Care and Feeding

You Want What?!

I already pay for private school. Why should I pony up funds for Teacher Appreciation Week too?

Photo collage of a mother quizzically reading a letter, with illustrated dollar signs above her head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and AntonioGuillem/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:
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut

I send my daughter to a Montessori school for pre-K. We love it, it’s close to work, and the teachers and staff are amazing. It’s also incredibly expensive. Given that I’m already shelling out $11,000 for my daughter’s education, I was surprised when I received the following letter: “As a part of our Teacher Appreciation Week activities next week, the PTO Appreciation Committee is pleased to coordinate the purchase of a gift card to a local merchant of each teacher’s choice. By many families contributing to the same gift, they are able to select something special. Participation is optional.” And then there are multiple pages listing every faculty and staff member (including groundskeepers) with a space to insert my contribution next to every name. What the heck is this? Is this normal? Do faculty and staff see how much we give or don’t give? Why is this institution not capable of showing my “appreciation” with the money I already give them?

—This Feels Like a Shakedown

Dear TFLaS,

I’ve never heard of this practice before, but all of my experience has been in publicly funded schools. I do know that my sister, who works at a private high school straight out of Gossip Girl, receives a large number of gifts from the über-wealthy parents she works for, which seems outrageous to me since the tuition at her school is comparable to that of a private university. But sending out a list of people and asking for donations? That’s a new one to me. I appreciate the sentiment, especially if they’re including non-instruction staff like custodians, and I can see how it might be more organized and efficient than each parent buying presents separately, but it’s definitely not the norm.

Teachers say over and over that a gift isn’t necessary, and it’s true. A card is fine. A note is fine. Nothing, honestly, is fine—most of us aren’t in it for the glamour or prizes. However, at many schools I’ve worked at, parents give small tokens of appreciation at various times of year, and during Teacher Appreciation Week, the PTA has put together a nice breakfast or lunch for teachers in order to show appreciation for our work. They’ve never shared with us how they raised the money, but I assume it’s by everyone in the community chipping in a little. It sounds like this strange contribution list from your PTO might work the same way: Everyone sends in what they can, and the staff gets a gift. This way the gifts come from all parents, not just those who contributed.

While there’s a case to be made, for sure, that teaching is a teacher’s job, and you shouldn’t need to supplement it, the idea behind Teacher Appreciation Week is that even at its most generous, society doesn’t value the labor that teachers do as highly as it could or perhaps should. Yet teachers do this work anyway. You don’t need to recognize that with gifts or donations, but it is nice when parents recognize that labor.

If you want to know what I think you should do, here’s what I’d say: If you’re able to contribute a little, great! It doesn’t need to be much, but even a dollar for your kiddo’s teacher and a dollar to a few of the staff who tend to get less love (like the groundskeepers) will help. Support your PTO! If not, that’s OK too. Private preschool is a big financial commitment. I wouldn’t worry about the PTO revealing who paid what. The most important thing to remember is that for your child’s teachers, even a “thanks” and a smile can go a long way.

—Ms. Sarnell

Are there any guidelines or best practices regarding when and how extra credit should be used? I used to always want to do extra credit assignments. Sometimes I asked for extra credit assignments, and sometimes the teacher would offer it. Often, though, if the option was offered to the whole class, the teacher would encourage me not to do it, and sometimes banned it, saying I didn’t really “need” the extra points the way some of my classmates did. Is it all right to dictate which students should or shouldn’t take that opportunity? How would a teacher determine that anyway? A C is technically passing, but some consider it a bad grade. And what about the student who is a half-point shy of an A over an A-?

—Discouraged Overachiever

Dear Discouraged,

When I started teaching, I was surprised to discover that extra credit is a very controversial topic among educators. I dislike extra credit, not because I’m philosophically opposed to it, but because I hate grading and don’t want to create more of it. However, some of my colleagues make extra credit opportunities a regular part of their grade book.

According to my school district’s policies, teachers cannot give grades for nonacademic activities. This means we cannot award extra credit points for donating classroom supplies or attending a school basketball game, because grades are supposed to reflect mastery of learning objectives. Furthermore, some families may not be able to purchase a box of tissues or a ticket to a sports event.

However, extra credit is not always so clear-cut. Is it unfair to offer extra credit for attending a play? What if students are reading that very play and would benefit from viewing a performance? What if it’s free and open to the public? Is it still unfair because some students will not have transportation or free time in their schedules to go? Some teachers offer extra credit points on a test for completing a review guide in order to encourage students to study. Test reviews are academic in nature, but some would argue that this practice awards points for compliant behavior when a test score should demonstrate the level of content mastery.

All that aside, the practice of “banning” students who “don’t need” extra credit is strange to me. Sure, other students might need points more than you, but it’s not like points are a finite resource a teacher has to ration. Most teachers would agree that extra credit opportunities should be available to all students in the course. I have heard of teachers who will not grant extra credit to students with missing assignments, which I can understand. But I agree with you—a teacher should not dictate which students can take advantage of extra credit. It’s possible, however, that the teacher was actually trying to say that you didn’t need extra credit so you could spend your free time doing something other than more school work. Work smarter, not harder.

This debate illustrates a problem with grades in general: Although a grade is meant to represent a student’s mastery of course content, it often reflects a student’s work ethic, behavior, or even socioeconomic status. Students (and parents) care about grades because they have implications for college, scholarships, sports eligibility, et cetera. And many high-achieving students believe their grades carry even more weight; grades become a validation of their own self-worth. It’s no wonder students look for opportunities to get those extra points, but in the process those points obscure what that grade is supposed to represent.

