Care and Feeding

My Son’s Teacher Caps His Renditions of “Old Town Road” to Three per Day

She’s suppressing his musical spirit!

A child sings loudly as a woman covers her ears.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock, piovesempre/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and HbrH/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 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
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

My 5-year-old son is in kindergarten, and things are going very well overall. We like the teacher a lot, but I have a problem with one of her classroom policies, and I’m not sure how best to address it with her. My son enjoys singing and humming. He almost always sings or hums as he goes about his day. The rule in the classroom is that singing and humming are not allowed during instructional or work times, but they are allowed during both indoor and outdoor free play.

That is all very reasonable, and my son is adjusting well to this rule. The problem is that my son and several of his classmates LOVE the song “Old Town Road.” At home, he sings it all day long. At school, the teacher prohibits the number of times they can sing this particular song. They are only allowed to sing it three times per play period, and the only reason she prohibits them from singing it more is that she hates the song. To me, that seems irrelevant. This is the song that brings the kids joy, the song does not violate any other rules (language, etc.), and he is only singing it during the times when singing is allowed. I don’t see why his singing should be curtailed by her musical taste. I absolutely understand that a kid singing a song you hate 100 times in a row is annoying (I don’t like the song either), but that is the nature of kids. Our job as parents and teachers is to put our personal feelings aside and do what is best for the child. How should I approach her about this?

—Little Singer’s Mom

Dear Little Singer’s Mom,

Your son’s teacher is under no obligation to put her personal feelings aside at all times. She has a right to a workplace that is pleasant and tolerable. Frankly, I think she’s being generous. Listening to a song that you despise once is bad enough. Three is a gift.

If my own child asked me to play a song that I despised while we were driving in the car, I might agree to play the damn thing, but three times? No. It is not a teacher’s job to put aside our personal feelings so that children can live their preferred existence. It’s our job to set limits for children and let them know when their behavior is annoying.

Honestly, I think this teacher is helping your son in the long run. She’s requiring him to expand his musical palette while making him understand that the world will not bend to his cultural preferences. He doesn’t get final say on his environment. Your son will have to contend with authority figures, popular opinion, and societal norms throughout his entire life. Consider this moment a good start.

—Mr. Dicks

My daughter is in seventh grade. She’s an all-around good kid, and she does very well both academically and socially. My husband and I both really like the school system and have been really impressed with almost all of the teaching staff. And that’s where things get tricky. There is one teacher all three of us loathe.

This teacher, unfortunately, teaches the same subject across several grades, meaning that my daughter had her last year and will have her again in both eighth and ninth grade. The subject she teaches is one that my husband is expert in and that I am also extremely familiar with, and it seems clear to both of us that this teacher is either not knowledgeable about the subject or completely incapable of teaching. Additionally, she’s very disorganized and her communication with the class is very haphazard. For example, this week my daughter was told to do an online assignment that the teacher still has not posted to the class website. Last week, she gave the class an assignment on a lesson she “forgot” to teach, a fact which she only realized when the majority of the class did the assignment wrong.

Last year, we encountered similar problems with her, and after repeated emails to the teacher went nowhere, I had a sit-down with the principal, and he assured me he would look into and deal with the situation. Things did get slightly better, but with the new school year it’s back to the same old story. My daughter’s grade in this class has never been lower than an A, but she finds the constant confusion frustrating and has come to hate the class even though it’s a subject she loves and spends a lot of her free time on. I’m not sure if this is something we should grin and bear, or if we should try the principal again (he’s a go along to get along kinda guy), or if we need to escalate to the school board or dean of curriculum.

A bit of extra information: I know this teacher has tenure and so the district feels their hands are tied in dealing with her. I also know that our experience with her is fairly universal and not a new thing–I have friends whose children are now in college who had the same sort of issues with this teacher we are having now. Is there anything we can do?

—Teacher Can’t Teach

Dear Teacher Can’t Teach,

Something stands out to me in your letter: You sent emails to the teacher and were unhappy with the response, so you went directly to the principal. You skipped a step. You should first meet with the teacher in person to share your concerns and frustrations. It’s not too late to do that. For example, “My daughter tells me that she is supposed to do homework, but the assignments are not posted on time. This is causing her a lot of frustration.” Set aside your “loathing” her and try to lend a compassionate ear. I realize you may have sent emails expressing your concerns, but in my experience, a face-to-face conversation is usually more enlightening and productive than an email chain. Please do this before escalating to the principal, dean, or school board.

