Care and Feeding

Double Duty as a Dentist

A teacher pulled out my son’s front teeth. I’m grossed out and mourning my son’s adorable baby face.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by OGI75/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 askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

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This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington

Enjoy special holiday content from our Care and Feeding columnists, including a gift guide of classic toys for children of every age from Nicole Cliffe, coping strategies to survive the holidays from Jamilah Lemieux, and educational (but fun!) kid gift ideas from Ask a Teacher columnist Carrie Bauer.

I could use a little guidance. A teacher at my kid’s school pulled his two front teeth and sent them home in a plastic bag.

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This week, my first grader had his two front teeth adorably crooked and very nearly falling out spontaneously. I wanted to get a good picture of them before they fell out, but when he got home, he was toothless. He presented them to me in a bag and said a teacher (not his own teacher, but another teacher he knew) pulled them out. He said he bled a little but it didn’t hurt. He never admits to pain.

He didn’t seem too upset about it. My husband was incensed and wants to escalate this. On the one hand, the teeth were going to fall out eventually. But I’m sad that I didn’t get a picture. I’m also shocked that some adult would do this to my kid, or any kid. I would understand if my kid’s teeth were some disruptive distraction to the class, but he’s a quiet guy.

Should we demand an apology? Or just let it go? Should we say something so that this man, or any other adult at school, doesn’t go around extracting children’s teeth?

—Tooth Wary

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Dear Tooth Wary,

You’re not the first to encounter a teacher who pulls the loose teeth out of children’s heads. Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve met quite a few of these amateur dentists. These unscheduled dental extractions happen more often than you’d think.

That said, I don’t support this one bit.

First off, there is no conceivable situation in which your child’s teeth could become a disruption to the class. Your son might’ve been complaining about his loose teeth, thus sending this would-be dentist into action, but if a teacher or school nurse were about to permanently separate my son or daughter from a tiny bit of their bodies, I would at the very least expect a phone call.

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It’s not unreasonable to think that no matter how minor and ultimately insignificant the removal of a loose tooth might be that a parent should be asked first. When adults fish around in the mouths of other human beings—particularly those incapable of offering consent—some kind of permission should be attained.

Frankly, even with permission, it probably shouldn’t be happening at school. Teachers are not dentists. Teeth are designed to fall out by themselves. And teachers have more than enough to do in the course of a school day without adding tooth extraction to the list.

Would I demand an apology from this teacher? No. Demanding an apology is an excellent way of strong-arming a person into insincerity, and an apology won’t restore your son’s teeth. But I would tell the teacher how you feel and suggest that the next time he feels inclined to pull something other than a multiplication fact out of a child’s head that he get permission first.

Or perhaps you might suggest that he stop this practice altogether. It’s just weird for grown-ass adults to pull teeth from children who aren’t their own.

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—Mr. Dicks

I have identical twin daughters in second grade. Since pre-K, we have asked (or the school and teachers have requested) that our girls be put in separate classrooms so that they can be seen as individuals and learn at their own pace without comparisons.

They attend a small school with only two second grade classrooms. This year, some of the instruction (literacy and math) is being done in small groups based on assessments with some kids from both classes combined. My girls are in the same small group and receive some instruction from both teachers and aides. The classes are also together regularly for lunch, recess, and occasional projects. This seems to work well. Both of my daughters love school and their teachers, and the teachers report things are going well.

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Here is my concern: Each quarter, the school sends home progress reports. When I reviewed my daughters, I found several places where they confused the two. For example, they discussed one’s work on a certain project that I know only her twin completed, or complimented one’s handwriting when I know they meant her sister (this daughter has many gifts, but neat handwriting is not one). They also incorrectly attributed absences (only one was sick) and included a photo on the cover of one of the reports that was actually of her sister.

I’m trying not to freak out. These reports seem like a burden to complete and I know these teachers are caring and engaged educators. But this also plays into some real fears of mine as a twin parent. Not a day goes by when my girls do not get called by each other’s names by friends and others, but I had hoped that things would be different from their teachers. What should I do?

—Trouble for My Doubles

Dear Trouble for My Doubles,

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When I was pregnant with my twins, a guy I knew at the gym said that having twins cemented his parenting philosophy. He said, “From the day they were born, they were so clearly different, so obviously who they are, that I realized I could teach them to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ but any notion I had about molding them beyond that was pretty much out the window.”

His twins and mine are fraternal, but I’ve heard the same thing from parents of identical twins—they couldn’t be more different! In addition, I’ve taught many sets of identical twins over the decades, and I find that by halfway through the year I can’t believe I ever mistook the two for each other.

But I do mistake them. Sometimes for a while. And I need to be corrected.

Your daughters’ teachers need to be corrected too, first because your daughters are different people and deserve to be known as individuals, but also because these mistakes are showing up on official documentation from the school. As far as I know, progress reports are not considered legal documents, unless they’re part of an individualized education program, but they still need to be as accurate as possible for the sake of your children’s education. Imagine a doctor diagnosing a patient and recording it in the chart of their twin. Teachers’ decisions are not life-or-death, but reading an inaccurate assessment of a student would certainly hinder my plan of instruction for that kid. (Attendance records may well be legal documents, since they affect funding, but I’m not sure.)

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I recommend sending an email or having a conference, whichever you’re more comfortable with, and saying what you did in your letter above. Maybe acknowledge that it’s natural for folks outside the family to mistake the twins, but express your desire that they be treated like the individuals they are. If you want, ask if there’s anything you can do to help the teachers distinguish them. Different colored hair bands or bracelets?

I think the teachers will get there, but it’s absolutely within the realm of what’s appropriate for you to point out their mistakes at this point.

