Care and Feeding

One of My Students Uses Anti-Gay Slurs Around Me

How should I handle it?

Sad teacher in music class.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by EyeJoy/iStock/Getty Images Plus and kali9/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 askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington

I’ve got a problem that has been causing me a lot of mental strain and conflict the past few months. I work as a music-teaching artist for a major symphony orchestra. In this job, I visit a school intermittently throughout the year (roughly every other week). The students’ classroom teacher is in the room, and I work with them on abstract musical concepts, as well as learning to play the recorder.

One class, however, is particularly difficult. The students have a consistent substitute teacher in the room, who is generally disengaged, and classroom management is a challenge (though this is nothing new!). There is one student in this class who is especially disruptive. Classroom management is usually not a big issue for me, and this student would be nothing out of the ordinary, except that he often makes homophobic remarks directed at me (such as f—-t and “gay” in a derogatory way). I’m a gay man, and I am much more flamboyant than any of the other male teachers, though I’ve never spoken about this to the students.

I can intellectualize these comments and understand that he is calling out for help, and I usually ignore him and try to redirect attention to other tasks. But at the same time, these comments trigger deep feelings of hurt in me, as well as a more generalized discomfort with my place as a queer person in their school environment. I also fear that by letting him get away with this language, I am allowing a homophobic culture to proliferate in the school.

I don’t feel comfortable speaking about this with the teacher who is in the room, even though I know that’s probably the most sensible first step. I also don’t want to further traumatize or call out a fifth grader who is clearly going through a lot outside of my music class. Furthermore, I’m conflicted due to my transient nature at the school.

Ack! I feel so ill-prepared to handle something like this. I have so much respect for the work that classroom teachers do every day, and I only want to support and build on that work with music. I’d love any advice you can offer.

—Distraught but Out of My Depth

Dear Distraught,

I would be distraught too! This student’s behavior is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable under any circumstance, no matter what he’s doing. It might be age-appropriate or understandable, but it isn’t OK. You’re right to be hurt and uncomfortable, and you’re right in thinking that ignoring it will cause homophobia to persist in the school. That said, I can see how being an iterant teacher makes difficult classroom-management conversations hard, and why a teacher who is already clearly not on top of their classroom management may not seem helpful.

Because we’re talking about a child using a slur—whether he understands that it’s a slur is a separate issue, though relevant—this is probably above your figurative paygrade anyway. At most of the schools I’ve worked at, difficult issues like hate speech go through the principal. I have, however, also worked at schools where the dean of students or the grade dean takes on situations like this. I’d recommend you go to whoever handles major disciplinary issues at the school. Explain the situation, and ask how they would like this addressed.

When I worked at a charter middle school, we had an issue with fifth and sixth grade girls calling each other “d**e” and “lezzos” in the schoolyard or outside the building during dismissal. The dean took the girls aside and explained to them that what they were saying was disrespectful and inappropriate. She made them write apologies that acknowledged how that kind of talk hurts communities. She also pulled the girls on the receiving end aside and discussed with them how that language is hurtful, how to respond to it (her advice—don’t), and how it’s no one’s business what gender you like.

Around the same time, unrelatedly, I started coming out to some of the kids in my class. I wasn’t in the closet on purpose: Divulging my personal life was more along the lines of telling kids who asked that the woman standing next to me in a picture was my girlfriend. After that, the kids were much more careful about using “gay” as an insult in general, not just around me. Our dean was especially good at helping students understand the harmful effects of their behavior, and I think realizing their community included queer people made the lesson more poignant.

That’s all to say that the dean/principal/whoever may ask you to talk to that student or to students in general about your sexuality if you’re comfortable doing so. You are certainly under no obligation to do so—it is none of their business. I chose to do so because I was working in New York City with middle schoolers who were about the same age I was when I first realized I was queer, and I worked at a school with policies that I knew would make me feel safe. I also was a permanent teacher. If you live somewhere that isn’t as gay-friendly as NYC, you might make a different choice than I did, and that’s OK.

Even if you don’t want to personally talk to this disruptive kiddo, there should still be a consequence in the school for that behavior. There are probably gay kids in that class who are discovering their sexuality and encountering homophobia for the first time. It’s important to teach them that homophobia is not acceptable.

—Ms. Sarnell

My son is in second grade and generally gets along well with kids and adults, but is an only child and hates chaos. I have noticed over the years that when he has a teacher with strong classroom management skills (not strict, but has control), he thrives. When he has a teacher who struggles with classroom management, he tends to grab and lose patience with his peers far more often.

This year, he was placed with a wonderful teacher—she was clearly experienced and structured, and I was eager for a great year. But in October, the school “rebalanced” the classes and moved my son to a classroom with a teacher in her second year of teaching. She is a good teacher, and my son likes her. However, she is new and has taught three grade levels in two years, so her classroom is naturally more chaotic. As a result, my son has had increasing difficulty controlling his temper. We’re working on it with him and with the teacher.

