Care and Feeding

Do the Right Thing?

A boy at my daughter’s school openly mocked transgender people, and no one said a thing. Should I?

Photo illustration of a shrugging person.
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:
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York

It was recently homecoming week at my daughter’s high school, and each day had a theme for students who chose to dress accordingly. Tuesday was “-er” day—as in “painter, teacher, lawyer, doctor … ”—and a male student chose to come “dressed as” a transgender female. (This was not his way of coming out; it was specifically done for laughs.) Not only was he not reprimanded or made to change his clothes, apparently some of the teachers thought it was funny. Tell me about the pros and cons of complaining to the school. At this point it’s done, and I wouldn’t be advocating for punishing this kid, but rather pointing out how offensive and insulting this must have been to transgender students at the school, and that he shouldn’t have been allowed to spend the day dressed as he was. Should I address it, and if so, how?

—A MothER

Dear A MothER,

Pros: It’s the right thing to do to protect trans students in the high school, and there is obviously great value in doing the right thing, regardless of what the school’s stance is.

Cons: If the staff didn’t see how this boy’s costume was offensive, they may not understand your complaint; even if they understand your complaint, they may not do anything about it.

Personally, I would say something, but I have spent my life in major metropolitan areas where the majority of the population is pro–LGBT rights. I’m grateful that I’ve only ever worked at one school where there was even a chance they wouldn’t understand why that was offensive. I don’t know where you live or what the community as a whole is like, but I can imagine that if you live somewhere deeply conservative, you may be hesitant to bring it up. That’s a call you need to make based on how comfortable you are sticking your neck out. Not everyone feels comfortable doing that, and I think that’s OK.

If you decide to approach it, here is what I would do: I would bring it up to an administrator or teacher with whom you’re fairly comfortable, hopefully someone you know pretty well. I would state your concern as clearly as possible. You could say something to the effect of: “I heard this happened, and I am worried that it may have hurt or offended trans students. I’m not asking for this boy to be punished, but I am wondering if there is a way that the school can intervene to create a safer environment for trans students?”

If there’s not a particular teacher or administrator you can talk to, the PTA is also an option if your school has one. The head of the PTA would, one hopes, have a close relationship with the principal, or other administrators, and be in a position to work with the school on how to handle this situation. It’s tough to say that you forbid kids from “dressing up as” a different gender because that rule can be interpreted as a ban on exploring gender expression. Rather, the school should take an approach that makes clear that gender expression is not a joke.

My sister, who works at a private high school, shared this story: Every year on the first day of class, she asks the students what they want to be called. This is done both for students who no longer identify as the gender on their official paperwork (the school has a policy for changing that, but it is long and slow), but also for students who have a nickname they prefer that isn’t on official documentation.

One of the boys in her class—who, for the purpose of this story, we’ll say was named Joe on his documentation—said he preferred to be called Bob. He said this as a joke, and all his peers in the class laughed accordingly. My sister did not treat it as such, said, “OK,” and wrote it down. She then called him Bob for months, until he acknowledged to her it had been a joke and asked to be called Joe again. My sister said “OK” and resumed calling him Joe. It didn’t matter that both Joe and Bob are traditionally boys’ names and that there was no clear reason for Joe to ask to be called Bob. The point is that she did not treat his act of self-naming or self-identifying as a joke, and no student has attempted to make a joke like that since. Students who have the legitimate desire to be called by a different name have continued to share that information with her because she created a safe space for students.

It sounds like your daughter’s school has some work to do to ensure safe spaces for trans students, including changing policies and possibly doing some sort of sensitivity training to address the views of teachers who might be contributing to this hostile environment. That’s not something you can control. But you can point out to the school its shortcomings—in whatever way you’re comfortable doing—and hope that the school responds appropriately.