—Ms. Scott

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My question is about day care versus Montessori school for my toddler. My 13-month-old has been at a local day care for the past five months. It’s a KinderCare, and overall it has been a good experience. My son still cries at drop-off, but his classroom is well organized and his teachers are very caring. It’s a very large day care, and sometimes it feels like it lacks some direction in its lessons. But they do follow a curriculum, and he seems to do art projects every day.

There is a spot available for him at a local Montessori school that he could take when he’s 16 months old. The school is very special and several friends of ours have kids there and love it. What’s the problem? It’s more expensive. The hours are shorter than we require. And there are many more days when the school is closed. I’m a medical resident with almost no flexibility.
My husband works full time (and we can’t afford for him to work less right now). Our current day care is open from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and our baby is often there from 7:30 to 6. The Montessori school is 7:30 to 5:30 and that’s with added morning and aftercare. There are many days off on the Montessori school’s academic calendar, which in addition to all of the days when our baby is sick, will amount to a large number of days that my husband has to miss work, or we have to hire an emergency babysitter (which of course means more money).

The answer seems easy—keep him in day care, it’s fine, he won’t remember it! But I’m finding myself belaboring the decision. I think I’m feeling this way because our baby is in day care so much that I want it to feel like the best setting for him. We will be in this same financial situation until he is 4. I realize that we are in a very privileged position to be considering this change. (Although the truth is, we can’t afford either option, and our hefty student loans are blowing through our savings to pay for child care.) My question is: How much does school curriculum matter at this age? What should we be looking for in his day care? Does it make a difference if he’s there 40+ hours a week?

—Does It Even Matter?

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Dear Does It Even Matter,

I’m going to be honest: I see no point in putting your son in Montessori day care. The developmentally appropriate “curriculum” for a 1-year-old (and let’s remember, your 13-month-old son is one year and one month old—practically still a baby) is working on gross-motor skills, working on fine-motor skills, working on speech skills, and playing, which it sounds like your current day care provides. At the preschool where I work, we typically do try to teach “kindergarten readiness” skills to the 3-to-5-year-olds, like walking in line, sitting for circle, or attending to story time, but the work we do on that front is more relaxed in the day care room where the under-3 kiddos are. We work on pre-academic skills as well (counting, alphabet, and the like), and while the day care room does adapt our crafts and activities to the ability levels of the toddlers in the room, the overall focus there is more on play and self-help skills.

I’m not saying that curriculum at this age doesn’t matter. There are certain qualities a good day care curriculum should have, like language-rich environments and activities, a variety of toys to teach play skills, activities that utilize gross- and fine-motor skills throughout the day, a combination of adult-driven and child-driven activities. I’m also not saying that the Montessori and KinderCare schools are equal. I’m unfamiliar with the KinderCare program, but I know Montessori schools tend to be well-funded and, as a result, have high quality classrooms and materials. What I am saying is that I don’t think the differences will be big enough to demonstrably affect your son’s life, especially if you provide some of those qualities at home as well.

I don’t have kids of my own, so I can’t say what I’ve looked for in day cares, but here is what I suggest: If the classrooms are clean, welcoming, warm, and fun, you’re probably on the right track. If you tour the school and, when you walk into a room, the teachers are engaging the kids in an activity, either as a group or individually, that’s also a good sign. I’m personally really into early literacy, so I might also look for printed text labels on objects, because that tells me that the school or classroom has paid enough attention to make and hang those labels. If there are crafts visible, that’s a good sign too. And most importantly, trust your gut. You know your son best. Does this seem like the kind of place where he can happily spend 40+ hours per week? If so, you’re fine. If not, then you could think about considering other options.

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—Ms. Sarnell

I have a son who entered first grade this year. In kindergarten we noticed that he was completing his brother’s third grade math homework once his brother read it to him, and we tried to talk to his teacher about accelerating him in math, but were rebuffed. Since it was close to the end of the school year, we were told it would be best to work with our son’s first grade teacher right at the start of the year. Over the summer we worked through a complete first year math curriculum, and some of a second, without our son finding it challenging. When school started, we contacted the teacher to try to set up a meeting to talk about the possibilities for accelerating him. She did not respond to either our first email or a note we sent in his homework folder.

On our sending a second email to ask for a meeting, she sent a very short and dismissive email saying she was too busy to engage but that she tried her best to work with each student individually, time permitting. In the meantime, our son has started telling us he hates math because, “it is so boring,” a sentiment which breaks my heart. We sent a follow-up acknowledging her busy time, but still requesting that there be some communication about our son’s needs, and we have yet to get a response. We are at our wits’ end. Do you have any suggestions for ways to get in touch with this teacher? Should we move up the food chain and speak with the guidance counselor or the vice principle? How can we keep advocating for our kid to a blank wall?

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—Had It Up to Here

Hi HIUtH,

I’m so sorry you had this experience. It can be really disheartening when your kiddo’s teacher is unresponsive. I would suggest showing up to the school and requesting an in-person meeting before or after class. You could also try scheduling this at the front office if that feels more manageable. I typically don’t recommend this type of approach, but if your son’s teacher is being unresponsive to other forms of communication, you have every right to advocate for your child.

After you’ve attempted to meet with the teacher in person, then yes, you should go up the food chain. However, I think you should go directly to the principal. In my experience, guidance counselors and vice principals at the elementary school level focus more on socio-emotional needs and behavior response and interventions, whereas the principal tends to focus more on curriculum and instruction. Also, the principal is the one who would ultimately have the authority to push for your desired outcome.

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Good Luck!

—Mr. Hersey

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