Here’s the problem. Each spring, the principal invites parents to write her a letter about their children, to better place them in a class. Since kindergarten, I have requested teachers with strong classroom management skills and explained why. However, when they moved him between classes (with no notice or request for input from parents), I expressed my views to the principal and was told that she doesn’t “accept any input from parents on anything.” Leaving aside the utter lack of professionalism of the statement itself, what do I say in this darn letter? The principal also told me that they place students in groups based on how they will work together, then assign a teacher to each group, so what’s the point of writing about teachers that would be a good match? I don’t want to throw my son’s teacher under the bus, and the principal told me herself that she doesn’t listen to parents (also, she probably hates me now). So do I write a letter knowing it will likely be disregarded? Do I write it pretending that she didn’t say that to me or address it? Do I just skip the whole thing and feel neglectful?

—Fruitlessly Advocating for my Kid

Dear Fruitless,

Write the letter. I am sorry that the principal has done such a terrible job with placement. Rebalancing classes midyear with no notice or request for input from parents is not only unconscionable, it’s stupid. But you should write the letter for four reasons:

1.     You’ll know you did all you could to help your child be successful in school. As parents, we try our best and hope the world bends in our child’s direction. If it doesn’t, we can at least know that we did what we could.

2.     You’ll let the principal know she can’t silence parents by telling them that they will be ignored. She is a public servant. Her salary is paid for by your tax dollars. Don’t allow her to bully you into silence.

3.     You never know when a letter might accomplish goals. Even though your previous letters were seemingly ignored, this could be the year that the squeaky wheel finally gets the grease.

4.     In the event that things turn south for your child, and you end up in a meeting about his behavior, you’ll want to have a letter like this on the record to show you’ve repeatedly offered input on your child’s needs and that input has gone ignored. This may place the administration on the defensive, and I’ve found that when administration is on the defensive, concessions can sometimes be had.

In fact, I would document every interaction regarding the placement of your child, including what has been said to you already. Hopefully everything will work out fine and you won’t ever need to use this material, but it will be good to have if you find yourself battling the administration about your child’s education or possible punishments for his behavior.

I’ll also add that if your son is truly struggling with his temper, counseling (either in the form of the school psychologist or an outside counselor) may help as well. If it’s becoming a serious problem, don’t wait for something to happen, and get your son the support he needs.

Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks

My daughter is in second grade. She did great in kindergarten and first grade, and this year she was placed in a twice-a-week gifted program. She is bright, funny, and really loves to learn.

On her midyear report card, we heard from her teacher that our daughter is having trouble getting work done in class. The report card noted several “areas of concern,” along with packets of work that had not been completed or had taken longer to complete than originally assigned.

We were alarmed, and we went in for a parent-teacher conference. Her teacher stressed that our daughter is very bright, a great student, and wonderful to have in class, but that she was having trouble remaining focused when her classmates were active. (I can’t tell if it gets loud in the classroom and is too noisy for concentration.) She said she was trying to help this by moving our daughter to sit next to her desk. We felt better, believing she would be able to focus better.

I was shocked to receive a note this week (two months later) and then a phone call from her teacher, who was again concerned that our daughter was not focusing appropriately. During the phone call, her teacher insinuated that our daughter might have “attention problems.” I asked her if she meant an attention disorder, and she said that teachers really weren’t supposed to speculate on that but that we should talk with our pediatrician.

How can you tell if your child has a learning/attention concern, or if this might just be a function of classroom organization? I am not trying to shift the blame, but after speaking with our daughter and the teacher, it seems much of the problem stems from a disorganized classroom and large chunks of independent/free time. My daughter seems confused about loose directions on assignment due dates. And to be honest, I felt the same when I asked her teacher about them. For instance, a recent assignment listed its due date for one handout as Wednesday; on another, the same assignment was due Thursday.

I’m sure my daughter is not totally free of blame—she is not super serious and may lack motivation at times. She does have a tendency to stop working on something to watch other (active) kids. But she exhibits incredible amounts of focus when she’s even remotely interested in what she’s doing.

How should I approach this with her teacher? Her teacher, for the record, is extremely nice and thoughtful in her approach with our daughter. However, the way she organizes her classroom, workload, and class expectations is obviously not making sense to our daughter—or us.

If our daughter has some kind of attention disorder, I want to get her assistance. But I also have a hard time blaming her when her father and I (both folks with master’s degrees) can’t make heads or tails of the classroom organization or expectations, either.

