Care and Feeding

My Child’s Terrible Teacher Wants to Know What I Think of Her

Should I be honest?

Photo illustration of a mother looking at a letter with concern.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by tommaso79/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
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Katie Holbrook, high school teacher, Texas
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

Recently, my child’s fifth-grade teacher sent us an online survey, asking parents questions that pertain to classroom environment and teacher performance. It was created by and sent by the teacher. The form identifies who is answering the survey, and the survey is returned to the teacher. This really wouldn’t be a problem if I had great things to say, but … we have spent the entire year trying to overcome the teacher’s poor communication and classroom management skills.

Her disciplinary approach has always bordered on degrading, and at one point had to be modified and overseen by the principal. As parents, we would have to schedule conferences with her to find out simple information like how a new curriculum was being applied in the classroom. Our child’s grades dropped dramatically from last year, and it has taken a lot of effort at home explaining concepts that the teacher bungles. Other parents have had similar issues.

We’ve talked to the teacher several times throughout the year, but it’s a waste of time. When asked direct and simple questions regarding how grades are determined, and how curricula are taught, she dodges the question, gives a half-answer, and pins some blame on my child, by saying things like, “She should know this, we went over it.”

How should I answer this survey? We have to live with this teacher for another month. I feel like I’ve gone down the path to try to work things out with the teacher directly. Parents have been in touch with the principal about her, but after a certain point, the principal told parents not to go to him with concerns about her.

I’d rather not answer than lie and be positive on the survey. I’m also baffled about why a teacher would send out a survey like this? It seems an odd thing to do, especially for someone who hasn’t really listened to any concerns sincerely.

Thanks again, and I appreciate any insight you can give me.

—Is Honesty the Best Policy?

Dear Honesty,

I’m astounded that you’ve been asked to respond to a survey that requires a name to be attached. In my school district, parents, students, and teachers complete climate surveys that ask questions about a range of topics, but they are always completely anonymous and therefore very revealing in terms of the data collected, and we take that data very seriously.

Given that your child will be in this teacher’s classroom for another month, and given that the teacher has yet to respond to any feedback, I think you should avoid responding to the survey altogether or make use of any “I’m not sure” or neutral choices on the survey, provided that those are available.

If none of this is possible, respond positively to the survey, but after the schoolyear ends (and provided that you don’t have another child coming along who may have this teacher), send an email explaining why the survey was inappropriate, and ask her to disregard your responses.

My email might be more strongly worded and would perhaps contain the honest answers to the survey, but not everyone likes to kick a hornet’s nest as much as I do.

I find the survey unsettling, but even more concerning is that the principal has told parents not to go to him with concerns about this teacher. This is unprofessional, unacceptable, and it places students in your child’s school at genuine risk. Unfortunately, there are times when a teacher’s decisions impact student learning and safety, and in those cases, parents and students must feel free to seek assistance from the principal. I have asked five principals I know about the statement made by yours, and all have been appalled by his position.

Based upon what you describe in your letter, this teacher is failing to fulfill her duties as an educator and refusing to receive feedback with an open mind. When that failure cannot be brought to a superior, the problem grows exponentially. Unfortunately, not every teacher is going to be effective and responsive. Like in any profession, there are bad actors. But when the principal refuses to listen to the concerns of parents and students, those bad actors become even more dangerous. If I received word from the principal that I could not to go to him with concerns about my child’s teacher, I would be speaking to the superintendent immediately.

I think you should, too.

—Mr. Dicks

My son is in eighth grade and has a brand new, fresh-out-of-school math teacher. In the beginning, it was great. She thought outside the box, got kids involved who had had a hard time learning with previous teachers, and helped them understand, etc. Now, unfortunately, she’s lost control of the class. My son says kids are yelling and hitting each other, and that it’s so loud he can’t even hear himself think. The assistant principal will poke her head in on a regular basis, and kids will quiet down, but then it goes back to mayhem.

My son took it upon himself to suggest that she gives the rowdy kids detention, but the teacher told him filling out a detention slip in triplicate was too much work. She also cried in front of the kids about a month ago. My son has an IEP and trouble focusing to begin with, so my question is: How do I help my son finish the year strong-ish (a passing grade) in spite of this chaos, and how do I help this teacher who is clearly passionate but stuck in a room full of awful teens? The administration is aware of the issue.

—Lost in the Chaos

Dear Lost,

Eeesh. Being a brand new, fresh-out-of-school teacher is a lot like the earliest days of being a new parent. You can read all the books, take all the classes, ask for advice from experienced veterans, and practice with other people’s kids—but none of it simulates reality accurately enough to truly prepare you for what’s to come. With your first baby and in your first classroom, you’re inundated with an influx of new, startling experiences; you feel constantly caught off-guard. You have to make decision after decision after decision in which the options are murky and the outcomes seem impossible to predict. You feel overwhelmed by the weight of your new responsibility, and fear of failure nips at your heels constantly. It’s exhausting and so, so hard, and I feel for this teacher.

