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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
I love my 7-year-old son’s name, “Andrew,” but I hate the nickname “Andy.” When we named him “Andrew” we agreed to only use the long version and never the nickname. Until this year everyone has called him “Andrew.”
We moved over the summer, and somehow he has become “Andy” in his new school! I’m not sure how it happened, but after participating in a recent classroom event, it’s clear everyone is calling him Andy (kids, teachers, other parents). It has even spilled over into Little League.
My son doesn’t care whether people call him Andrew or Andy. I spoke to him about correcting people when they call him the wrong name, and we’ve practiced what he should say, but he is not an assertive kid, and I doubt he is correcting people often.
I made an appointment with the teacher to discuss the situation. She apologized and said that she would call him Andrew and speak with the “specials” teachers to make sure that they call him Andrew as well. She said she would make one class announcement, but that otherwise she will not correct students for calling him Andy.
As you can imagine, this has been totally ineffective. All the kids are still calling him Andy. I made another appointment with the teacher, but she was not helpful. She said that Andrew never objects to being called Andy and sometimes even introduces himself as Andy (I don’t know whether or not this is true). To me, this is irrelevant. He is 7 years old, I am his mother, and I get to decide what people call him. She is not willing to correct the other students in the moment when they call him Andy. I would like to take this matter to the principal. My husband feels like I’m overreacting. He thinks we shouldn’t make it harder for him to adjust to a new group of kids. If we don’t get this under control now, he will be “Andy” for the rest of his life! Help!
—Not Andy’s Mom
Dear Not Andy’s Mom,
Honestly, there isn’t much a teacher can do (and certainly nothing a principal can do) if peers are calling him “Andy” and your son isn’t correcting them. For every time that a teacher might hear someone call your son “Andy,” there are a hundred or more moments in a day when the teacher will not hear it, or will hear it but fail to register the problem because of more pressing issues on her mind.
I understand that to you it may seem ridiculous that your son’s teacher refuses to correct students when they refer to him as Andy, but I think she is in a tough spot. If your son isn’t correcting his classmates, but she is, that sends very mixed messages to her students. Also, if your son is introducing himself as Andy, now the message is even more muddied.
I can’t even envision how, exactly, that would go: “I know that Andrew doesn’t mind being called Andy, and I know that he introduces himself as Andy, but his mother wants him to be called Andrew, so please do what she wants.”
Your real problem is that your son either likes the name Andy, or doesn’t find it as offensive as you do. The truth is that your son’s friends, classmates, teammates, and many other people in this world will continue to call him Andy until he decides that he wants to be called Andrew.
Rest assured, that if this day comes, he’ll be able to slowly move friends and classmates into the Andrew camp. This happens all the time to the Eddies, Sammys, and Willys of the world who eventually decide they’re Edward, Samantha, and Will. But until then, no amount of teacher intervention is going to correct this problem.
My eighth grade daughter has always been good at math. Until this year, her middle school has offered an advanced math class where they put her and similarly proficient students, which would put them in Calculus BC by their senior year. This year, however, the school announced that they would no longer be differentiating between math classes, and everyone would be taking “advanced” math. My guess is that too many parents were complaining because their kids weren’t in the advanced class.
My further guess is that the current “advanced” class is just the normal one. I say this partly because after a couple of weeks, they told us that the current curriculum is too easy for her, so after she blazes through tests and in-class work in about five minutes, she goes to the back of the room and does “enrichment” work on a computer. This strikes me as less than ideal. If she’s too advanced for the eighth grade curriculum, the solution shouldn’t be to make her sit through the eighth grade curriculum and then teach herself more on a computer in her spare time. Shouldn’t she be in a ninth grade math class? This is a school that goes from sixth through twelfth grade, so it’s offered.
Should I say something? I should add that she will be going to a different school next year for high school to play sports, so I would imagine that they will test her at the beginning of the year to determine what math class is appropriate. I’d like her to test into tenth grade math at that point to keep her on the calculus-as-a-senior track. What are your thoughts?
—Dumbing Down Is Dumb
Yes, she should be in a ninth grade math class. Yes, you should say something.
One of the “best practices” that has been emphasized in the teaching world in the past decade, and one of teachers’ most difficult tasks, is differentiation. We’re supposed to figure out what our students need and differentiate for them in four ways: content, process, product, and environment. What does that mean? Content: What does the student know and need to know? Process: How can the student best learn this concept/material/procedure? Product: What can/should the student create to demonstrate learning? And environment: What setting will best serve the student in their learning?
