, or the lower end of their instructional level. Independent reading is a time for children to practice the skill of sitting and reading by themselves, but also to learn to love the activity of reading. If the books are too challenging, children can become frustrated and may get turned off by it. This is most likely why the teacher has asked her to take out picture books from the library.

That’s not to say that these advanced chapter books are forbidden. You should absolutely continue reading them to her if that’s something she enjoys! But the Magic Tree House series is meant for second- and third-grade reading abilities. And while your daughter may be able to enjoy listening to the stories, it’s unlikely that they’re appropriate for her independent reading yet.

If she’s disappointed that she needs to read other books during silent reading, there are two ways you can help. First, remind her that you can continue to read the series at home. Second, encourage her to discover new books that are at her independent reading level. Help her fall in love with this kind of reading at home; you can have “book dates” where you both read silently and drink cocoa. Show her how amazing and interesting and wonderful these independent books are so that she doesn’t feel that they’re lesser in some way than the chapter books you’ve read together. It sounds like you and your daughter are already off to a good start, and you’ll have many more chances to share your favorite books with her.

—Ms. Sarnell