I did speak with the gifted education specialist, and she was shocked that our daughter was having these problems. I am working with my daughter to help her stay better organized, like making a weekly list of assignments she can check off, but it sounds like that was discouraged by her teacher when she went to ask for help in getting her assignments written down so she could keep track of them. I’m at a loss, so thank you for any help you can give!

—Making Mountains Out of Molehills?

Hey there Mountains,

Thanks for reaching out! You’re not alone—I have worked with many students and families experiencing similar problems. My immediate advice is not to worry. Even if you find that your daughter does have a learning difference, there are many effective pathways to get her the help she needs. However, there’s no clear-cut way to tell if your child has a learning difference without seeing a physician.

Based on what you’ve shared, it seems your daughter’s attention struggles may be the result of many factors. Before you pass judgment on the teacher’s organization, try paying a visit to the classroom. This way you could observe your daughter’s behavior and get a firsthand look at her teacher’s classroom organization and management style.

At this stage I wouldn’t recommend taking your daughter to a physician unless you feel strongly. It doesn’t seem like her lack of focus is inhibiting her learning too much, and based on her gifted teacher’s account it seems like she’s doing just fine in their classroom. My best advice is to wait it out, and if the problems persist in third grade, then consider seeking a medical opinion.

Hope this helps!

—Mr. Hersey

I have a student with big emotions complicated by early puberty. Today she was playing with a friend, a boy in her class, who grabbed her wrist and wouldn’t let go; she screamed in his face and threw something at him with the stated intention of hurting him. He threw it back at her. She fell down and sobbed, saying she had been attacked. The screaming and sobbing are par for the course, and the size and proportionality of her reactions are already on the radar of our school counselor. The easy but horrible conclusion—that she’s a victim of abuse—thankfully isn’t the case.

It was easy to read the riot act to the boy (never touch a person’s body in a way they don’t like, ask permission first, and listen to their words, don’t throw things, etc.) However, I struggled with how to talk to the girl. She said she was defending herself, that words didn’t work, and that she had every right to defend herself. And I agree! But you can’t try to hurt your classmates and friends! We landed on this future course of action: If shouting at the other person doesn’t work, scream for a grown-up, and they will take it from there.

I wanted to say: If someone is your friend most of the time, don’t react with physical violence first. But she’s more likely to face sexual violence from someone she knows than a stranger. Or how about: You can trust a grown-up to handle it. And hopefully she always can here, but forever? That’s not a forever plan.

I just got stuck. I didn’t say any of the scary things, obviously. We talked about problem solving and when to call a teacher, did a feelings check-in and affirmation, and that was pretty much it. She’s aware of what I said to the boy.

I’m partly struggling because she’s a third grader already at the tail end of puberty; she looks about 13. Our school doesn’t start sex education until fifth grade. She and her mom have had some talks, but I don’t know the exact content. I get that tweens and teens are not renowned throughout the land for their emotional intelligence and boundaries, but if she was actually that age, she’d hopefully have more of a toolkit plus a group of peers with shared experiences. If she was approached/touched somewhere outside of school in a way that made her feel scared or bad, say by a 13-year-old who thought she was 13 too (still not OK, obviously), I think screaming and throwing something would be a great plan.

Any age-appropriate, school-appropriate discussion scripts for a teacher to use with a student who has big feelings?

Thank you!

—We Need to Talk (or Do We, Even?)

Dear We Need To Talk,

This is an exceptionally difficult situation. My first instinct would be to speak to your school psychologist, social worker, and any other professional who might offer you some insight. I discussed this incident with some school-based mental health professionals to get their thoughts as well, and based on what you’ve said, we feel like your student could benefit from ongoing counseling. Precocious puberty is an enormously difficult thing for any young person to handle. Ongoing counseling will be critical to develop the skills and strategies needed to navigate the future.

I also think it’s important that an honest conversation take place between you and the parents. As the person who spends the majority of the day with this student, you should know what she has been taught in terms of puberty. Conversations are only productive when they can be honest, so knowing what your students knows and doesn’t, as well as what her parents want her to know, will be critical to any discussions that take place between you and her.

If I were to speak to this student, I would discuss the notion of a measured response. When confronted with a classmate who violates your physical space or your emotional well-being, we have a variety of choices to make. I always advise students to consider a measured response. So if a boy grabs your wrist and refuses to let go, and if you are within shouting distance of an adult, your first, second, and third course of action is to call for help. Unless your personal safety is in serious jeopardy, do not engage in inappropriate physical contact, primarily because in doing so you can accidentally but seriously hurt a person by pushing, hitting, or throwing objects.

I would model this, and allow her to practice in a variety of setting and circumstances using role play. But these suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. This student is going to need a lot of support—more than you can likely offer on your own. Assemble the team—parents, the school psychologist, the school nurse, and anyone else who can offer help—and make a plan of ongoing support for this student as soon as possible.

—Mr. Dicks