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 email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
My daughter is a sophomore in high school, and I recently attended her back-to-school night. She has always loved English, and she is an avid reader and creative writer. She really likes her advanced English teacher this year—a middle-aged man who has been at the school for over two decades. She was eager for me to meet him at back-to-school night and told me she thought I’d like him a lot as well.
I enjoyed meeting her English teacher that night, until the last minute of his presentation. He seemed down-to-earth, funny, and thoughtful about what he was trying to accomplish with the books he has assigned this semester. But then a woman behind me raised her hand and said that she noticed all the works this semester are by male authors (Shakespeare, Salinger, etc.) and asked whether he would be teaching any works by women during the year. His response? “Yes, this semester there are dead white males all over the place.” Everyone laughed. “I’d really like to teach women authors, of course, but they’re hard to find. I keep reading works by women to find something to teach, and I’ll think I have one, but then I get to a passage and think, ‘Whoa, I’d get arrested if I taught this.’ Either that or they’re just not complex enough. So, I’m reading some things now that might work out, and I hope they do. We’ll see. I’ll let you know.”
My jaw dropped. There was no time to respond because the bell rang to indicate our session with him was over. I am appalled by this statement, and I’m paralyzed about what tone to take when I address the situation. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and mute my outrage, as I express that I am “trying to better understand” their position, but in this case I don’t think I can pull that off with any sincerity.
I have considered taking his statement at face value by providing a list of the many female authors whose work is neither pornographic nor insufficiently complex—Edith Wharton, George Eliot, Zora Neale Hurston, Louise Erdrich, Amy Tan, Margaret Atwood, Sandra Cisneros, Ursula K. Le Guin, Virginia Woolf, the Brontë sisters (I could go on and on and on … ).
I resent the idea of spending any time trying to phrase my concerns in a way that won’t alienate the teacher or cause him to treat my daughter differently. He is completely out of line, and I also worry this sexist stance toward female writers means he has the same stance toward the girls in his classes as well.
How do you think I should communicate about this situation with the teacher, the principal, and my daughter?
Jesus, take the wheel! Whew. OK. I see two related but distinct problems here. The first and far more correctable is the content of the teacher’s curriculum. The overreliance on the dead white guys of Ye Olde Vaunted Literary Canon is an issue endemic to high school English courses, one that many teachers are working to rectify. Fortunately, as you note, there are myriad beautifully crafted, thematically rich works that also represent a diverse range of voices and perspectives.
Buuuuuuut that brings us to the second, much less fixable problem: the mindset driving this man’s instructional decisions. Your daughter’s teacher is funny, likable, down-to-earth, an experienced veteran of his profession. He builds positive relationships with his students and speaks thoughtfully about his work. He is also a misogynist. (One of the unsettling features of life as a woman: interacting with people whose many positive traits exist harmoniously with a demonstrated inability to recognize you as fully human.) In his comments, this teacher revealed that:
1. He is self-aware and savvy enough to know that an English curriculum built entirely around the works of “dead white males” is no longer acceptable as a relevant or adequate exploration of literature, but unfortunately,
2. He either does not trust himself to address any sexual content written by women without becoming dangerously inappropriate, or he believes that his students are a liability—land mines he must step around—and that permitting any such content in the classroom could invite a random explosion of false accusations. (So thank God for that old prude Shakespeare!) Furthermore,
3. He fundamentally does not recognize the intellectual equality of women. There is no other explanation—none—for classifying every female author he has ever read as too simplistic or too gratuitous to be studied in his class.
You’re right: You don’t need to entertain the farce that this veteran English teacher is trying his level best to find one teachable book written by anyone other than a white man and simply can’t. I think you’ve got a few options for how to craft your approach without indulging his premise. First, do you know the woman who posed the question in his classroom? Her thinking clearly seems aligned with yours; if you can, reach out and see if she’d be amenable to working with you to address this. Two angry women on the same page about what they heard aren’t as easy to dismiss or patronize as one is, and I think you might see more impact by teaming up.
As for how you address it, I’m going to suggest two options, one more tempered and one no-holds-barred. One of the most stalwart themes of this column is “when you have a problem, go to the teacher first,” but not this time. I don’t think it will work, and I don’t want you to subject yourself to the discomfort and anxiety that will come from sitting down with this guy and attempting to explain his misogyny to him. So, the more tempered option: Start by requesting to meet with the principal to explain your concerns. This option is less confrontational and may feel more comfortable to you. The drawback is that any resolution will probably happen behind closed doors, and you won’t get to hear the way your concerns are framed and addressed with the teacher. It may all feel vague and unsatisfying in the end. The more escalated, direct approach would be to request a meeting with the teacher and the principal simultaneously. In this scenario, you’d be able to provide your own firsthand account of the teacher’s comments, and you can bear witness to how it’s addressed (and then continue to push back if you sense a brushoff).