—Ms. Sarnell

I work in higher education, and I frequently get emails from undergrads that begin “Dear Mrs.
Last-Name.” I’m married but have kept my own name, so the Mrs. thing feels particularly weird to me. But I was always taught—by my not-especially-progressive parents, I might add—that Mrs. is a social title and that Ms. is a professional one. My marital status is of interest to the people sending me wedding invitations, not to a bunch of college freshmen. This Mrs. thing feels regressive and like an inappropriate habit for students to carry into the workplace.

But my several dear friends who teach K-12 all call themselves “Mrs. Their-Name” in their classrooms. Since teachers are likely among the few adults that students encounter who use titles, it seems like they’re a likely source for this persistent address form. Should I bring this up with my friends? Or am I being a bit of a crank? I am sometimes a bit of a crank.

—Call Me By My Name

Dear Call Me By My Name,

You’re being a bit of a crank, but it takes one to know one. The first day of every school year, I write on the board:

Miss = unmarried

Mrs. = married

Ms. = none of your business

And then I point to my name: Ms. Scott.

I tell them, “It’s ‘Ms.,’ and my name has two Ts, not two Os.” Here I put on a cartoon sad-face.
“Please don’t call me ‘Mrs. Scoot.’ ” That usually makes them laugh.

If they write “Mrs.” in an email, I correct them in my response with a winky-face emoticon. If they do it again, I usually just let it go.

But that’s me. My choice. People have the right to be called what they want, and they can make a fuss if they want. I worked with a guy for seven years who would misspell our students’ names or mispronounce them during the end-of-year awards ceremony. It drove me bananas—you had all year, man!—because that’s the kid’s name, their identity. But when I’d ask the kids why they didn’t correct him, some of them said simply, “I don’t really care.” If a grown woman doesn’t care if she’s a Ms. or a Mrs., or if she wants to use her husband’s last name, she has every right to insist, or not, as she chooses.

That being said, you’re correct that professional titles are slightly different. You wouldn’t call your doctor or your senator “Mrs.” So why do we call teachers “Mrs.”?

Tradition.

I.e., patriarchy.

Sigh.

Do you want to challenge that tradition? Is it important to you to disrupt the patriarchy? If so, sure, bring it up with your friends. But be careful not to lecture them about “Ms.” being a professional title. I’d take a curious tone: “I’ve noticed that some married female teachers go by ‘Ms.’ and some go by ‘Mrs.’ How do people choose which to use?”

No matter how they answer, let them use the name they want. Don’t debate them.

(You didn’t ask about this, but those higher-education students? I’d definitely debate them. They’re the ones who will smash the patriarchy.)

—Ms. Scott

I am raising my three nieces. I love them, they are the center of my world, and though it’s been a bumpy road, they are now thriving. None of the kids ever experienced physical abuse, but they all suffered from neglect, are in therapy (individual and family), have been receiving educational intervention all summer to catch them up to their grade levels, and they have weekly tutoring as well.

My older two nieces are school-age and started at a new school this year—the middle one is in kindergarten, and her older sister is in second grade. Middle niece is a chatterbox and has apparently been telling everyone and anyone that she has a mommy with a sick brain and lives with her auntie.

Word apparently spread through the teacher grapevine, and older niece’s second grade teacher contacted me for a parent meeting. At the meeting she told me that she needed detailed information about her students’ family life, and she asked me point-blank why I had custody.

I was really taken aback but assumed she may be concerned about signs of abuse so I explained I have 100 percent custody, and that there has been no physical or sexual abuse to anyone’s knowledge. The teacher continued to press me for details about what exactly happened, but I became uncomfortable because I want to protect my sister’s privacy. I did explain that my nieces were neglected and gave in-depth info on the emotional and educational intervention they’ve had since (the educational intervention plan was also given to both teachers during a conference in August), but not the neglect itself. I did ask if the teacher was seeing anything concerning with my niece, and she told me that my niece is doing great.

Since the meeting, this teacher has called me twice asking for more info about the neglect. She’s also flat-out asked for my sister’s medical diagnosis. During the last phone call, I asked for a joint meeting with the school guidance counselor to discuss how we can all best help my niece (who still appears to be doing great and recently tested almost-average for her grade level!). The truth is, I’m uncomfortable and think this has crossed the line from “necessary” to “gossipy.”

