Care and Feeding

All She Really Needs to Know She’s Not Learning in Kindergarten

My daughter’s long-term sub is terrible. What should I do?

A clueless kindergarten substitute teacher and her bored classroom
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Goldfaery/iStock/Getty Images Plus and AaronAmat/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:
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina*

Our oldest daughter is in kindergarten at our local public school. Her teacher has been on extended leave since about a month after school started this year. The long-term substitute is a perfectly nice woman, but she does not have an education degree. Our daughter, who is reading above grade level and is very inquisitive and intelligent at home, is feeling unchallenged and generally doesn’t like going to school. The teacher in the other kindergarten classroom in her school does help out, and there is a technology aide who helps for a few hours a week. I fully appreciate that my daughter’s teacher may have a medical condition that prevents her from returning to work, and I certainly don’t begrudge her that, but I’m left thinking that my daughter and the other students in her class deserve a trained teacher, especially in kindergarten. If I have a conversation with the principal about my concerns, what is reasonable to ask for?

—Left in a Lurch

Dear Lurch,

I was on leave for 12 weeks this year to care for my newborn baby, so I feel for your daughter’s teacher: Handing your classroom over to someone else is nerve-racking. I’m sure it’s very frustrating to see your daughter dislike school, especially in kindergarten. Do you know exactly what makes her unhappy and whether it is related to the teacher? Your letter suggests that she is bored because she isn’t being challenged enough. But what if she’s struggling to make friends or adjust to her new schedule? Before meeting with the principal, talk to the substitute and ask for her perspective. She’s not a trained teacher, but she is spending every day with your daughter.

If you come to the conclusion that the substitute teacher is the problem, and you want to meet with the principal, be specific about your concerns. “My kid is bored” isn’t going to compel the principal to take action. Is the teacher unable to control the classroom? Is she printing out dull worksheets instead of reading good books? Is she showing the kids videos rather than leading them in hands-on activities?

The principal may not be able to replace her with a certified teacher. In many districts, substitutes are only required to have two years of college (and in some, only a high school diploma), so there might not be a more qualified person available. Be prepared to suggest other remedies. Could the substitute observe the other kindergarten teacher? Could the principal observe the sub to give her some helpful advice? Can school or parent volunteers assist in the classroom? Could your daughter visit the library to discuss books with the school librarian?

The good news is your daughter is already reading above grade level, so it’s unlikely this experience will harm her academically in the long run. I hope her original teacher is well enough to return soon.

—Ms. Holbrook

My first-grade daughter goes to an amazing public school, and we have been relatively happy with the school overall.

The school has a dual-language (Spanish-English) immersion class in every grade. My child was not in the class last year, but we had the wonderful opportunity to move her into this class as a first-grader. We were all so excited! What a wonderful adventure! We knew that it would be hard, but she is a smart girl who loved kindergarten, and conversations with our principal assured me that she would be successful. All reading and writing in the class is in Spanish, and three days every week the teacher only speaks Spanish.

We are halfway through the year, and it has become a struggle. She is behind, which is a frustrating and humbling experience for her. What is upsetting to me is her teacher’s reaction. A report card in November showed that she was nearly failing. When I reached out to the teacher to discuss what I could do to help turn this around, it took her almost a week to get back to me and a month before we could meet in person. In the interim, I started working more on vocabulary with my daughter at home, but I was disappointed that the teacher really could not give me any strategies to help my daughter catch up.

I can see that my daughter starts to shut down when she hears Spanish, and I know it is an emotional thing with her. She is already talking about going back to the regular classes in second grade rather than staying in dual language. I would love to make this a success. But I can’t force her, and right now she has decided she doesn’t like it. Her teacher doesn’t seem particularly invested in helping me make this a success.


Dear Ayúdame,

I agree with you. Your daughter’s teacher doesn’t seem invested in helping her succeed.

A month is far too long for a teacher to find a time to meet with you. The average school year is about 10 months long, so to put you off for 10 percent of the school year and allow your daughter to suffer as a result is not acceptable. I also believe that nothing on a report card should surprise a parent, so the fact that you discovered your daughter was failing via her report card is also inexcusable.

If the Spanish has become a source of angst for your daughter, I would advise moving her out of that program next year as she has requested. The most important thing for any child, especially in the first few years of elementary school, is to learn to love school and to learn to love learning. There is plenty of time in the coming years for her to learn a second and even a third language. She needs to reacquaint herself with feeling happy and successful about school.

As for the rest of this year, I would try to find ways to keep your daughter’s spirits up and her effort strong. One of the best ways to help a child feel successful is to make her feel like a teacher. To this end, perhaps you could ask your daughter to teach you Spanish at home, and as her student, you could pretend to be especially challenged when it comes to learning a new language.

By allowing your child to demonstrate her skill and expertise on a regular basis, she may feel better about what she has already learned and more enthusiastic about what she will be learning in the future. Good luck!

—Mr. Dicks

I know your column is usually more for parents seeking advice about teachers, but I really need your advice.

I work for a network of nonunion charter schools as a second-grade teacher. I’ve wanted to be a teacher for a while, but I didn’t have the time or money to go back to grad school. I found out about my state’s “alternate route” option, where people from noneducation backgrounds can be issued a provisional certificate and teach full time while in grad school. I imagined it being hard, but nothing like this.

The first month was relentless. I worked 12-hour days with no prep periods, and additional time at home. I’ve since been given preps, but they are subject to be taken away “as needed.” I get in at 6 a.m. and leave at 6 p.m. I am not allowed to leave before 5:30. The kids are there from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

I work for a high-need urban district, and whenever the teachers speak up about conditions, we are told that we either don’t care about the kids or that we are not managing our time efficiently.