Whichever option you choose, I’d start with a brief, factual email requesting an in-person meeting to discuss your concerns about the curriculum. As for your tone during the meeting, I’d try for what you might call “uncompromising.” Repeat the question that was posed, repeat his response as close to verbatim as you can, and then lay out the problems: He seemed to be treating the idea of diversifying his curriculum as a lark he hopes to get around to someday rather than an imperative; he, by his own admission, cannot find educational merit in any book he’s ever read written by a woman (or a person of color), and there are all sorts of issues that admission belies; you’re gravely worried about the implications of his mindset on the young people in his classroom.
I think you can reasonably hope that the teacher’s curriculum will change as a result of this meeting. The school district is not going to want to defend his indefensible position, so I suspect that he’ll suddenly discover the existence of a suitable book after all. But I don’t think you can reasonably hope that his perspective will change. Maybe a guy who confidently acknowledged the catastrophic smallness of his mind will be reflective enough to hear you and to grow. Maybe he’ll develop an interest in women’s voices and the capacity to teach Toni Morrison or Jesmyn Ward with the empathy and nuance they deserve. But … probably not.
So where does that leave you? How do you cope with the fact that a sexist man is teaching your daughter? How does she? I mean … I don’t know. I can tell you that when I was in high school, I had a U.S. history teacher whom I loved and respected—an I’m-a-Cool-Teacher teacher of the highest order. When the senior prom rolled around, I decided to wear a dress that was a big step outside my usual band-geek-home-from-Denny’s-by-10 aesthetic—bright red with a plunging halter neckline. My date had Cool Teacher as well, and on the first day back at school after the prom, friends in my date’s class told me that Cool Teacher began class as usual: shooting the shit about his students’ personal lives. This time, the topic was my prom dress and how scandalous it was. “Did you manage to look into her eyes at all?” he asked my date with a wink. “I tried, but it was basically impossible,” my date snickered back.
I went home and told my mom, and my mom took action. She met with the teacher. She met with the principal. She did not give him the benefit of the doubt; she told him exactly what he’d done and why it was wrong. There wasn’t much observable change, and I can’t say if the teacher learned anything from it. But I can tell you that I did. I was 17, and I watched my mom go to bat for me, and I learned something about what was OK and what was not. What I deserved and what I did not have to accept. It informed the way I went forward in the world. You may not be able to change this teacher. You probably won’t, actually. But you do have the chance to change your daughter, and I think that’s worth it.
At the start of every school year, I wind up talking to my kids in some way or another about how important it is to make a good first impression on their new teachers, through things like their summer homework, their behavior, and their organization.
But I wonder: Do these things even matter? How much of your opinion of students is formed before school starts, based on what previous teachers have said about your kids? How much information do teachers pass down to the child’s next teacher? I guess I’m just curious how much stock you put into the information that’s given to you, versus the opinion you form of each kid yourself.
—Looking for the Inside Scoop
Great question. Honestly, I think it depends on what grade your kiddo is in as well as their teacher. In my case, I teach second grade, and I never use feedback from a previous teacher to inform my opinion of a child before I have met them. These students are in the midst of so much growth—emotionally and academically—that a teacher’s experience with Tommy when he was 6 is bound to be at least somewhat different when he’s 7. I believe that lower primary teachers feel similarly given how young our students are. And I’d like to believe that even if I taught children at a higher grade, I still wouldn’t judge a student based on my first impression.
That said, I still think there’s value in what you’re telling your children. Honing these skills does matter in the long run for your child’s personal development. The things you mention are generally good traits to possess.
You’re also right that while I don’t expect these things of my students on the first day of school, having many students who are well-organized, well-behaved, and prepared can also make a teacher’s job easier. If I have to spend time reteaching routines and organizational expectations to everyone, it slows down our learning. We teachers certainly appreciate anything parents do to allow us to hit the ground running. I would continue to push your child to appreciate these traits, and I think their teachers will naturally appreciate them as well.
I’ve worked in education for 15 years, and I’m seeing an increase in a problem with parents that I don’t know how to address. I’d love your thoughts. In the past few years, I’ve seen a growing trend of parents accusing me of lying when I address their child’s behavioral issues. I always try to put building relationships with students and their parents at the forefront of everything I do. When dealing with serious conduct issues, I always try to include the parents so we can plan our next steps as a team.
In the past couple of years, however, rather than being concerned about the child’s behavior and wanting to work with me to help understand it and correct it, I’ve had multiple parents immediately have the knee-jerk reaction that I’m lying. In one instance, a student used blatantly racist language in class. After speaking with her, I phoned her mother to talk through the situation. I’d always had a great relationship with the mother until that point, and I’d frequently contacted her to tell her the wonderful things her daughter had done in class. The moment that I described the racist language incident, her mother became angry, accused me of lying, said I only see the bad in kids, and suggested I should be fired.