That said: This doesn’t sound good. Teaching has a steep learning curve, but the fact that your son’s math teacher broke down and cried in front of the class worries me. I see it as a sign that this teacher is at a loss for how to manage her students, but also that she has lost a fundamental and necessary sense of confidence, to the point that she feels at the mercy of a rowdy crew of eighth graders. A lack of skills can be coached; a lack of hope is tougher.

So, what to do now? I’d start by looking for ways to help your son function because it’s the element of this situation you can most directly influence. Since he has an IEP, I suggest reaching out to his special education teacher of record for support first. That teacher should already be aware of your son’s challenges with focus; I would start by naming that he is consistently describing the classroom environment as too loud and chaotic for him to work effectively, and requesting options to accommodate his learning needs. I’m not sure that a full schedule change is likely or possible at this point in the year, but maybe he could relocate to a calmer space for independent tasks, for example? Or is there a co-teacher or resource room teacher who could pull him out to review with him and help him focus? If you don’t feel like there are any material changes on offer, and your son continues to complain, I’d then loop administrators in and escalate your language (think “the learning environment/accommodations he is legally entitled to, per his IEP”).

It’s so kind of you to ask how to help the struggling teacher. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do for her in the classroom. It’s her administration’s job to support her, and doing so requires more than “being aware” and “regularly poking their heads in.” The administrators chose to hire her knowing that she’s inexperienced, and with that decision comes a commitment to the coaching and guidance that will help her succeed. I hope that behind the scenes they’re offering constructive support and a clear plan of improvement.

I do think you can do something that might have a huge impact on her morale, and at this point that might be even more important. Shoot her a quick, kind email of support. You don’t need to acknowledge all the negatives you’ve heard—she’s already well-aware of those. You described a bunch of promising skills and attributes at the beginning of your letter; even a few breezy lines telling her you’ve heard she’s great at engaging hard-to-reach learners and designing creative lessons and you appreciate her work would go a really, really long way.

Again, remember those newborn days? Did you ever have a moment where you were nervously pacing the baby care aisle at Target, feeling like a giant exposed nerve in four-day-old sweatpants, when your sleeping infant exploded awake with an endless scream? And as you started to dissolve in panic, a nearby stranger encouragingly murmured, “You’ve got this!” as they passed, and that tiny kindness fueled you to manage another day? This email might have the same effect on her; I’d encourage you to send it.

—Ms. Bauer

My son is in seventh grade. He’s had the same math teacher for the past two years, and his grade both years has been gotten an A+. He recently took a placement test to get into algebra, and he tested very low—he got 5 out of 12 on the test, and to get into algebra he needed to score a 10 out of 12 or higher. While I think it’s OK that he doesn’t take algebra, another part of me feels like this test is not reflective of his true abilities. My son said he thought he did well on the test. (He hasn’t missed any school recently, so he should be up-to-date in terms of all key concepts the test covered.) He wasn’t distracted during the test. The teacher said she wasn’t sure why he scored so low. Should I be worried he’s not prepared for eighth grade math? Should I be pushing to get him into algebra?

—Searching for the Right Answer

Dear Searching,

I wish I could give you a definitive answer, but there are a number of scenarios that might explain an A+ student scoring poorly on a placement test, and each would point you in a different direction.

The test could be a bad assessment that doesn’t reflect what your son actually knows. Unfortunately, there’s no way for me to know that. It sounds like you’ve already talked to the teacher once, but you could reach out to her again to ask whether she believes this test is normally a good predictor of readiness for algebra. Where does the test come from? Do students who pass the test go on to succeed in algebra? Do students who fail the test flounder? Of course the teacher can’t reveal specific information about other students in the course, but she can provide you with an explanation for why the school relies heavily on this exam.

If the test is a reliable indicator, there could be a disconnect between your son’s grades and his actual learning. Sometimes grades reflect effort, not true mastery of content. For example, I used to teach a college prep course for high school students who would be the first in their family to attend college, and I was often debriefed on these students’ performances in their other classes. One year, a student’s algebra teacher reached out to me: She was very concerned her student had no grasp of the subject. I was confused because the student had a B in the class. The teacher explained that the student’s algebra grade reflected her effort more than her mastery. This student was very hardworking and turned in all her homework on time. When she took a test, she would fail it, but then she would attend tutoring to do test corrections and raise her grade. Despite this extra work, she wasn’t mastering the content. She failed the state standardized test. All this may sound strange or even problematic, but some teachers believe that grades should reflect effort. I don’t know if this the case with your son, but it’s worth considering the possibility.

Of course, this test score could simply be a fluke. It happens.

So where does this leave you? I don’t know whether he is ready for algebra. But I do know that big decisions about a child’s education—like their math track—should not rest solely on one test score. Given the disconnect between his class performance and test score, you probably should ask follow-up questions, especially if your son has a strong desire to be in lgebra. If you believe this test is not a good predictor of his readiness, push back on the system. (And if you decide that he should take eighth grade math instead, that’s OK, too.)

