Care and Feeding

How’s Little Jimmy Doing?

The best (and worst) questions to ask your child’s teacher.

A teacher looks at her laptop, with a big notebook in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/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.

To kick off the school year, we’ve asked our expert panel of teachers to collectively answer the question: What question do you most wish parents would ask at the start of the school year, and what would you tell them? Here are their answers:

Amy Scott, Eighth Grade, North Carolina:

I wish parents would ask, “How much should I keep track of my child’s progress, and what’s the best way to do that?”

Considering I teach eighth grade, you’d be surprised how often parents say, “Let me know about anything and everything.” I get it—you want to keep tabs and provide a safety net, and I appreciate the attempt at partnership. I certainly prefer you to the completely disengaged parent. But there are several reasons I’m not going to let you know about anything and everything your kid does in my classroom.

First, you shouldn’t know everything. Once your kids hit middle school, and probably before, they need some victories and defeats that don’t necessarily involve you. They should experience natural consequences to the choices they make in school—an A on the test they studied for, a D on the one they didn’t, pride about how well their diorama turned out, guilt about their crappy contribution to the group project, detention for mouthing off to a teacher, etc. These consequences will allow them to learn from their experiences and adjust their behavior autonomously.

Second, you’re asking for the impossible. My 100-plus students have various strengths and challenges. Your kid might receive a D on an essay or get a stern talking-to for disrupting the Paideia seminar. She also might turn in a video project that I use to show the rest of my classes what exemplary work looks like, or get a shoutout for helping clean up a mess she didn’t make. But unless your child exhibits a pattern of struggles or extraordinary acts, I will likely not be contacting you.

Yikes, that sounds harsh, but I promise you will still know how your child is doing!

How?!

I’m so glad you asked.

First, by middle school, most teachers have websites of some sort where they and their colleagues post homework. You can say, “Sweet child of mine, this website says your water-quality lab report is due tomorrow, and you have a test on World War II on Friday. Did you finish the report and/or study for the test?”

And she will almost certainly lie to you and say they did both.

Not a problem! You will get a progress report every 4½ weeks. (Some schools do every three weeks!) Your kid still has at least half a semester to get their ducks in a row before report cards—which reminds me: You get quarterly report cards!

“I don’t want to wait for report cards (or progress reports),” you say. OK, I get it! We live in a “right now” society. Fortunately, many school systems have caught up with the total-access model and subscribe to an online grading system. My school uses one called PowerSchool, and parents can check their kids’ grades 24 hours a day and even choose to get push notifications when new grades are posted.

And if all that doesn’t satisfy your thirst for knowledge about your kid’s school experience, ask. Yes, you contact me. I want to hear from you. Please email me if your kid isn’t performing as well as you think she can, or if your dog dies, or if you need a book recommendation, or if you want to make sure your kid has a friend to sit with at lunch, or just to check in. Set up a meeting if you want to talk face to face about how I might support her in doing her best work. I’ll contact you in dire situations; otherwise, you do it.

You have so much access to so much information about your child’s school experience, and teachers are asked to do so much with so little (and get paid peanuts for their troubles). It’s unreasonable to expect teachers to provide concierge service.

Finally, remember it’s developmentally appropriate for your preteen or teen to bomb a quiz and not tell you about it. Don’t worry—they’ll be all right.

—Ms. Scott

Carrie Bauer, Middle and High School, New York:

I teach seventh grade. It won’t surprise any readers to hear that middle school is an incredibly tricky phase of life; there’s a reason countless books and movies have been inspired by the singular mortification of being 13. (I recommend acclaimed horror film Eighth Grade for a bracing depiction of the challenges of this age.) In addition to the social, physical, and emotional difficulties kids experience in their middle school years, it’s also often a significant academic transition for many students. The workload becomes more demanding, expectations for students’ independence and stamina rise, and grading emphasizes skill mastery and accuracy more heavily than effort and completion. I’ve found that it’s not uncommon for students’ grades to drop a bit from what they were accustomed to earning in earlier years, and this, understandably, tends to surprise and concern parents.

As the school year gets underway and assignments start to accumulate in the grade book, the most common question I get, by far, is “What can my child do to get her grade up?” In particular, parents often get in touch asking for extra credit or chances for kids to redo graded assignments. What I wish parents would ask instead is: “What do you notice about my child’s reading, writing, and thinking skills?” In other words, I wish parents would ask more about the root causes and rationale for the numbers they’re seeing, rather than looking for a quick fix to change the number.

I understand why parents direct their attention to the grade itself. It’s a cut-and-dried number, a clear and recognizable metric that you can use to set concrete goals and targets with your child. The thinking-and-learning process that ultimately generates the number is much murkier. It’s less tangible and accessible to you, not receptive to a few quick fixes, and almost entirely out of your control. However, it’s the thinking and learning process that needs to grow in order to create meaningful, lasting change in the grades your child achieves. I can’t speak for all middle school teachers, but I believe that offering the copious extra credit or do-overs parents often ask for is counterproductive; it raises the number in the grade book to a number that might make both parent and child feel more comfortable, but it obscures the student’s true skill level.

