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 firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
My daughter is in middle school, and her school’s policy is that homework only counts for 5 percent of a student’s final grade. Since my daughter can maintain A’s and B’s without that 5 percent, she doesn’t ever do her homework. I feel that she is being disrespectful to her teachers by not doing it. I think teachers work hard to plan the lessons. My daughter says if it is important to the teacher, then they’ll assign it as classwork (worth 30 percent), and then she will do it.
Part of me wants to ground her, and part of me says she is in middle school and this is not my place. It would be nice if there were natural consequences, but there aren’t any. Her getting a final grade of 92 vs 97 doesn’t matter, since it’s still an A. I know I would be very frustrated if I was a teacher and my students refused to do any homework I assigned. Sometimes respect for people is more important than good grades. What do you think. Should I just back off?
—Don’t Want to Offend the Teacher
A lot of schools are moving toward a policy of reducing the amount and grade weight of homework, and that’s for three reasons. First, teachers generally assign homework to reinforce concepts, raise achievement levels, and promote responsibility, among other things, but there’s conflicting research as to whether it achieves these goals. Second, homework often precludes extracurricular activities, sleep, socializing, and getting bored, all of which contribute to students becoming healthy, well-rounded people. Last, and most importantly, homework creates inequity in grading because students have different levels of support at home. In my second year of teaching, I was tsk-ing a student who usually had his homework done but that day didn’t. He explained that he couldn’t because his family’s power had been turned off, and they had no lights. That was a learning experience for me.
A week ago, I would’ve told you to sit your daughter down and have a conversation about responsibility and integrity. I would’ve said to include the following:
• Part of growing up is learning to do things we don’t want to do, either because it’s required or because not doing it will create a bigger problem in the long run.
• How does she want to know herself—as someone who cuts corners or someone who goes above and beyond?
But … then I read this op-ed in the New York Times about how girls tend to put much more effort into school than boys and worry a lot more about it, and how these traits don’t translate to success in the workplace. I’ve seen this scenario play out so many times in my classroom—boys doing the bare minimum, and girls fretting over every point. I’d never looked at “skating by” as a strength, but of course it is. There are times when “leaving it all on the field” is appropriate, but why exhaust ourselves for minimal marginal gains in situations when it’s not really that important?
So now, instead, I’ll say this: It’s pretty clever of your daughter to figure out that she doesn’t actually need the homework in order to maintain her average, and if she feels OK about it, let her manage that herself.
The only thing she may want to consider is that students often need teacher recommendations to participate in activities and opportunities. Mention that her teachers may say, “She’s smart, but she doesn’t work that hard.” If she doesn’t like the sound of that, she should ask herself what she wants them to say about her, and act accordingly.
My husband and I live across the country from his 5-year old daughter from a previous marriage. He and his ex-wife have joint legal custody, and my husband has physical custody for all major breaks. Even though we don’t live nearby, we are as involved as possible in her life. This is made more difficult, however, by the fact that my husband has a very high-conflict ex-wife who tries to shut him out as much as possible from major events in his daughter’s life. His ex-wife and I have zero relationship as she actively shows her disdain for me.
My stepdaughter enters kindergarten in the fall, and we’re hoping you can offer us some advice on how to navigate schools and teachers from so far away. Next year, we would like to be involved in parent-teacher conferences and general updates from her teacher, but we don’t want to overstep or make it awkward. When my stepdaughter attended day care, my husband tried to have a biweekly or monthly chat with her teacher, and he remarked that the teacher seemed “cool” to him. He didn’t know if his ex-wife had said something to her about him or if that was the teacher’s nature. He’d like to do what he can to ensure that next year he has open communication with her teacher, and that he receives updates on her progress and is kept in the loop about any concerns in her first year at school.
How does he broach this awkward topic with the teacher? Should he be upfront that he and his ex-wife do not have a good relationship and that while he doesn’t want to put the teacher in the middle, he would like separate communication from them regarding his daughter? How do teachers deal with parents who aren’t together? We are all for any do’s and don’ts as to how to make sure the focus stays on my stepdaughter, and that the custody/divorce situation doesn’t become a burden or distraction for her teachers.
