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 firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut.
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York.
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York.
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina.
I have two sons, three years apart, in a charter school. We love the school and most of the teachers. However, my older son had a fourth-grade teacher whom my son, husband, and I all actively disliked by the end of the year. That son loved school and was always enthusiastic to go in the morning until that year when he began wanting to stay home with the smallest sniffles. He got stomachaches and even cried about doing his homework. He also complained that while the other three classes in his grade got to do fun educational experiences like mock trials, science experiments, and watching the movie version of the book they just read, his class did not get to do this because they were always behind in their studies. From the parental side, we could tell the teacher was badly organized. She sent emails in the evening with homework she forgot to give the kids. She sent the “Tuesday folders” with graded work and school announcements on Wednesday or Thursday most weeks. We supported the teacher as best as we could and tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. We didn’t talk negatively about her to our son and did not allow him to bad-mouth her other than telling us factually what his issues were.
Then, things got worse. She twice gave my son a zero for missing an assignment when it was at home, graded by her. I had to bring these assignments in to prove to her he did them and she graded them (because she didn’t believe me when I emailed her). Though he’d never needed a tutor before, we ended up sending him to one over the summer at considerable expense to us, as he simply didn’t understand some core concepts and his school is academically rigorous. He’s thriving again this year with a different teacher.
Apparently this teacher had the same problems the year before my son had her, and other students in my son’s year also confirmed what my son said and took summer classes to catch up.
This teacher was moved to more of an administrative role this year. However, teachers in this school often move to different grade levels/assignments, and she may be a classroom teacher again next year. I really, really do not want her teaching my younger son. Another parent I know tried to request a specific teacher for her daughter last year because they knew her outside of school, and that was denied by the school, which I can understand. I don’t want to appear like a difficult parent, especially when this teacher may not even have a classroom next year. I certainly don’t want to request she doesn’t teach my son and then have it get back to her, only for him to wind up in her class anyway. Should I speak up at the end of this year? Only if I find out she will be teaching my younger son’s grade next year? Not at all?
—To Request or Not to Request
My advice is simple: Don’t request a specific teacher, but simply request that your son not have this particular teacher.
While administrators can’t have parents dictating the teacher-student placement process, they should and usually will allow for some degree of reasonable parental input to create the most productive placements possible.
Not every teacher, student, and parent will work well together. It’s a simple fact of life. Just let the administrator know that your older child’s placement with this teacher wasn’t an ideal fit. Don’t criticize the teacher’s skill level or professionalism as a part of this process. Simply state that you’d prefer to avoid a similar fate for your younger child.
A savvy administrator will see this as an opportunity to avoid a problem in the coming year by granting your more-than-reasonable request.
My son is in kindergarten in a fairly demanding school whose focus is on inclusion and diversity. It’s a good school, he’s doing well, everything is going fine so far—for him.
But there’s another child in his class who isn’t doing that great. The child seems to have frequent outbursts, interrupts the rest of the class constantly, etc. From my outside perspective, the child may have some behavioral problems that aren’t being adequately addressed by the school. I’ve interacted with this child a few times, and the child seemed very interesting to me—inquisitive, thoughtful, funny, definitely outside the box in a good way.
But—and maybe this is partly due to the age—my son seems to really dislike this child, based solely on the way the child acts in the classroom. I get the distinct impression that this kid is the Weird Kid who’s made fun of by other kids in class, either covertly or possibly overtly.
How can I advocate for this kid to MY kid? I’ve tried talking to him about how this child seems to be having a tough time, how the child seems really interesting when I’ve read this child’s work on classroom walls or looked at projects during the class project sessions. I’ve always tried, with both my kids, to remind them that what you see is rarely all that’s going on with someone, and that many kids have a tough time at home or medically, or any number of things.
But is there some way to say that to get it to stick, besides repetition? I don’t want to force a friendship that he’s not interested in, but I can’t help but think that if someone would just help this student feel a little less ostracized …
—Want My Kid to Stick Up for the Underdog
Oh, I’m so glad you asked this question. One thing I’ve yet to see a school really get right is how to effectively and realistically coach kids on social dynamics like the one you describe. All too often, I think students hear cheerful, facile messages about how to conduct social relationships that bear little resemblance to the much more nuanced and complicated realities they navigate once the assembly/special program/lesson with the guidance counselor is over.