Your daughter’s teacher is falling short of the mark on at least two counts: content and process. First, the teacher recognizes that your daughter needs something more than the eighth grade curriculum (great!), but it sounds like your daughter doesn’t need enrichment of the eighth grade curriculum. If she can get through the class work and tests “in about five minutes,” she needs the ninth grade curriculum. Moreover, computer tutorials can be helpful, but they’re not intended to supplant other sound teaching methods—direction instruction, demonstration, facilitation of practice, questioning, correction, development of critical thinking skills, inquiry-based instruction, cooperative problem-solving, etc.
I would speak again with the teacher. Reiterate your concerns and goals. If the teacher doesn’t convince you of the appropriateness of the current plan or switch your daughter to the ninth grade class, take your plea to the administration.
My son recently started middle school, making the leap from one teacher to seven. He likes most of them but complains that one gives the class worksheets and other written material she has prepared herself that contain a lot of spelling and grammar errors—“its” instead of “it’s” and “encouragment” instead of “encouragement,” for example. It happens frequently enough that I’m sure they’re not typos. It may be that English is not her first language, but that’s true of some of his other teachers and he has no such complaints about them. How should I handle this? Is it too much to ask that a teacher should be able to spell, or at least stick to a textbook? It’s just one period out of seven and a less bookish kid might not even notice, but it’s driving mine crazy; I was raised by an English teacher, so I feel his pain, and I worry that she’s passing on bad habits to the kids who don’t know any better.
You should handle this by talking to your son about maintaining patience and perspective when faced with minor irritants and being gracious with others about their shortcomings. That’s it. It’s not at all unreasonable to expect teachers to have mastered the fundamentals of spelling and mechanics—it’s a standard expectation for any educated professional, really—but, y’know, people are people, imperfect and falling short of expectations in plenty of different ways. (To your second point, I do think it’s unreasonable to expect her to stick to a textbook, though. It’s rare these days for teachers to deliver lessons and class materials straight from a textbook with no modification or supplementation at all, and it’s often not well-received—by parents, kids, or administrators—when they do.)
I’m an English teacher too, and I believe in the power of accurate spelling and correct grammar as a means to facilitate communication and connection through language. I don’t believe in using it as a tool to make other people feel inferior, which is all that unsolicited grammar scolding usually accomplishes. Certainly, her deficit in this particular skill isn’t ideal, but I encourage you to leave it to her supervisors and peers to address, and to use it as a social teaching moment with your son.
My son’s elementary school library is apparently separated into sections by grade. Kindergarten books in one section, first grade books in another section, etc. This is utilitarian in that it prevents sixth graders from having to browse through picture books, and keeps the younger kids away from age-inappropriate content. But my son, a kindergartner, is an advanced reader and he hasn’t been interested in picture books in at least a year. He likes Magic Tree House books, Dory Fantasmagory, Bad Guys, etc., which are one or two grades up.
Recently, he asked to borrow a book from the first grade section, and the librarian has said no twice. Assuming there was a simple misunderstanding, I emailed the teacher asking for her help and she punted it to the principal. The principal sternly refused any exceptions to the policy (and made it clear there’s no room for discussion). I’ve dropped the issue—it’s not worth a fight with the school. But I can’t help but wonder … why? Why would they limit a kid to books that are not challenging or interesting to him? Why not let him read on his own level? The school wouldn’t provide any reasons and I don’t want to feel so disappointed with them anymore. Can you help me understand?
I regret to report that I have no way of making you understand this policy, because I don’t understand it, either. I have never heard of such a thing and find it utterly ridiculous. I’m an author myself, and so I appreciate on a personal and professional level the ways in which librarians champion books. They are also consistently underpaid for the important job that they do. It pains me to say that this particular librarian is acting foolishly and against the interests of students, and the principal is equally at fault for supporting this ludicrous policy.
To ensure that I wasn’t missing something, I ran this question by three librarians and four principals or former principals, and they all agree: This policy makes no sense.
When I asked if there was a reason I might be missing, their responses included:
“Are these letters written by real people?”
“Get the name of the school. I want to call them.”
“There’s probably excessive lead in the water.”
While your principal is making no room for discussion on this issue, there should at least be room for an explanation. A rationale of some kind. A reason for this policy. You may not be offered an opportunity to discuss, but you are certainly entitled to a reason. I’d politely but firmly ask for one.
More Care and Feeding
My child cries every day at school drop-off, and it’s breaking my heart. There must be some way to make this better. What can I do?