Care and Feeding

Your Vote Matters … Just Not Here

I’m furious that my daughter’s school holds student government elections and then ignores the results.

A teenager looks dejected beneath student government campaign signs.
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 askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

Both of my kids attend the local high school, and at our school, each student organization holds elections to elect officers. I’m seeing a disturbing trend in which the teacher adviser of the organization doesn’t like the outcome of the election and instead decides to overrule the democratic results. In one case, the teacher outright decided to name a different nonwinning student president.

Another case involved my daughter, which is where this becomes more fraught for me. My daughter ran for president and lost the election. The teacher said the results were “close” so decided that each position should be jointly held—co-presidents, co–vice presidents, etc. I’ve asked my daughter to resign her “co-presidency,” since she didn’t win, but she’s refusing. She says she cares too much about the organization to see it fail. (Last year, only three families participated in the organization’s fundraiser, and she does not want this to happen again.)

When my kids were younger, I definitely bought into paying for a trophy for recreation soccer to make sure each child on the team received a trinket at the end of the season—but these kids aren’t 6 years old. Most of them are seniors and will soon be heading to college. With the whole college scandal fresh in everyone’s mind, I’m trying to underscore for her the concept of meritocracy—if you didn’t earn it fairly, then you don’t deserve it.

I’m not sure why they bother to have elections if the will of the students isn’t going to be considered. Should I force her to quit? Should I go directly to the administration and ask them to intervene?

—Disavowing Election Fraud Mom

Dear Disavowing Election Fraud Mom,

You should definitely not force your daughter to quit, nor should you ask the administration to intervene, because this should be her decision. Ask yourself why this bothers you so much. What exactly do you fear? What lesson are you hoping your daughter will learn by resigning her role as co-president? What is the harm in allowing her to serve? Conversely, how might she benefit from a leadership role in an organization she cares about deeply? How might the club itself benefit from her leadership? It doesn’t sound like your daughter is “résumé building”—from your letter, she seems to genuinely care about this organization.

I get your criticism—why hold elections if the results won’t be honored? But I’m wondering how, exactly, you know that teacher sponsors are disregarding election results. In my experience, there’s usually more to these stories once you get the teacher’s perspective than what you hear from your children or through the grapevine. Or, perhaps the issue is overblown—perhaps it has happened once but is not a rampant problem.

I share your dismay at the celebrity college admissions scandal. Honestly, it makes my blood boil. But I am even more infuriated by the immense advantages given to “legacy” applicants who currently make up one-third of Harvard’s freshman class. Do we truly live in a meritocracy? Are you sure that the student who won the election is in fact more worthy than your daughter? While we hope that students vote for the best candidate to be the president of the student council (for example), such elections are often popularity contests instead.

It’s possible the true source of your anxiety is your daughter’s “unearned” position as co-president. Or, are you bothered by larger, societal issues of unfairness that you don’t want to perpetuate? Regardless, I don’t think this issue is on par with people who pay thousands to buy their kids’ way into college, nor do I think forcing her to resign will do anything to mitigate deep-seated inequality.

After reflecting on these questions, talk with your daughter openly about your concerns. Listen to her perspective. Ask her if she thinks elections are, in fact, the best way to choose leaders for her club. While the democratic process is important, it’s not the only path to leadership. We don’t elect our bosses, for example. Many of the “team captains” on sports teams are appointed by their coaches. Maybe some of the clubs at her school should consider other processes, and she could be the leader who brings those ideas to the table.

I fear that if you wield a heavy hand or get too deeply involved, you’ll drive a wedge between you and your daughter instead of teaching her a life lesson about merit. Let the students figure this one out themselves.

—Ms. Holbrook

Is it reasonable to expect that teachers shouldn’t yell at children? By the fifth day of kindergarten, my son had already reported being yelled at a few times, for pretty innocuous stuff like not looking at the book while the teacher was reading a story, for example. We chose a progressive private school in hopes of having our son in a happy, nurturing classroom that has a very low student-teacher ratio so it’s definitely not like the teacher is overwhelmed. But maybe my expectations are unrealistic. I mean—I yell sometimes, too.