Dear Concerned Stepmom,
Divorced parents are very common, so your stepdaughter’s teacher is bound to have experience with your situation. Although you and your husband live in another state, he should still receive all school-issued communication—especially since much of this is online anyway. Not all school districts work the same, but typically when parents register a child for school, they provide both parents’ contact information. He can indicate that he needs newsletters or other communications to be mailed (or emailed) to both addresses. Most schools have websites where families can stay abreast of school news and events, and some are even active on social media. Your husband can probably even join the PTA and get the newsletter.
I’m emphasizing that your husband do these things, since one of your goals is to avoid drama with his ex. I’m sure that you are an important person in your stepdaughter’s life, but if the mother is in fact a “high-conflict” woman who “actively disdains” you, reaching out to the school yourself may only sow the seeds for more conflict.
A biweekly chat might be a bit much for a busy teacher to handle, honestly, but of course your husband should be included in updates on his daughter’s progress. I recommend he email the teacher to explain his geographical location and desire to be involved, but I would not mention anything about conflict with the mother. He should ask the teacher how she communicates with families and request to be included. Some teachers send out newsletters or use classroom apps, for example. For parent-teacher conferences, if he is unable to attend in person, perhaps they can schedule a phone conference, or maybe he could Skype in. These are reasonable requests of the teacher and avoid the ex-wife’s gatekeeping.
I have taught students who are caught in the middle of a contentious divorce. It’s no fun for anyone, especially the children. Your husband can’t control his ex-wife’s behavior, but he can control his own. Keeping all communication professional in tone and centered on his daughter should help your husband build a positive rapport with the teacher and hopefully relieve some residual stress that is bound to impact his daughter.
It might be difficult for you to take a step back on this, but that’s what I recommend you do. You can support your husband behind the scenes and hear all about school from your stepdaughter during her breaks.
Best of luck!
My son is a bright third-grader who generally enjoys school. He was very apprehensive about entering third grade and fretted about it for most of the summer because he had been told by other children that he was in the “mean teacher’s class.” We talked about it several times and discussed that some teachers are stricter than others, but that it doesn’t make them mean, and he should really assess for himself how he gets along with “Mr. Jones.”
We have noticed during the year that Mr. Jones is, in fact, stricter than other teachers and quick to temper, but I have no reason to believe that he is intentionally mean or cruel to the students. My son and I have had some conversations about dealing with different personalities, and I consider this a life lesson—you won’t love every teacher.
My concern is that in conversations with the teacher, and on progress reports, Mr. Jones consistently asks that my son participate more in class because he is bright and would help others with his interactions. I’ve talked about this with my son, and while he will raise his hand occasionally, he has taken on a “keep my head down and don’t get in trouble” kind of mentality. He doesn’t like to be reprimanded, and because he is intimidated by this teacher, he doesn’t want to participate and risk drawing more attention to himself.
I feel a little stuck. I want my son to learn how to deal with difficult situations on his own, and while I have encouraged him to participate more, part of me also wants to say something to Mr. Jones. I don’t like that my son is reluctant to participate because he is concerned that it will end in a reprimand. We’re many months into the year, so this can’t just be what kids have told him from last summer… he’s experiencing something in the classroom that makes him feel it would be better to stay silent.
Do I let it go? Do I have a conversation with Mr. Jones and explain my concern? Do teachers care or even want to know that students believe they are the mean ones?
—Not Sure I Should Tattle
It’s hard to get a grasp on Mr. Jones and his approach to classroom management, filtered as he is through your third-grader to you to me. You describe him as stricter than others and “quick to temper,” but at the same time, you don’t believe he’s intentionally mean. You consider your son’s experience in his class a life lesson, yet you don’t like the way this experience is affecting him. Mr. Jones says he’s eager for your son to participate, yet your son is afraid that complying with the teacher’s explicit request will ultimately earn him a reprimand. From what you’ve said, I’m envisioning the type of teacher that others tend to call “old-school” or “gruff,” the type who “runs a tight ship” and “doesn’t tolerate nonsense.” Not abusive, not a tyrant; a competent teacher, but no nurturing teddy bear, either.
