Care and Feeding

My Child’s Teacher Plays Favorites, and My Son Isn’t One of Them

How can I help him better connect with her?

A teacher helping one child while another looks sad and left out.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos 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 around the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

I know the standard line is that teachers don’t have favorites. But you must have favorites. My child is lovely—sweet, smart, and dutiful—but he’s got a tough exterior to crack, and he doesn’t let many people in. He’s in third grade now at public school, and since preschool, he’s only had one teacher who really got him. That was a great year. This year, he’s telling me that his teacher “plays favorites,” and I can see that he’s hurt he’s not one of them. I’m curious—what’s the best thing to tell him, particularly when I’ve noticed what he’s talking about? (She tends to favor stereotypical “teacher’s pet” types.) How can I encourage him to connect with his teacher, or her to connect with him? His grades are good, but I can tell this is really getting him down.

—Desperately Seeking Reassurance

Dear DSR,

Of course we have favorites—we’re human. Human beings tend to like some people more than other people. That’s why we’re friends with some people but not other people. My favorite students are the brash but good-hearted students, the square pegs, and those who snicker at my sarcastic remarks and deliver their own. Yes, we absolutely have favorites.

That being said, no teacher should play favorites. Teachers should not treat some students as if they are better than others. No favors should be given. No valid criticisms should be withheld. But if she talks and jokes a little more with some kids—well? I can’t fault her for that.

I wished you’d elaborated a little bit more about the “stereotypical teacher’s pet types.” Is it kids who raise their hands before speaking? Who are polite? Who sit up and pay attention and do the work that’s assigned? Some people derisively call those teacher-pleasing behaviors, but those kids do make running a class easier. Even though I like the oddballs, I prefer when they follow the rules and procedures. So I can’t fault her for that either.

I’d have a talk with your son. First, tell him that teachers are people. They will have favorites, and some years he’ll be one of them—yay! Other years, he won’t—boo. But that isn’t a reflection of him. Remind him that he doesn’t adore every single kid he meets. Why should everyone like everyone equally?

Then dig in a bit—ask him why he wants to be a favorite. What do those kids get that he feels he’s missing out on? Is it praise, rewards, a feeling? Is that payoff really important to him? If not, let him know he can still have a great year without being the teacher’s pet. There are friends to make and things to learn and fun to have! Or, if it is, he can try to be the teacher’s pet. Suggest an experiment. Tell him to watch the “favorites” and emulate them. See what happens. Does the teacher’s behavior change? How does he feel about himself? Proud? Or fraudulent? Is it worth it?

Also, talk to the teacher about your son’s tough exterior. We’re not mind-readers. She may not know that he seeks validation from her in that way. She may think he wants to be left at arm’s length. You can let her know about the teacher he really connected with and some strategies that worked for them. She may use them; she may not.

Whatever happens, your son is going to learn some important lessons this year about people, DSR—and those can be some of the most valuable lessons there are.

—Ms. Scott

My 12-year-old is drowning in homework this year. I know middle school is a step up from elementary school, but I’m just not sure how to help her navigate this. She’s bright, responsible, and has always been a good student. She’s also always liked school, but this is really starting to affect her. Any tips on how to help her? She has different teachers making different assignments, and they’re doing nothing to coordinate efforts to make things more manageable for students.

Drowning Over Here

Dear Drowning,

Tell her to suck it up! All this homework is preparing her for the drudgery of adult life!

Just kidding. I realize homework can stress out students and put a strain on families.

So, why is homework taking so long? Is she managing her homework time well? Is the work too challenging for her? Or is there just too much of it?

You mention that your daughter is responsible. However, some kids abandon their formerly responsible selves as they enter their tween years and get Snapchat. Conversely, some are not distracted by devices but struggle to prioritize and self-monitor while studying, taking too long on tasks that could be done more quickly. If you haven’t really paid attention to how she is working, observe her and help her reflect on this. Does she have a quiet, distraction-free space to do her homework? Is she able to chunk longer projects into more manageable tasks? Does she give herself short “brain breaks” to help with focus and motivation? Does she realize when it’s time to move on?

The long nights spent on homework could be a symptom of a larger problem. You described her as a good student, but middle school is a different beast from elementary.  Is it possible the homework is too hard for her? If you suspect it is, reach out to her teachers to find out how she is doing in class and whether she needs interventions.