Relatedly, I did speak to the teacher and she acted baffled that my son was scared of her and denied yelling (and I later found out that another mom also spoke to the teacher about the exact same thing with the exact same result). I believe my son. He’s an honest kid who has never gotten in trouble and has always loved school and various camps, and for the first time he’s sobbing inconsolably, can’t sleep at night, and saying he’s scared of school all the time. This teacher isn’t new to the school, and I think is well liked and does seem really nice when I interact with her. So, now what? I’ll admit that I tend to be a very involved parent. Do I just need to step back and give this time?

—Trying to Let the Storm Pass

Dear Trying,

Is it reasonable to expect that teachers shouldn’t yell? Yes. Do you need to step back and give this time? Yes again. Kindergarten has barely started, and your son has never been in school before—not like this. I have worked in kindergarten and in preschool, and the difference is pretty stark. Preschool is mostly play-based, creative, and focused on teaching social skills in addition to behavioral expectations that prepare you for kindergarten (like listening to groupwide verbal directions as opposed to individualized directions, or walking in a line, which children don’t typically experience before preschool). Kindergarten is mostly academic-based. Although there’s some leniency for teachers to get creative, they are required to meet all the Common Core state standards, which can be a lot.

I’m not saying your kid’s a liar, but there are lots of possibilities to account for his perception.
His teacher may not be yelling but rather using a loud enough voice to be heard over the noise. She may not be raising her voice at all but speaking in a manner he finds unusually firm. Or maybe she did raise her voice, but there was a valid reason (and perhaps one your child wasn’t aware of or didn’t tell you about).

Sure, there are teachers in the world that yell at kids unfairly. But less than a month into the school year, you don’t really know whether she is yelling out of anger or whether something else is afoot. Keep this situation on your radar. Stay involved and in communication with the teacher. If, a month or two into the school year, your son is still afraid of her, bring it up again. I always recommend parents approach situations like this with an “assume the best” attitude. Try something like, “My son says he’s afraid of you. Could we problem-solve together to figure out why he feels scared and help him adjust to the school environment?”

Also, as a general rule, if you’re admitting aloud that you don’t want to be that parent, then you won’t be (that parent is never aware that they’re being difficult), so I wouldn’t worry too much about being overly pushy. Instead, try to strike a balance that feels right to you between giving the teacher space to do her job and being your son’s advocate.

—Ms. Sarnell

My 9-year-old son is in third grade. His teacher approached me with concerns that he is having trouble paying attention in class—he gets distracted, and he sometimes bothers his seatmates. (She emphasized he’s not being malicious, and that it seems to stem from boredom.) She’s tried changing his seat but still notices he’s talking or playing with his pencil, instead of paying attention.

She’s asked me to talk to him. I’m perfectly happy to do so, but I’m at a loss as to what impact she thinks this will have. He’s an active kid who gets bored easily with things that don’t immediately interest him. He is not ADHD and does not have any other different learning abilities to our knowledge (certainly no one has suggested to us that he should be evaluated for anything). He’s a smart kid who has always done well in school, but this is his first year with an “old-school” style teacher who values the “sit at your desks and let me teach you” style of learning.

I like his teacher a lot. But I’m not sure what I am supposed to do to get him to pay attention when I am not physically there. When I talked to my son about this, he asked to be changed to a different classroom (I told him I don’t have this power). He also told me that he’s spending a lot of effort trying to keep from fidgeting in his chair, as this is something he’ll get called out for in class. I should add that he’s not always the most reliable narrator. What can I do?

—Out of My Control

Dear OoMC,

I agree with you it’s kind of crazy to expect a student’s behavior to change on a long-term basis because his mom spoke to him about the behavior. That is pie-in-the-sky thinking at best. This is not the way to change a student’s behavior.