To answer one of your questions: Yes, teachers generally do care about how they’re perceived by students, but you’d be hard-pressed to land on a universal agreement of what exactly constitutes a “mean teacher” even among teachers, let alone between teachers and kids. This teacher, if I’m imagining him correctly, probably would not put much stock in that feedback, anyway.
From what you’ve said, it sounds as if your son has already landed on a reasonable coping strategy for this issue. You’re right that it’s not possible for a student to love or even be compatible with every teacher they’ll be paired with in an educational career, and while Mr. Jones is encouraging your son to participate more, your son isn’t actually obligated to do so. Frequently volunteering answers aloud in class is a nice-to-have in student behavior; it’s not a base requirement. If the end result is that your son isn’t a vocal contributor in this classroom because he prefers to minimize his interactions with a teacher he doesn’t much like, and he’s learning and mastering material and continues to generally enjoy school, keeping his head down and flying under the radar sounds like a perfectly workable option for his tenure in Mr. Jones’ classroom.
If this continues to bother you, however, or if Mr. Jones asks again for your son to increase his participation, I think you certainly could reach out and explain that your son has had a hard time adjusting to Mr. Jones’ style of classroom management and that you’re eager to encourage him to volunteer more, but that you’d like to discuss how to make him feel more comfortable and confident in doing so. I also think you could let it go without guilt. From what you’ve said, it sounds like this isn’t a great fit, but that there’s nothing really wrong, and your son has found a strategy that works. Good luck!
What is your opinion of an arts education? My son has attended a private school for the past year that we selected for its small class size. He generally seems to like the school.
The school advertises itself as focusing on “traditional education.” What I’ve come to realize is that they mean an education in the arts. All students do music and a foreign language—serious instrument instruction starts around the third grade. My son comes home with a lot of drawings and first-grade attempts at creative writing. The school puts on two large-scale performances per year, one of which has several public performances.
However, they seem to be slightly light on the sciences. His classroom has two computers, and I don’t get the impression they’re used very often. The math education seems fine, though, and follows a well-known homeschool curriculum.
At a time when it seems like a lot of the country is focusing on STEM, should I be concerned that my son is attending what seems to be an arts academy? We do regular science projects at home, so maybe it will even out, but I’d appreciate an outside opinion.
Dear Arts Education,
As a teacher who has built a stage in his classroom—complete with lights, curtains, and a sound system—and teaches Shakespeare to his fifth-graders all year long, I might be a little biased when it comes to assessing arts education.
What I can say is this: A strong background in arts education will produce students who are outstanding readers, writers, and thinkers. The arts promote empathy, cooperation, and understanding, and the skills he learns in the arts are transferrable across all subjects. There are enormous benefits to an education steeped in the arts.
That said, math is also critical to a student’s success and should be a priority in every classroom, but it sounds as if there is good curriculum in place for your son to learn. It doesn’t sound like a concern.
When it comes to science and technology, yes, your child’s schoolday may be lacking these components to a certain degree, but your child is in first grade. It’s early. It’s more important for your child to become interested and enthusiastic about science and technology than it is for him to learn about these subjects with any specificity. Ideally some science is taking place in the classroom, but if it’s playing second fiddle to the arts, that’s fine right now. The greatest challenge that a teacher faces is the crunch of time. Every year new material is added to the curriculum, and rarely is anything taken away.
When I was a child, for example, personal computers did not exist, internet safety and evaluating the reliability of sources wasn’t something that needed to be constantly addressed. There were 40 fewer years to study in history class.
About 25 fewer countries.
As a result, teachers prioritize, and if your child’s school prioritizes the arts over science, I think it’s fine. By the time your son is in middle school, he’ll be receiving science instruction every day. So continue the projects at home. Take him to museums. Fill your home with nonfiction. Foster a love of science.
The actual learning can come later.
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