—Ms. Holbrook

My son turned 2 last month, and I’m freaking out a little. My husband and I were both gifted but lonely kids who read their way through most recesses starting in third grade. We believe very strongly in the value of public schools, but my husband and I both struggled because the public schools we went to weren’t a good fit.

Yesterday, our son started reliably counting up to five objects (and he’d been reciting numbers up to 20 for a month or so). And then, last night, I was reading to him and he interrupted when I said the word “red,” to say each letter name, say each letter sound, then slowly say the word. I doubt he was actually decoding, since I said the word first, but my gut says that he’ll be sounding out simple words sometime within the next two months at most (he already knows all the letter names and their sounds, except some of the trickier vowel sounds).

I want my boy to be happy, and when he starts school, to be in a program that supports what he’s capable of and includes kids he can relate to. Our local suburban elementary school is well-rated and two blocks from our house, but it does a lot of unscientific, teach-to-the-test stuff that is endemic in underfunded public schools (direct instruction starting in kindergarten, only two recesses per day, lots of homework in low grades, large classes, etc.). Do we have to start planning and saving now for private school, or are there things we can do to ensure our kid will have opportunities to get his academic and social needs met in our public school? The cost of private school would entail a major change of lifestyle for us and delay our retirement a lot.

And how should we think about preschools? When he’s 3 or 4, I would love to enroll him part-time in something like a forest school, but most of the preschools around here aren’t even play-based, which is my absolute baseline for a preschool.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts,

—Freakin’ Mama

Dear Freakin’ Mama,

Before I answer, can you do me a favor? Step back from your computer and take in a few nice, deep breaths. I know every decision you make for your child, especially a first child (and I’m guessing this kiddo is your first) feels urgent and dire, but this is not a bad situation. You have a son who is curious and is engaging with you socially during reading time! That’s awesome. Put the freak-out on pause and appreciate how awesome that is!

Feeling more relaxed? Good. Now, let’s talk. I’ll take the easy question first: If you want your son to start preschool part-time at age 3 or 4, start looking around now. And I don’t mean “hunt for the forest school of your dreams and uproot your life.” I mean call up all your local preschools and ask for a tour. Read up and see if your state or town offers a program like Pre-K for All and see what schools are eligible, and then visit those schools. Just because a preschool doesn’t have “play-based” in their description on their website doesn’t mean it’s not a good preschool.

There are many excellent preschools for children with different strengths and areas of need, from Montessori to HighScope. While I’m sure your son would flourish in a play-based preschool, if he’s academically curious it’s possible that an alternative style may be better for him. Go see the schools and the classrooms for yourself, and watch the kids in action. You may find that you can picture your son very happy there. If you visit all the local schools and none of them appeal, then you can start researching your less local options. At my school, kids come in from as far as 30 miles away.

Now, on to your other question. I am a huge proponent of public schools, and I absolutely think you should send him to your local one, especially if it’s highly rated. If your son is bright and beginning to learn on his own, you don’t need to worry about his academics. Bright kids do fine in school because curricula are generally written with bright kids in mind. Teachers know which kids need to be pushed via tracking or gifted programs or special pull-out groups in order to push their learning.

I’d worry instead about what teachers call “soft skills.” Bigger classes force teachers to be creative about their time in order to address the needs of the class, and often that means group projects or having different “teams” rotating through instruction so you can work with a small group while the other students work alone or collaboratively. For example, in a class of 20, six students might work on a worksheet and check each other’s answers, seven kids might doing a computer activity that teaches the same skill they just did in the lesson, and seven kids might be in a small group with the teacher where they can do more intensive work.

While to you it might sound like only the seven with the teacher are learning skills, the other 13 kids are learning the soft skills you need for the workplace or college, such as asking for help, persevering when work is difficult, trying on your own first, collaborating on ideas, sharing resources (like the answer key), and building off one another’s ideas, all while practicing whatever academic skill the teacher was working on that day. Group projects, likewise, teach kids collaboration and teamwork and delegating and dozens of other skills. Obviously, like all teachers, I wish classes were smaller so that I could focus on a handful of kids intensely, but my feelings about that are not because there’s no benefit to larger classes. Soft skills are crucially, vitally important, and your son honestly has a better shot learning them in a public school than in a small, specialized private school.

I went to college with many kids who went to “gifted” private high schools. Those kids often had a harder time with the independent work in college, or with social life outside of the structure private schools provided. They had a hard time talking with average people whose education and lifestyle were different than theirs. Those are skills your son won’t learn in private school.

That’s not to say I’m diametrically opposed to private schools. I attended one for high school, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities and education it afforded me, and I’m grateful to my mom for recognizing that that was the right choice for me at the time. It’s also not to say that I think public schools are perfect: I think our system needs major changes. But I also think, for the majority of kids, public school will provide at least an adequate education that can be supplemented with extracurricular academic or nonacademic activities as needed, and an excellent space for kids to learn to navigate social interactions with same-age peers. So here is my advice: Send him to your highly rated public school. Give it a real, honest chance. You may end up loving it.

—Ms. Sarnell