I can’t offer you my observations and suggestions about your student’s academic strengths and areas of need at the very beginning of the year, of course, but I can by, say, October, and I wish that more parents would ask me to do so. It would offer parents context and grounding for that first report card looming on the horizon and get us on the same page about what their kids need to do to truly grow.

—Ms. Bauer

Cassy Sarnell, Preschool Special Education, New York:

I wish parents would ask, “How can I help my child learn to be more independent at home?” I am a special ed preschool teacher, and a large part of my work is focused on building independent and self-help skills so kids can prepare for school. Independence is important for children to develop self-esteem, pride in their work, and a variety of fine motor and gross motor skills, and if parents foster these skills at home, it will allow the child to grow even more and develop independent skills even faster.

Before kids come to preschool, they’re basically still babies and need adults to do most things, if not everything, for them. This is especially true for some of the kids in my class who, due to their different ability levels, need extra support. However, parents get so used to doing things for their kids that they sometimes do more than their kids actually need, and their support can become an unnecessary crutch.

At the preschool age, however, children can absolutely assist with what we call Adaptive Daily Living Skills (ADLs for short)—such as dressing, toileting, cleaning up after oneself, and doing simple chores like helping put away groceries. Verbal prompts are a good way to start doing this. As long as your child can communicate (either through sign or words), start by saying, “You can put on your shirt, or you can ask for help,” as well as “Help means we do it together.” Those two prompts—“Try to do it yourself or ask for help” and “Help means we do it together”—come up a lot in my classroom as we try to promote independence. When you encourage kids to try something on their own, and you give them time to struggle through it even if it is difficult, you’d be surprised at what they can accomplish.

This struggle for independence has several benefits. It affords your child autonomy, which in turn improves their self-esteem and self-confidence. It improves their fine motor and gross motor skills, motor planning, and coordination, which will in turn affect their academic skills. And, perhaps most importantly, it teaches them tenacity. I can absolutely tell which kids in my class have parents who do things for them because their frustration tolerance is much lower; they don’t have the coping skills to know what to do when something is not immediately successful. I don’t blame the parents for wanting to help their child—as I said, working with special education kids means that my students do require more help to complete living skills than their typical peers do, and sometimes it is faster to just do things for your child. I am guilty of that in the classroom too; sometimes I put their water shoes on for them instead of waiting for them to figure it out themselves because we need to get outside for our turn in the sprinkler. But when that happens, I have to remind myself that we can always start dressing earlier if we need to, and if I can do it in the classroom with 12 kids, you can do it at home with two or three (or more—my mom has six!).

This advice may seem preschool-specific, but frankly, when I taught middle school, I found that my middle schoolers could also use some independence. Parents sometimes don’t have the best gauge for what independent skills their child can develop if she’s given clear directions and expectations. The start of the year is an excellent time to begin building those skills, keeping in mind that your child may not be independent in these skills until later in the year. But there’s no better time to start practicing.

—Ms. Sarnell

Brandon Hersey, Second Grade, Washington:

It’s hard for me to narrow this down to just one, as there are so many good questions worth asking. Here are my top three, in no particular order.

Question No. 1: What can I do at home to best support my child?

Answer: There are lots of creative ways that you can support your child!

What I like about this question is that it opens the door for further communication on the specific needs of the student later in the year. While I would tailor my answer to each family, there are a few points I’d make to everyone. Parents can support their children in many ways beyond helping with homework. I teach second grade, and at the early elementary school level, things like reading with your children for 30 minutes a night, having an extended casual conversation with them to work on language skills, or even regularly asking what they learned in school that day are all small yet really effective and supportive habits that all parents should try to develop.

Question No. 2: I’d love to know how you prefer to communicate in case I have anything I need to discuss with respect to my child, and I’d love to share with you the best way to get in touch with me. Could we develop a communication plan?

Answer: Yes, absolutely! What is your preferred means and frequency of communication?

This question would be music to my ears. During the first six weeks, I put A LOT of energy into developing an effective communication plan with each of my families. Some families only want phone calls; others prefer to receive an email or a text. Some want to hear about what their child is up to every day; some prefer to let me do my thing. Realistically, no teacher has the bandwidth for individual family communication every single day, but aligning expectations early is worth the effort. Developing a communication plan with families at the onset of the year will make everyone’s life a little easier.

Question No. 3: When and how can I help out at school?

Answer: Thank you for your offer! I’m so excited you want to help. Let me get our classroom routines down and then we can find a time that works for you to come in.

This is perhaps the most important question of the three. Most educators really enjoy having parents and other volunteers in the classroom. However, we’d prefer to have control over the situation—keep in mind that our classroom is our office. Setting up very specific times and expectations is key. Every year I have one or two parents who like to pop up unannounced looking to volunteer, and while I appreciate their presence, I often don’t have anything for them to do, so I have to scramble or adjust the lesson in order to accommodate them and make their experience meaningful. Follow your teacher’s lead on what they’re looking for. It’s much more productive for everyone if you offer the help on your teacher’s terms.

—Mr. Hersey