What I would propose is simple:

Rather than speaking to your son as the teacher requested, propose a meeting with the teacher, your son, and yourself. Engage in an open and frank discussion about the behavioral issues that are taking place in class. As a team:

• Determine the causes of these behavioral issues
• Identify strategies to improve his behavior and guarantee his success
• Create a system of accountability
• Establish a regular line of communication so that all three parties can be informed when positive change occurs or at some predesignated point if change does not happen

I’ve already conducted several of these planning meetings this year, and they work well. The student is made aware that parent and teacher are now linked in a common cause. The student is given an opportunity to propose solutions on his behalf. Oftentimes, the reasons for the behavioral issues are uncovered in this process. Most important, a guarantee is made that as soon as a positive change takes place, I will contact the parents with the good news, and a follow-up meeting is planned in the event that change does not take place.

When teacher, student, and parent work as a team to improve behavior, real change can take place. Otherwise, the teacher is simply passing an impossible problem onto you.

—Mr. Dicks

I’m a teacher myself, and I’m in a situation I honestly don’t know how to deal with. I have a middle school student who has been diagnosed with autism. I’ve been following his IEP. He’s quite intelligent, and capable of doing grade-level work. However, he can be extremely aggressive and rude when he’s displeased about anything. This includes things that happen outside my class, which I may not be aware of until too late. During his episodes, he will yell (often inappropriate things), and become very disruptive. The last time this happened, he broke all of the colored pencils in my pencil box and threw them at me while I was trying to continue teaching. His para left the room to get help, leaving me alone. He threw pencils at me for around five to 10 minutes while I mostly tried to ignore him. By the time “help” arrived, he had “calmed down,” and he was allowed to remain in class.

His behavior was very upsetting and horribly disrespectful, and it seems like the consequences for him are very light. I understand that he has special needs, but it seems as though his teachers are expected to put up with treatment that no one would ever accept in any other circumstances. When I talked to his mother, she seemed more concerned with making excuses than addressing his behavior.

I don’t know what to do. I don’t want things thrown at me while I’m working. What should I do to prevent this? Do I need to talk to administration or special ed? Should I file a police report if he continues to physically harass or threaten me? I want to feel safe at work.

—Concerned Teacher

Dear Concerned,

I’m so, so sorry this happened. That sounds incredibly stressful and demoralizing, and my heart goes out to you.

Given what you’ve described, filing a police report is probably overkill. It doesn’t sound like you are genuinely afraid for your safety but rather frustrated and angry—understandably so—with these disruptive, upsetting episodes. However, this behavior is intolerable and must be addressed immediately.

You should definitely meet with the special education teachers who work with this student, including his case manager. To prepare for this meeting, there are a few things you should do.

First, review the student’s IEP. Does he have a behavior improvement plan? If not, he needs one stat. If he does have a BIP and you’ve been following it, it’s obviously not working for him right now and needs to be adjusted. Sometimes, as students progress through school, they experience new stressors (a transition from elementary to middle school, for example) that require an updated IEP.

Next, do some light research. Review materials about autism and talk with his other teachers. Does he have similar problems in their classes? Or is he more successful? These conversations may help you suss out potential triggers or effective de-escalation strategies.

Finally, document everything. Document the accommodations you’ve provided. Document what you’ve learned from conversations with his other teachers. Document his outbursts. You will bring this documentation to your meeting with the special education department to help demonstrate a need for new accommodations.

When you’re discussing the student, keep the focus on problem solving. You want to help the student be successful. You also have other students in the class whose learning is affected by this student’s disruptions. But be patient—the case manager may need to call a meeting of the child’s IEP team or initiate a functional behavior assessment. In the meantime, they should help you craft a plan for what to do when he becomes combative again. If I were in your shoes, I might strongly request (or even insist) that he leave the classroom with his paraprofessional until he calms down if I’m not satisfied with their response.

The school has an obligation to meet this student’s needs. One of the things he needs is to learn how to deal with frustration in constructive ways. Allowing this behavior to persist will harm him in the long run.

I will be thinking of you! I am hopeful that your colleagues in the special education department will work with you to find a good solution. Please write back and let me know how it goes.

—Ms. Holbrook