If this were an isolated incident, I’d take it in stride, but several other parents last year accused me of lying when I tried to talk to them about conduct issues, most of them minor like using a cellphone in class or being tardy. My principal and colleagues are always very complimentary of my work, and I don’t feel like I’m a bad teacher. Is this a new trend? How do you keep the conversation going with someone who refuses to believe her child has engaged in a specific behavior?
—I’m No Liar, Liar
Dear Liar, Liar
Yeah, parents have gotten squirrely about discipline. For many teachers these days, it can feel like parents are adversaries rather than allies, which makes no sense. We both want the same thing for the child—a good education.
It’s not just teachers, though. Just this week, Slate advice columnist Nicole Cliffe answered a letter from a dad who was outraged that a waitress reprimanded his son for roaming in a restaurant because it was his job and his job only to discipline his son. (Insert scream emoji here.)
And parents seem to have stopped parenting each other’s kids like they used to, I guess out of fear of offending them. At the children’s museum a few weeks ago, my toddler was standing next to a little girl, their backs to me. I was 20 feet away, watching. The girl’s dad turned around to me and said, “He’s pushing.” I said I was sorry and took my son off to have a talk, but what I should’ve said was “Tell him to stop.” If my kid is being a jerk, you, Other Parent, are allowed to tell him to stop. Are our egos so fragile that we can’t handle someone else correcting our kids’ behavior in our stead? I guess so.
So, what to do?
First, if you can, tell yourself this isn’t about you. You’re building relationships with these parents and telling them the truth. This is about these parents’ own insecurities.
Second, I read recently that one of the things folks learn in foster parenting courses is “connection before correction.” Isn’t that great? I think it applies to parenting, teaching, and communicating effectively with just about everybody. It’s a way to get the hackles down. You wrote that you did have connections with these parents before, but maybe they need more—more phone calls, emails, postcards. (At the beginning of each school year, make sure to ask the previous year’s teachers which parents have a history of being difficult so you can offer extra positive outreach.)
Or perhaps, on the bad-news phone call they may need to hear something positive first. “First, I want you to know Jane got 97 on her test today, so that’s great, but she also said something disturbing and I wanted to talk to you about it,” or: “What I love about Joe is he’s so kind to his classmates [share example here]. I’ve noticed he’s been tardy three times in the past two weeks and wanted to make sure you knew that was happening.”
Let me conclude by saying that social media has made the proliferation of negative attitudes toward teachers very easy and quick. It’s possible that one parent last year shared on a school or grade-level Facebook page that she thought you were lying and people are piling on because of it. How do we combat that? I have no idea. Good luck.
I’ve noticed anecdotally that most of my friends’ high school– and college-age daughters are smart, ambitious, and highly successful in their student or entry-level professional careers. A lot of the boys, on the other hand, seem to be … aimless. More than a few of these young men are content to reside in their parents’ homes well after graduation, fulfilling the bare minimum of expectations and subsisting on practically no income.
I realize that this is a topic that’s been broached by others and has generated a lot of strong feelings. But I was intrigued by a question in your recent column about a sixth grade girl who was expected to provide a calming influence on problematic male classmates. It occurred to me that a panel of teachers was a great place to pose a larger question about the current state of gender issues in educational settings.
So, what do you think? Does it just seem like girls are eclipsing boys in general because they have only recently been afforded the same advantages? Or is it possible that our educational institutions may have gone a bit too far in the past 20 years and overpromoted girls’ interests at the expense of boys’?
—Pink vs. Blue
Apparently young men are indeed somewhat more likely to be living at home than young women. Women are also attaining higher levels of education than men. However, I subscribe to the theory that young women need to work much harder to make less money than their male peers, particularly if they are black or Hispanic.
Schools are a reflection of our larger society, and so they do play a role in perpetuating gender and racial discrimination. As a teacher, I need to be cognizant of my responsibility to disrupt these patterns in my classroom. But I’m not convinced that schools are to blame for your friends’ sons living at home and mooching off their parents; I’m also not convinced that, in the long run, these young men will suffer that much. Judging from your letter, you are surprised by their lack of ambition and disappointed that they are underachieving. In other words, they’re slackers. It would be terrible if they all wound up living under a bridge, but I doubt that’s what’s going to happen.
I’m much more concerned about the students who never finish high school, especially those who don’t have parents affluent enough to support them well into adulthood. They fare far worse in today’s world.
And I’d like to see women’s higher gains in educational attainment translate into gender parity in corporate boardrooms, Congress, and all the other places where important decisions are made.
More Care and Feeding
My child’s teacher has sent out a survey asking for feedback on her performance. That would be fine if she were great. But she’s terrible. Should I be honest?