Care and Feeding

Oh, No, Not Her

My child got the teacher I was hoping to avoid. Help me get over this!

A mom weeping while reading a letter. Her child looks on, confused.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 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
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

How do you come to peace with the fact that your child did not get the teacher you were hoping for? My first-born, elementary school–age child was initially placed in a class with a teacher who has a teaching approach that really appeals to me (Reggio Emilia). Just before school started, my child was switched to a different class where the teacher has a much more regimented, structured approach.

The details of this switch are not worth going into, but fast forward to the second week of school, and I can’t stop obsessing over the fact that my child doesn’t have the original teacher. By all accounts the teacher my child has is well loved—it’s just a different style. I know that my child will have many teachers over the years, and I’m not going to be thrilled by all of them. But how does a parent navigate this disappointment?

—Teacher Blues

Dear Teacher Blues,

Perhaps you can take some solace in these three thoughts:

First, it’s good for kids to experience all types of teaching styles throughout their academic careers. While a particular style might be ideal for your child, the world will not bend to your child’s preferences, so it’s better to learn how to adapt to different approaches sooner rather than later. Also bear in mind that education encompasses so much more than academic content. Math and reading and writing are critical, of course, but equally important are the skills related to socialization, problem-solving, and the navigation of interpersonal relationships.

Second, you may discover that while a certain teaching style appeals to you, a different approach might be better for your child. It’s hard to tell how a student will respond to a particular teaching style unless they have been immersed in that environment for a period of time. Perhaps you will discover that your child enjoys the benefits of a structured environment and learns best under such conditions. We often assume that what we think is best for our child will be best for our child, but that is often not the case.

Third, give this teacher a chance to win you over. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told by parents midway through a school year that they were disappointed that their child was assigned to my class at the beginning of the year but have now reversed course entirely. My methods are unorthodox at best. I am exceptionally direct with students and have a reputation for pushing boundaries, bending rules, and acting in seemingly inexplicable ways to educate and entertain kids. I’ve heard the same from paraprofessionals who have worked in my classroom over the years. Some have been initially appalled by the prospect of having to work alongside me for an entire school year. But I win these parents and colleagues over when they discover that my methods produce happy children who generally love school and learn what’s expected.

It’s impossible to evaluate a teacher without spending significant time in a classroom, so give this teacher a chance to convince you that this is a great placement for your child. More importantly, give the teacher the chance to win over your child. If your child is happy, loved, and learning, it won’t matter what teaching style you prefer.

—Mr. Dicks

I just discovered that my 4-year old has the same pre-K teacher that my older child had for pre-K last year. My older child learned a lot from this teacher and genuinely liked her. That said, I have some serious concerns about her professional conduct. They are as follows:

1. She uses overly familiar language with the kids. She calls them (individually) “the love of her life.” As in “Hi, Sam, love of my life. How was your weekend?” She also frequently tells them she loves them (multiple times a day).

2. She says “I love you” to parents at pickup and drop-off every single day.

3. She hugs parents at pickup and drop-off every single day.

4. She overshares with parents about her personal life. Despite my best efforts to avoid these conversations, I know way too much about her family’s internal dynamics, her menstrual cycle, her ex-fiancé’s new wife, etc.

5. It appears that she showers about once a week. She starts out clean on Monday, but by Friday her hair is greasy and she exudes very powerful body odor (sometimes mixed with a vague urine smell).

6. She frequently takes her shoes off. I wouldn’t object to this, except that her feet are filthy.

7. Sometimes food sits on her desk until mold grows on it.

I probably should have done something about it last year, but I basically took a “grin and bear it” approach. But I don’t think I can take another year of this cringeworthy behavior.

Any advice? She is a sensitive person and I don’t want to hurt her feelings.

—Concerned Mom

Dear Concerned Mom,

I don’t think there’s any way to approach this that won’t hurt her feelings, especially since you’ve known this teacher for a year and didn’t address these issues with her earlier. I’m glad your child learned a lot and enjoyed being in her class. At the same time, I imagine moldy food and dirty bare feet violate child care license requirements in your state. I also agree that her behavior is alarming.

If I were in your shoes, I would speak with the school’s director. Normally, I advocate bringing issues directly to the teacher before going above her head. However, I think this particular teacher will need someone to mentor her in order to change. I’m guessing she has a strong passion for teaching and genuinely cares about her students and their families. But she obviously has serious boundary issues. She will need her supervisor to help her understand what level of affection is appropriate for a student-teacher relationship and what sort of conduct is professional with parents.

To be honest, I’m concerned about this teacher’s mental health. It’s not clear to me if you want your child moved to another teacher or if you want this teacher to clean up her act. Either way, it’s worth bringing these issues to the attention of her supervisor.

Good luck!

—Ms. Holbrook

I am the mother of a kind, bright 11-year-old boy heading into the sixth grade. He’s in the gifted program at school and has always performed very well academically. Reading and writing have never been his easiest subjects (though he typically makes A’s in them as well). He reads at grade level and his comprehension is good, but it’s always been a bit of a grind for him, and he seems to read slower than average. His handwriting is rough, his spelling isn’t great, and he frequently reverses letters like b and d. Our take on this has always been that not everything can be your best thing and that’s OK. He doesn’t seem to be “struggling” so it feels like a nonissue.