I love the kids. I love teaching them. But I have panic attacks most Sundays at the thought of going back. I feel like I can never take a sick day. And now I’ve just found out that I am expected to tutor some of my students in one of my two prep periods, as they’re regularly failing one question on a quiz. (I have already sent home extra work and they’ve received extra help. Eighty-five percent of the class passed.)

I’m so tired. I’m so, so tired. I’ve already sunk thousands into grad school, but part of me wants to run. Is this teaching? Is this teaching at every school? Twelve hours there, two at home, and eight every Sunday? Should I quit? I don’t want to leave my kids, but I feel like I’m drowning.

Thank you.

—Beyond Burned Out

Dear Beyond Burned Out,

That is not teaching at every school. Those hours are unsustainable. Yes, you should quit.

Now, let me back up.

I too went through a lateral entry program (about which I have complicated feelings, but that’s another story). After a couple of summer courses, and a whopping nine days of student teaching in summer school, I was assigned my own class in a high-needs school in Harlem, New York. I worked so hard. I arrived at work sometime between 6 and 7 a.m. and stayed until the janitors kicked me out—sometimes until 9 p.m. I took work home with me and went in on Saturdays. Like you, I was in grad school, juggling coursework on top of all of that.

Ill-prepared and overworked, I wasn’t good at the job. I struggled to put together a decent lesson plan. I didn’t know how to prioritize. (I graded, with a percentage score, homework … for third-graders!) I taught kids whose academic and social needs I couldn’t identify, much less address. My class was chaos. My principal was mostly kind but spread thin, and when she did come around, she had a tendency toward micromanagement. I’m not proud of much that I did those three years, and I was miserable.

I moved back to my home state of North Carolina. I started teaching in one of the best districts in the state. The first day, I told the kids to make a nametag for their desks, and … they did it. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. Kids who had labels and received services made me reflect on some of my students from New York—“Oh, Johnny probably had autism! I should have used a picture schedule with him!” My principal was both available and forgiving. It was a different job altogether.

Now, that gig wasn’t perfect, especially after my principal retired. Every school is going to have its flaws, but in general, I had enough support that I could do the work, and I learned so much.

Five years later, I moved to a different city and took a middle school job. The kids had more academic and social issues and not as many resources. By then, I was better equipped to handle these challenges, but the district mandated so many time-sucking irrelevant tasks. When I asked my principal if it was possible to keep up with these tasks while maintaining joy in the job, she answered, “To be honest, no.”

For seven years, I’d tell anyone who’d listen, “I have to get out of teaching.” But as a single mom of two little kids, my options were limited. I didn’t want to go back to school, and I didn’t know how to break into another field without credentials.

Pushed to my limit, I changed schools again, moving to a charter (about which I also have complicated feelings, but that’s yet another story), and … I LOVE IT. For the most part, the students are great. The resources are appropriate and accessible. We’re required to give a couple standardized tests throughout the year, but the rest of the time, the administrators let us develop our own assessments and determine how to use the data. For the first time in a long time, I can imagine myself staying in the profession.

So, yes, you should quit, but I would hate for you to stop teaching altogether without at least trying another school. Ask around. Where are teachers happy? Where do they feel supported by their administrators and not oppressed by the requirements from their districts? Put out feelers. Go to job fairs. Send emails directly to principals and tell them you’ve heard great things and you want to work for them.

The bad news is you’re probably never going to be paid what you’re worth, but the good news? It’s possible to love teaching anyway.

—Ms. Scott

How much exposure do teachers get to published research? Do you keep up with evidence-based practices for teaching, or do you rely on your school district or principal to disperse relevant research about things like homework, reading practices, behavior, etc.?

Or, do teachers instead mainly rely on advice from their colleagues, and their instincts, about what does and doesn’t work in their classrooms and with that year’s specific group of students?

—How Are Teachers Taught?

Dear HATT,

University teacher-preparation programs typically expose students to research on best practices. However, most teachers I know feel that their courses were too theoretical and didn’t prepare them for teaching in the “real world.” This is one reason many teachers rely heavily on advice from mentors as well as general wisdom acquired through experience.

Educators continue to receive professional development throughout their career, of course. The extent to which professional development is supported by research depends on the school and district leadership and what individual teachers seek out. Administrators are usually looking for professional development opportunities that can impact test scores or other metrics. Teachers want resources they can use tomorrow.

Sometimes there’s a disconnect between research-based best practices and day-to-day instruction, which happens for any number of reasons. It could be that the prevailing research conflicts with deeply held beliefs of teachers or even families. For instance, if kindergarten parents keep hounding the teacher for homework, she may shrug her shoulders and start assigning it, even if she is aware that research shows little benefit for children so young. A teacher may view social and emotional skill development as the parents’ responsibility, and that teacher may be reluctant to incorporate this kind of learning into her curriculum, despite research indicating its academic benefit.

Personally, I am interested in research and try my best to stay current. That said, incorporating what I learn from research into my classroom can be challenging. During my graduate coursework, for example, I learned that traditional methods of teaching grammar through analysis (think diagramming sentences) do not improve the quality of student compositions. Teaching grammar in the context of writing does have research support, but you wouldn’t know it looking at my textbook materials, which have workbooks devoted to activities like labeling parts of speech. I have used my own funds to buy books with research-based methods, but that can get expensive. It also takes significant time to develop lessons using those materials.

Finally, education is political. You don’t have to look very hard to find examples of school boards sneaking creationism into state science-curriculum standards, for example.

I assure you, though, that teachers want to invest their time and creative energy into efforts that help students learn. I do hope that more universities will find ways to bridge the gap between what happens in their classrooms and what happens in mine.

—Ms. Holbrook

Correction, Feb. 1, 2019: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this column misattributed a byline to Brandon Hersey and omitted Amy Scott’s byline.