I’d also like you to stop and consider your desired outcome. Do you want this teacher to improve her organizational skills? Do you want her to improve her pedagogy? Or do you want her to get fired? I get the impression you want the latter, and I don’t want to help you do that.

Look, I know there are bad teachers in the world. Perhaps this teacher really is terrible and should not be teaching. But I think it’s possible she’s overloaded and overwhelmed. Teaching several grade levels at once is extremely challenging. Maybe she would be significantly better with a little help. Unfortunately, teaching is sometimes a lonely profession where everyone is fending for themselves without the support of their colleagues.

Also, I learned early in my career that most people I worked with were there for a reason. While teachers may struggle in one area, they usually excel in another. Is it possible that’s true of this teacher? She’s obviously not your cup of tea, but should she be fired? Are you comfortable putting her through the ringer? Do you really want to go to the lengths it would take to oust her? Is that the best use of your time and energy? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I recommend you reflect on them.

And remember, your daughter’s grade hasn’t suffered as a result of these organizational challenges. This makes me think that the teacher compensates for her mistakes (or your daughter finds a way to excel anyway).

So, how important is this? Yes, it’s frustrating to go to a website and find that the assigned homework hasn’t been posted yet. But what if instead of griping you said, “Looks like you don’t have any homework tonight—let’s play Uno and eat candy!”

I do hope that, for everyone’s sake, you can find a way to cope with this that is productive for all involved.

—Ms. Holbrook

We live in a city in Southern California with a large Chinese community. The majority of my 3-year-old son’s school is Chinese—from his teacher to the head administrator to many of his preschool classmates. As such, the school offers a 6-week Mandarin class directed at students his age.

I am thinking about enrolling him in the class. My husband thinks we would be pushing him to commit to a difficult language at a very young age without knowing if he will like it. He is also concerned that because we don’t speak the language, we won’t be able to help him with his course work. Others have made comments about how my son is going to be confused if we teach him yet another language (my son is already bilingual as we speak English and Farsi at home).

However, I don’t actually care if he commits to learning Chinese. At this age, all I really care about is developing social skills and a love of learning. But whether he becomes fluent or not, I’ve heard that being exposed to languages at this age is valuable even if one doesn’t become fluent. I’ve also heard that kids don’t become confused, and that when they learn one language, they can more easily learn additional languages. Also, my son has shown some interest in learning Chinese, as he often talks about the language and pretends he can read it. I think it would be a nice introduction to a language and culture to which he is already being exposed. If he dislikes it, I wouldn’t hesitate to let him drop out of the class, since it’s not cheap.

Is it worth the investment, or should I wait until he’s a bit older and can better decide if he wants to learn the language?

—Language Overload?

Dear Language Overload,

Here are some facts about multilingualism: First, kids don’t “become confused” when they learn multiple languages. You’ve already seen this with your son learning Farsi at home.

Kids who grow up bi- or even trilingual may appear delayed in any one language, simply because they’re splitting the number of words they know between languages. (For example, an average English-speaking 2-year-old might know 50 words. A bilingual 2-year-old might know 50 words, too—but 25 are English words, and 25 are Farsi.) Interestingly, linguists don’t consider children fluent speakers of one language until the age of 6 or so, because of how long it takes to learn the fundamental rules of language.

Your husband may also be hesitant because he sees your son code-switch, meaning he changes which language he’s using, midconversation or even midsentence. But code-switching is something even monolingual speakers do—my partner likes to tease that when I’m on the phone with my relatives, I “sound more New York” because I’m sliding into a cadence and accent that’s more similar to how people spoke around me when I was growing up. Code-switching is very common with bilingual children, and it’s perfectly normal of your son. Your husband has nothing to worry about there.

Your son is still in what linguists call the sensitive period for language acquisition. This period starts at birth and ends somewhere between age 5 and puberty, depending on which research you look at (that sounds like a big range, I know, but there are so many mysteries in this area of brain development!). During this period, your brain is able to absorb language like a native speaker. After this period, you can become fluent, but you will never be a native speaker.

Because he is still in his sensitive period, your son is poised to pick up language skills very easily. Studies show that being multilingual is linked to higher executive functioning, better analytic and social skills, and a number of benefits in academic settings. Your son, already bilingual, may see diminishing returns on these benefits by adding a third language, but it certainly can’t hurt.

Given all this, it should be obvious what my advice is: send your son to the class. At worst, it won’t cause him any language problems and will satisfy his natural curiosity. At best, it may improve his academics and benefit him socially by giving him extra time with his peers.