The picture we paint for kids is so simplistic, the wrongs so apparent: A merciless jerk, or a pack of them, selects a victim at random and descends, relishing their own cruelty. And, certainly, sometimes the reality of unkindness does look like that!
But it gets much harder for kids to recognize, let alone untangle and intervene, when the child in question acts in ways that they don’t understand or find off-putting or frustrating. I want to be clear that I am not saying that children who experience social rejection or isolation or bullying deserve it or bring it on themselves. They do not. What I am saying is that we do all kids a disservice when we talk to them about these issues with a narrow lens and we give them pat, unrealistic advice, because they are much less likely to respond with the kindness and empathy we hope for if they can’t recognize that they’re in one of those situations where it’s called for.
So here’s my advice: First, empathize with and validate your son’s experience. It is frustrating when one student monopolizes the class’s time and the teacher’s attention with constant disruptions and outbursts. It’s normal and OK to feel that way. Frankly, it’s frustrating as a teacher, and I’m the one with the experience and strategies and adult-level patience at my disposal.
Second, stop trying to rationalize to your son why this child deserves empathy and make it an expectation instead. I totally understand where you’re coming from, and all those justifications (medical reasons, stuff going on at home, he’s actually interesting and creative) may well be true—but they also convey a message that this boy needs to earn basic kindness from others, when actually he should be entitled to it. Every kindergartener deserves to come to school and not be mocked or ostracized, full stop, no qualifiers. I can’t tell from your letter if you think your son might be actively participating in any teasing or if he’s just witnessing it, but regardless, I’d reframe your conversations with him from “I’m sure he’s really cool if you’d just get to know him” to “I understand why you don’t like his behavior, and it’s OK to feel annoyed when he interrupts your learning time. It’s not OK to laugh at him or make fun of him, especially not with other kids. That can make him feel lonely and sad, and that’s not an acceptable way to treat other people.”
A handful of other suggestions:
• Try to generate some ideas with your son of appropriate outlets if he’s feeling annoyed. Making eye contact with a friend and making faces is out. What could he do instead?
• You’re right that if your son doesn’t like this kid, the likelihood they’ll forge a genuine friendship isn’t high. What might be more realistic right now is for your son to learn some strategies for attempting to disrupt the class’s pattern. This is harder than we tend to give kids credit for. I would start working with him on some things he can say when he overhears other kids’ jokes. Start simple: “That’s not funny.” “That was mean.”
• You could try reaching out to the teacher. If you want to go this route, I would be careful to frame the conversation to be about your son, not this other child. You can mention that you’ve gotten the impression your son doesn’t like the other child, but you are working hard to emphasize the values of kindness and decency with him, and ask her to let you know if your son’s behavior doesn’t seem in line with those. The teacher really can’t and shouldn’t discuss the other child’s behavior with you, but the conversation might be a nudge for her to consider her own role in modeling how to respond to frustrating behavior too.
• Read Jacqueline Woodson’s book Each Kindness with your kiddo. It’s a powerful teaching tool for situations like these. What I love about this book is that it resists a redemption narrative for the protagonist and instead leaves her with the much more honest truth that our choices have lasting effects: You can’t undo the impact of being mean.
Good luck. These are much trickier social lessons than we give ourselves or our kids credit for. I’m glad you’re trying.
My 3-year-old daughter attends a preschool program that is part of a larger elementary school. There are only eight kids in the class, with one teacher and one dedicated educational assistant for one little girl who is nonverbal and moderately autistic.
The teacher is not very involved with the kids except to “jokingly” berate them. The children are told several days a week that it’s their fault they didn’t get to go to the gym because they didn’t clean up well enough. (I get consequences, but seriously? Three or four days a week, every week since September?) She regularly says that she doesn’t like boys. One child’s parent was even emailed, “Your son wasn’t here today, and everyone’s day was better for it.”
The educational assistant is amazing and has worked miracles with her little charge, in addition to always being involved with the other kids. I trust her to make sure that nothing especially cruel happens. But the teacher should not be teaching this age group without some extensive retraining.