The teacher was offended by my suggestion and lectured me that she can’t help my niece unless she knows everything, and that I need to understand this. She refused to have a meeting with the counselor, explaining that this is not part of the counselor’s job.

I have since heard from the kindergarten teacher that second grade teacher has been sharing info with other teachers. I can’t see a reason to do so, and I continue to be uncomfortable. Am I being too sensitive? Is this normal? Who should I talk to, or should I let this go? I am happy with both nieces’ academic experience so far, and I don’t want that disrupted. They need stability more than I need to be comfortable.

—Worried Guardian

Dear Worried Guardian,

I’m going to give these teachers the benefit of the doubt and assume their intentions are good, but these requests are both outrageous and inappropriate. You are absolutely correct in protecting your sister’s privacy, and you have the right to protect the privacy of your nieces, too. Even if your nieces were struggling, you are well within your rights to protect any private information that you do not feel comfortable sharing.

I would respond directly and firmly to the teacher: “No, I’m not going to reveal details about my nieces’ neglect. I’m going to exercise my right to privacy on behalf of my sister and my nieces. I’m also going to exercise my right to tell you to stop pressing me for this information, as I am not legally required to provide it.”

It’s also ridiculous to suggest that a teacher needs to know everything about a child in order to be an effective teacher. I assure you that there are many aspects of many children’s lives to which teachers are not privy, and yet their teachers can still be highly effective.

I can’t begin to imagine what this teacher is thinking.

If the teacher continues to pressure you even one more time after you draw the line, I would ask an administrator for assistance.

—Mr. Dicks

I have a seventh grade daughter who is struggling in school. She’s doing great on tests and quizzes, but she’s failing to complete many assignments in class or outside of school, which has affected her grades such that she’s on track to receive 2 Fs, a D-, and a B. I’m trying to help her focus and get her work done, but it’s a struggle every night.

My problem is that she has significant medical issues, including a chronic illness that is poorly managed and can have cognitive as well as life-threatening physical effects. For years, I’ve been trying to get her to control it better, but it’s a constant stressor on her and on me, and she’s not cooperative. I hate the idea that homework has to be another battleground for us when we already have this routine clash over her medical care.

Is it wrong of me to decide that the homework question can wait a few years (and why, in middle school, is two-thirds of her grade homework-based?)? And if so, how can I approach it in a way that doesn’t leave us both frustrated and unhappy?

—Health Is More Important Than Grades

Dear HIMITG,

I’m so sorry you’re struggling through this with your daughter right now. First, I want to affirm that you are far from the only parent whose chronically ill child is resistant to managing their health condition and to their parent’s attempts to intervene. I’ve had a few families grappling with situations like yours come through my classroom, and what you’re going through is painful and scary and maddening and consuming. My heart goes out to you.

Second, I want to suggest that you shift your perspective on where to begin in getting some relief from this stressful, untenable state of affairs. Homework is one tree in the forest of your daughter’s overall health, happiness, and success in and out of school. I’m going to refer you back to the advice I gave this parent because my take on your situation is the same: Your daughter needs a 504 plan, and she needs it, like, yesterday. You should not be taking this on alone; you need a plan and a team to support you. Call an administrator, your school’s special education coordinator, or the school nurse. Explain your concerns, and ask to initiate the development of a 504 plan. Call back and follow up as many times as it takes (and it might take a few—it’s a bureaucratic process that requires lots of communication and coordination between multiple people, all of whom probably mean well but are spread very thin).

Once you bring your daughter’s diagnosis and its attendant difficulties to light in a meeting, the next step will be developing accommodations and modifications to help her. Reduced homework load may well be one of those, but so might supports like regular counseling sessions with the social worker or check-ins with the school nurse; developing her coping skills and encouraging her mental health may be beneficial to alleviating the tension around homework.

Health definitely is more important than grades, but there should be more options than choosing between the two. Good luck.

—Ms. Bauer

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