—Ms. Sarnell

I am an eighth grade ELA teacher, and I’m also mom to a passionate, strong-willed, gifted, 10-year-old daughter who has an IEP for speech, ADHD, and some mild anxiety. She’s struggled with how to cope with her feelings in situations that feel out of her control, and she has periods where she hates school.

When she first started school, she often got in trouble until her second grade teacher screened her for the gifted program, for which she qualified. Joining the gifted program was a game-changer for her, and third grade was no more eventful than semiregular struggles to engage and complete her math homework.

This year started out great, but lately it’s felt like a step backward. We’ve gotten multiple weekly reports of my daughter “struggling” to complete her work or stay on task and responding rudely to the teacher and/or classmates. When she hasn’t completed her activities, she hasn’t been permitted to attend her gifted program until she’s finished the task at hand. In some instances, the frustration she experienced from the disruption to her morning routine would lead her to snap at the person talking to her (“I wasn’t talking!” to the teacher when she felt wrongly accused, and “Shut up” to a classmate who butted in). In these latter cases, we have listened to our child and advised her on how to better handle self-advocacy or an annoying classmate. While she seems to be handling things better with her classmates, she feels she can’t advocate for herself with her teacher without getting in trouble.

For me, that’s a problem. I realize my child’s behaviors can be disruptive to the classroom, but it concerns me that a student fears reprisal for calmly telling her teacher why she’s upset and asking for help. I don’t know how much of the situation is my child’s perspective or reality in her classroom. At her parent-teacher conference, we talked a bit about how important her morning routine is to her, and the teacher agreed that her gifted minutes would be respected. I felt this would solve a lot of issues. We started to discuss other issues she’s having, such as how to help her keep up in class on the days that she misses class for speech, but there was not enough time and I felt rushed out the door.

I’m wondering how to handle any of these issues—disruption to her routine, feeling behind because of speech—without being that mom who pits her expertise as parent and educator against a fellow teacher (I teach at another school). That aggressive “do it my way” approach has been sent my way before, and it never feels good. It goes against my belief that teachers and parents have to be a team. I also feel like because my child is smart, she’s being left to figure things out on her own and labeled noncompliant when a couple of small tweaks would prevent the frustrations altogether. I also don’t feel like her teacher listened to me, and I don’t feel like her time in the gifted program or IEP-related needs are being respected. How do I advocate for my child, support her needs, and get my colleague to listen to her without becoming the know-it-all teacher?

—I Want to Be a Good Mom, but Not *That* Teacher Mom

Dear Want to Be a Good Mom,

I truly appreciate your desire to establish a positive, respectful relationship with your daughter’s teacher. I completely understand where you’re coming from! I’d like to address several points you raised in your letter.

The teacher agreed to respect your daughter’s time in the gifted program, and you believed this would solve a lot of the issues. Follow up on this: Is the teacher ensuring that your daughter makes it to her GT program? If the answer is no, then I think you do need to advocate for your daughter’s rights as defined in her IEP. As you know, an IEP is not a list of optional recommendations—it’s a set of legally mandated accommodations that teachers must provide. You’re not out of bounds here.

If your daughter has been faithfully attending the GT program, has her behavior improved? If not, I think you should schedule a follow-up meeting or a phone conversation with the teacher to problem-solve. You felt rushed during your most recent conference; this may be because the teacher wanted to shoo you out the door, or it may have been that she had a lot of conferences to get through and needed to stay on schedule. Either way, the goal here is for you to help both your daughter and the teacher. Teachers don’t like having conflicts with students, so ultimately a follow-up could benefit everyone.

The way you can avoid coming across as “that mom” is to listen. Be open to the teacher’s point of view, because she is spending time with your daughter when you are not there and will therefore have a valuable perspective. Of course, you are the expert on your daughter and can also offer critical insight, which you should do in a spirit of collaboration. Be assertive rather than aggressive. You can advocate for your daughter’s needs while demonstrating respect for her teacher as a professional.

Also, don’t forget you can utilize your daughter’s IEP case manager as a resource. That person can help with communication as well as ensuring her needs are met. Your letter also says “we have listened to our daughter and advised her,” so it sounds like you have a spouse or co-parent in the mix. Perhaps they can take the reins? There have been times when I’ve asked my husband to address issues involving the school, and I know other teacher parents who’ve done the same. Asking for help from others can potentially mitigate your fear of becoming an overbearing “teacher mom.” It’s not all on you!

Ultimately, your primary responsibility is to your daughter. If you find yourself wondering what to do, ask yourself, “What’s best for my kid?” Then do that. I would do the same.

—Ms. Holbrook

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