I wish I had a satisfactory answer. For me, though, the ideal solution would be to get rid of grades entirely.

—Ms. Holbrook

My daughter attends a very small (fewer than 100 kids) religious school and has been there since kindergarten. She is going into fifth grade next year.

At the beginning of fourth grade, a new student in her class began to bully her aggressively. This student is not neurotypical. He was extremely disruptive in the classroom, terrorized younger children on the playground, and also bullied other children in his grade. But my daughter bore the brunt of it—to the point that we had to put her in therapy to deal with it.

We met with the teacher and the principal and even the child’s parents, but the harassment continued. After months of this, my daughter started to fight back, which then put her in the category of “aggressor” in the eyes of the school, although, to me, she was just defending herself. She ended up with a two-day suspension. His parents voluntarily left the school.

Yesterday I was made aware that his parents want to reenroll both him and his twin brother in our school next year. If this was a larger, public school, I would just request they be in different classrooms and hope for the best. But next year they will be in the same classroom—again. The message I got from the principal says she believes there were “problems on both sides,” and that the adults can work it out. I don’t want to work it out. I want to keep my daughter safe from him, and I don’t know how that can be accomplished if they are together all day, every day.

How should I handle this? I want to give an ultimatum to the school—it’s him or us—but I feel like that could reward him and punish her. I don’t want to have to pull her out of the only school she has ever known, away from all of her friends. She’s big for her age and has her own academic and personal challenges, which means that moving into a new school is basically going to mean sending her to social hell. I’m angry at the parents and at the principal for putting me in a situation where I have to even think about this again.

What do I do?

—Bereft of Choices

Dear Bereft,

I can hear the outcome you’re longing for in your letter: You’re hoping the school will acknowledge the ways they misinterpreted your daughter’s behavior and failed to adequately protect her in the past, and will compensate now by unequivocally siding with your family. I think what you really want is to not even have to issue an ultimatum, because you think the school should pick your daughter and decline the other child’s reenrollment request without any prompting or pressure. I’m saying this with kindness, and I understand. If I felt like my daughter had suffered, hadn’t been supported, and was on the brink of going through it again, I’d be craving vindication too.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t sound like this is going to happen. Your school’s administration clearly isn’t on the same page as you about the events. I don’t have nearly enough information to weigh in on the accuracy of their judgment, but it’s clear that they don’t see this situation as you see it, and I don’t think they’re going to come around.

So what should you do? I’d pull her out. I know, I know—it feels like conceding in a situation where you clearly feel you shouldn’t have to. But I’m curious about the notion that enrolling in a new school means sending your daughter into social hell. She’s already been in social hell, no? You said she spent an entire year being aggressively bullied and harassed to the point that she needed therapy to cope, and ultimately felt she had to resort to physical self-defense. The tweenage social landscape is no picnic no matter where you go or what school you attend, but I can’t imagine that her experience at your local public school is going to be worse than what she’s already gone through.

Whether you stay or go, you’re going to be confronting the unknown and taking a bit of a gamble with your daughter’s emotional well-being in the process. That would put a pit in any parent’s stomach. Personally, though, I think the likelihood that she’ll have a decent experience at another school is higher than the chance that the other child’s behavior has changed enough, or that the school will become supportive enough, that you’ll feel comfortable with them sharing a class again next year. I know you want for there to be a third option, but there isn’t one. Try to take comfort in knowing you’re doing everything you can to make the best choice for her, try to be optimistic, and move on.

—Ms. Bauer

My son has inattentive ADHD and dyslexia and is in fourth grade. I liked his teacher at the beginning of the year, but after winter break he began complaining that the teacher picks on him and treats him differently. I know my son can be sensitive, so I didn’t take it too seriously. I have offered to talk to the teacher about it, but he didn’t want me to. The teacher is not a big communicator and frequently doesn’t respond to my messages anyway.

But my son’s friend was over the other day, and he told me the teacher is always yelling at my son and treats him differently. Because of this, I plan to talk to his teacher when spring break is up, and then with the principal. This is not the first teacher who has made her frustration with my son known to him. I should say that generally my son is well liked by adults for his behavior, but I know he can be frustrating to keep on task and motivate. However, he’s not aggressive or disruptive to others.

I’m formulating my approach to the teacher. I understand there are two sides, and I didn’t witness what happened. But I want him to stop feeling or being picked on. I plan to let her do most of the talking. I would love your advice.

We have an appointment about his individualized education program next week too, but I don’t think that is the place for this to go down.

—Sad Parent

Dear Sad Parent,

When speaking to the teacher, I would try to state everything through the lens of your son. Something like: “I’m not sure what’s happening in class, and I know that kids can be prone to misinterpretation. I also know that my son is sensitive, so please know I’m always considering the source when he complains to me. But he feels like you treat him differently and that you’re picking on him, and it’s starting to impact the way he feels about school and learning. Regardless of what’s actually happening in class, I hate to see him feeling this way. Can we work together to find a way to change the way he’s feeling about you and his school day?” This makes it clear that you are not accusing the teacher of inappropriate behavior, but it’s still a problem to address.

I know this is not an easy task, but feelings, even when unfounded, are real and need to be addressed. A good teacher will understand this and want to make it better.

—Mr. Dicks