Of course, it’s possible that there’s just too much work, even for a bright, responsible student who loves school. A generally accepted principle is 10 minutes a night per grade level. For a middle schooler, approximately one hour of homework is reasonable. You said that teachers are not coordinating—perhaps they don’t realize the toll their combined assignments are taking on students. Reach out and let them know! Ask them, politely, if they would consider coordinating to alleviate the load. The most effective way to share your concerns and brainstorm solutions is a face-to-face meeting, though I realize this can be hard for busy parents and teachers to schedule. A carefully worded email could open up the conversation. Your tone should convey that you want to help your daughter and believe they do, too.

I hate to say this, but you might not find an enthusiastic audience. Sometimes, teachers are heavily invested in their curriculum and balk at outside interference. Other times, they’re just so overworked that being asked to do one more thing feels impossible. (Confession: I feel that way a lot.) If you still wish to take this issue on, bring it up at the next PTA meeting. It’s likely other parents share your concern and would organize with you to advance a “healthy homework” policy at your school. If you’d rather not rock the boat, the Department of Education has additional tips for helping your child with homework. It’s a tough issue. (I’m bracing myself for a backlash of indignant teachers.) Best of luck!

—Ms. Holbrook

My husband and I left America and moved to a non-English-speaking country that is filled with expats. Our 3½-year-old was born here. We speak only English at home, and our friend group is made up of English speakers. 

Our son was in a private English day care last year, and he recently started public pre-K, taught in the native language here. The staff does not speak English beyond a few words here and there, nor do I want them to speak to him in English. I would say 20 percent of his class is native English speakers who come from English-speaking homes.

My question is: How can I help support him in this transition? Should I continue focusing on his English skills at home, or should I start reading to him/playing with him/speaking to him in the native language here? 

I feel strongly about giving him a mother tongue comfort level with English, but I also feel guilty for throwing him into this total language immersion without doing any of the heavy lifting myself.

Do you have any advice for how to help him acclimate to the new language?

—Native or New Language?

Dear Native or New,

Absolutely! Many of my scholars here in Washington state are English language learners who speak English at school but their native tongue at home. There is a wealth of research that shows students who grow up bilingual perform better on standardized tests and are more competitive candidates for college and the ever-evolving job market.

I highly suggest that you speak English to him at home, especially if you want English to be his mother tongue. He will get all the exposure to the second language he needs through his daily interactions with his teachers and classmates.

You can, however, support his learning by selectively choosing when to speak the second language at home. For example, a bilingual couple we know has a toddler, and the father only speaks to her in Spanish while the mother speaks to her in English. This provides predictable speech patterns that help kids develop an understanding for two languages simultaneously. You could replicate this by speaking primarily in English at home but switching to the second language when speaking to your son about school or helping him with his homework.

Young children are incredibly resilient when it comes to learning multiple languages. I have confidence your son will become fluent in both languages, with the right amount of support and consistency, as he continues to grow.

Best of luck!

—Mr. Hersey

I taught elementary and middle school for several years right after college. Shortly after 9/11, I joined the military as an officer. I’m still in the military, but I am planning on going back to teaching eventually. My conundrum is that since teaching, I have gotten quite a few tattoos, including a full sleeve. Even while wearing long sleeves, the bottom of the tattoos is visible on my wrist. Am I delusional to think I could ever teach again? Surely no parent would want a tattooed teacher in front of their children?

—Fully Decorated Officer

Dear Fully Decorated Officer,

I don’t think you’re delusional at all. Sure, there’s always a degree of “it depends on the school/age/etc.” when it comes to what a principal will accept, but let’s be honest: Do you want to work at a school that won’t hire you because of your tattoos? You’re a military officer who has prior teaching experience, life experience, and a desire and willingness to work with middle-schoolers—all highly admirable qualities.

That doesn’t mean every school will embrace your sleeve. A more conservative school, a Catholic school, a fancy private school—these may not be happy about the tattoos. On the other hand, a more liberal school or a charter school will likely have no trouble at all. I don’t have any tattoos (needle-phobic chicken that I am), but I’m young, queer, and blue-haired. When I applied to a previous job teaching middle school, I dyed my hair navy blue, banking on poor school lighting to hide the fact that it wasn’t my natural brown. A week before school started, I asked my principal if it was all right that my hair was an unnatural color, and she said, “We want you to be your authentic self.” Yes, that is cheesy-New-York-charter-school speak, but it also showed me the school culture she intended to create.

As for parents, there will always be parents who find reasons to judge you, and those parents might find something else to dislike about you even if you removed your tattoos. Fortunately for you, you’re not teaching those parents. You’re teaching their children. And at the end of the day, those judge-y parents will come around if you can do a good job teaching their children, because that’s what really matters.

—Ms. Sarnell