Is there anything that we can do to make sure that the school is aware of how she’s treating the kids? She really, really should not be in charge of this normally fantastic program. I don’t want to start trouble or seem like the crazy, overprotective parent who doesn’t understand the struggles of a teacher, but this teacher is just spectacularly awful at her job.
—Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone
Dear Leave Those Kids Alone,
I give the advice “talk to the teacher directly” a lot. I think I’ve given that piece of advice in more than half the answers I’ve written here, and it’s the first thing out of my mouth when I talk to any parent in my life—my mom, my cousins, my friends who have kids. Since that’s typically the answer to most problems, what I’m about to say is very out of character for me: I’m not sure you can go to the teacher directly. I think you may need to talk to someone else.
In order to avoid sounding like the overprotective parent, you’ll need data. If you haven’t already, start keeping records of anything she sends in an email; talk to the other parents and collect their records. In-person conversations are harder, but write down anything egregious. Then, once you have your data, call up someone at the school whom you trust. The one-to-one educational assistant for the nonverbal kiddo could be a good start, or you can approach another teacher or an administrator with whom you’ve already built a good rapport. Show them what you’ve documented, and tell them precisely what the problem is: “I don’t think this is in line with your philosophy for kindergarten.” Don’t make it about your child’s feelings; make it about the class culture problem you’re seeing. Depending on the school, they may take it internally from there, or they may send you to contact someone else directly.
Like any profession, teaching occasionally attracts bad actors. Although most of my experiences have been incredibly positive, I’ve met a couple of teachers in my life who were not suited to the profession or working with children. And no teacher, good or bad, wants to hear how they’re doing their job wrong from parents. Normally I’d say to try anyway because we are people, we are on the same team, and we want to work with you to help your child. But this situation sounds different, and I think your only recourse is to get help from within the school system to address this teacher’s behavior.
I recently divorced my physically and verbally abusive ex. However, since my 7-year-old daughter never witnessed the physical abuse firsthand, just the verbal abuse, our custody split is 60-40, where she spends the majority of the time with me.
Last week, my daughter left multiple videos, voicemails, and pictures on both her grandmother’s phone and my phone. I was able to talk to her briefly, but during all the calls and videos, she was crying hysterically and virtually incoherent. My mother actually called the police to do a welfare check, during which my ex smoothed things over by saying my daughter was “tired.”
The next day, I tried to talk to both my daughter’s teacher and her principal about the calls and my former husband’s abuse. They brushed me off, saying it was none of their business and they couldn’t get involved.
Is this true? What does my daughter have to do, show up obviously beaten up before they can get involved? Or would her bruises be a “family matter” too?
The police were no help to me, and now the school officials—whom I told my daughter to reach out to—are no help too? Does my ex get to keep hurting her until she’s old enough to go before a judge? That’s 13 in Texas, or six more years in our case! Is this normal official school policy?
—At a Loss
Dear At a Loss,
I’m sorry to hear about the abuse you suffered, and I’m glad to hear you were able to leave your abuser. The situation with your daughter sounds very stressful. It must be heart-wrenching to hear and see her distress!
It’s hard to give precise advice because I don’t have a full picture of what happened. I know she was distraught, but did you ever figure out what occurred? You said your ex smoothed things over with the police by saying she was tired. To be clear, did she tell you he abused her? Or did you witness abuse during the calls or in the videos? I apologize if that sounds insensitive, and I don’t mean to doubt you—I’m just trying to get a better sense of everything. If he abused her in any way, then action should be taken immediately.
As to whether school officials have to get involved, state statutes about mandatory reporting vary, but in most states, educators must report any “reasonable suspicion of abuse.” The Texas Classroom Teachers Association website states, “Texas law requires any professional who suspects that a child is being abused or neglected to make a report to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services or any local or state law enforcement agency within 48 hours.” Bruises would constitute reasonable suspicion, but words would too. I spoke to someone at the Texas Abuse Hotline to inquire about your situation. She said that school officials are required to report abuse if a parent tells them about it. She added that you, as the parent, can call the hotline directly (800-252-5400) or file a report on the website (txabusehotline.org).
If your daughter didn’t say she was abused, but you suspect she was, I recommend you get your daughter to a therapist or a school counselor. That would give her the opportunity to process her feelings, as well as to share any evidence of abuse. These individuals, too, are bound by law to report.
I hope everything works out and that you and your daughter stay safe.
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