He recently watched a video of someone describing their dyslexia and came to me afterward wanting to talk about it. He said that many of the things this guy said felt like they were true for him—the things listed above as well as a few others, like mixing up right and left. I told him: 1) While I could recognize the truth of what he was describing, I’ve never thought of these things as a problem, and I’m not sure they rise to that level now. 2) Sometimes we can see a list of symptoms and find ourselves in things we don’t necessarily have. It happens to everyone. 3) I hear him and care about what he has to say and his potential concerns, and I’d absolutely do some research to see if this is something we need to explore.

So my question is: Does this seem like a trail we need to chase? At what point does slower reading and frequent reversal of letters/directions become something to look into more deeply? I’m not someone who wants to create issues where there are none. He’s doing great! But I also don’t want to overlook a struggle he is having simply because his wheel didn’t squeak loudly enough.

—Mom to a Quiet Wheel

Dear Quiet Wheel,

I can see why you’re wondering whether to pursue this. Overall, it sounds like your son is thriving, and while that’s a wonderful thing, it can mess with your head a little too. You don’t want to create problems where there aren’t any—great! Your kid is kind, bright, and unquestionably succeeding in school—great! So … if there’s no big problem, how do you know if there’s any problem? Reaching out for feedback is a great first step. (Also, it’s not high-maintenance or That Parent–y to send the occasional “Hey, is this a thing?” email to your child’s teacher if you’ve got a concern or question!)

From the details you’ve offered, this might be a thing, and I think you should pursue it with his school. While there’s certainly no cause for panic, frequent letter reversal at 11, in particular, gives me pause. Plus, if your son approached you to share that the video he saw resonated, I would take his word for it. It sounds like he knows himself as a learner, and I think there’s real validity to that big lightbulb moment of hearing a bunch of things you struggle with and realizing it all has a name. While I certainly can’t diagnose anything in an advice column, there may be something behind your son’s concerns, be it dyslexia or another learning issue or even a vision problem.

You have a few options for how you could proceed. If you’re confident in his English and language arts teacher, you could start there, sharing the same issues you’ve outlined here and asking for their input. You could also contact an administrator, the special education chair, or the guidance counselor (though I wouldn’t go straight to the principal—that’s not usually the starting point for specific learning concerns, and they’d likely pass it to someone else). Keep following up; while all schools handle this process a bit differently, it’s often pretty bureaucratic and committee-oriented, and may require a bit of a squeaky wheel.

You’re right that we all have our strengths and challenges, and not everything has to be your thing. It may well turn out that there’s nothing going on, and this particular skill is just a little tougher for him. He’ll roll with it and continue being happy and successful. But it may also be that there’s something bigger to it—something that can be addressed. You don’t want to create problems where there are none, but you also don’t want him to struggle unnecessarily when he could be supported instead. You’re not being alarmist just by raising the question, and if something does turn up, I think you’ll be really glad you asked.

—Ms. Bauer

My mother was a teacher, and to a great extent I think a teacher’s home life is private and that they shouldn’t be penalized for how they react away from school. However, a teacher at my son’s school has a child on my 3-year-old son’s T-ball team. At a recent game, she got into an altercation with a teenage boy over a parking spot, where she had blocked him in and wouldn’t move her car so that he could leave. Her son wasn’t with her, and in between yelling for her son and yelling at the teenager, she ended up threatening to shoot him. Since this happened away from school and the team is not through the school, is this something that can be addressed with the director? At this point, it is strictly my word versus hers. My husband says to leave it alone, but I really don’t want this teacher around my son, and during pickup and drop-off, she is sometimes the teacher in charge. They also sometimes combine classes if another teacher is out sick.

—School vs. Home Behavior

Dear School vs. Home,

About a month ago, we teachers at my preschool had a mandatory “mass casualty event” training run by a police officer. I’m pretty far left politically, and I grew up in New York City, so my trust in the police is lower than some others’, but he did his best to explain to us what the police are doing during a mass casualty event (specifically a shooting, but he covered other events of horrific violence), and I’m going to try to relay his advice to you. He told us that if you see something weird, unusual, or suspicious, you should report it. His reasoning? It’s better to alert someone that something odd is going on and have them investigate and determine that it’s nothing than to say nothing and know you might have been able to stop the person. He used Columbine and the Virginia Tech shooter as examples.

My own advice? I would probably report it to the school. Personally I don’t think I’d report it to the police because of my own distrust of police, but if this is a person who is threatening to shoot high schoolers over a parking spot, I wouldn’t trust her near children. Teaching is a frustrating and high-stress job, and it’s very important to children’s trust in you as a teacher that you maintain “emotional constancy”—that is, you respond to all situations calmly no matter how angry or annoyed or hurt you may feel. I don’t know whether she’s able to do that at the school, but if she can’t handle a simple interaction with some high schoolers, the school ought to know that.

I struggled a lot when I first received this question, but ultimately I came back to my own version of the police officer’s advice: If you report what you saw, you’ll know that you tried to make the world safer. And unfortunately, in our current reality, that is probably the best you can do.

—Ms. Sarnell

More Care and Feeding

My daughter’s sixth grade teacher often pairs her with difficult boys in the class to help them out. I told my daughter she’s being a good classmate by helping them, but now I’m thinking: Isn’t this part of how girls get taught to be responsible for boys and their behavior—and likewise how boys learn that they aren’t responsible for their behavior?