Care and Feeding

Yet Another Student Was Shot at My School

How do I move forward?

Photo illustration of a teacher sitting on a desk and crying.
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
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut

I am a teacher at a large, diverse public high school in an urban area. Yesterday, one of our students was shot and killed by another student on campus. It was the third gun-related incident on our campus this year. I feel so sad and angry and helpless, and I don’t know what to say to my students. Some teachers are saying that this is all because we let students get away with dress code violations and tardies, while others are saying that they want to start carrying their own guns at school, and I don’t know how to respond to that nonsense either.

I just feel so empty. I love my job and my students, but I have no idea how to move forward—I have a baby of my own, and I don’t even know if I want to return next year. I would be so grateful if you could help me make sense of all of this.

—Searching for a Way Forward

Dear Searching,

I am so deeply sorry. This is truly a nightmare.

You have to put your oxygen mask on first. I don’t know what you saw or experienced, but it’s possible that these incidents have been traumatic for you. If you are experiencing symptoms of trauma, I urge you to reach out to your loved ones as well as a mental health professional. During this time, your school should be offering crisis counseling to students and staff. If they are not, I encourage you to contact your principal and insist they provide such counseling immediately.

As far as how to respond to your co-workers’ nonsense—and it is nonsense—it’s OK to conserve your energy right now. A simple “nobody dies breaking a dress code” or “more guns are not the solution” can suffice for now. Though I agree they are frighteningly off-base, they are likely feeling as lost as you are.

As to whether or not you should return to your school, that is an extremely difficult decision. On the one hand, your students will be looking for consistency—familiar, loving faces are reassuring during times of tumult. High faculty turnover can exacerbate the pain they are experiencing. If you stay, please make a plan for self-care. But I wouldn’t blame you one bit if you decide to leave. You have the right to put yourself first, and if returning to this school is traumatic, if you feel you can no longer do your job, or if you believe that your safety is at risk, then it’s time to move on. I fully support you, whatever you decide.

For those of us who are not currently unmoored by a senseless tragedy, let this be a reminder: We need to take action. We can join an organization, educate ourselves on the issue, write our members of Congress, and—most importantly—vote for leaders who support gun control. And when you are feeling up to it, letter writer, perhaps you will join us, too.

—Ms. Holbrook

I am the parent of a 12-year-old sixth grade girl. She had choices for which middle school she attended and elected for a brand-new STEAM-based charter program started by well-respected individuals. While I had some concerns about sending her to a school that was just starting out, she felt strongly that this school would be a good match for her.

Brief description of our daughter: She’s very bright and in advanced classes, but also is behind on some key basic skills (ADD-related, she’s being treated now). She has social anxiety, and is introverted and kind of shy, and despite seeming to be well-liked, has never had many close friendships and has unique interests that she says often make her feel like an outsider. She exhibits some symptoms of depression, however, I also know that kids this age may have more emotional ups and downs than at other ages, and that they struggle with perspective on what’s normal.

We are halfway into the first year, and her father and I have real concerns. The education is technology-based—all kids carry laptops. Our daughter, who was placed into the academically advanced group, reports poor classroom management—lots of kids goofing off and teachers seeming to allow it. She never has homework, which I have mixed feelings about. I’m glad for no nighttime homework struggles, but I worry she’s missing out on developing necessary study habits. Also, she is a minority in the school population both in race and gender (gender split is probably 70/30 boys to girls), and rarely talks of any other female friends at school. She has a small social network of male friends, but is not included in any invitations outside of school.

For both social and academic reasons, her dad and I want to force her to change schools for seventh grade, but she is against this, I think largely because of social anxiety, which I understand. But I think it could be good for her, long-term. It worries me greatly that she feels so alone as a 12-year-old, and the academics/classroom management are not strong enough at her school to make me feel confident she’s being well prepared for high school. Making a change obviously doesn’t guarantee any improvements in academic or social setting, and given her opinion about changing vs. staying, we’re struggling with what to do and would like some input from educators. Do we force a change that we think will be for her own good? How do we best support her socially if we do? How do we help message this to her to minimize resentment that might result from a forced change?

Best regards,
Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

These “devil you know” questions are always the hardest ones to answer because, as much helpful detail as you gave in your letter, there’s no way for you to paint a complete picture of the situation in a few paragraphs. A few things come to mind, however. Have you inquired with the teachers or administration about the academic and social issues you’re seeing? I’d start there. Regardless of their intentions and experience, the first years are probably not going to meet their own expectations. Do they see these challenges? If so, what are their plans to address them? If not, how receptive are they to your concerns?

The no-homework thing is definitely de rigueur these days, and for younger grades, it’s well-supported by research. But studies show middle schoolers do benefit somewhat from homework, depending on the kind and amount. My homework is always “whatever you didn’t finish in class,” which has the double-benefit of encouraging the kids to get it done in school while still being connecting to our current unit of study. Don’t let the homework thing be a deal-breaker. If they’re not going to assign it, accept that, and let her exercise or paint or code or whatever it is she’s into outside of school. She’ll often get as much academically out of that than homework.

As for being a racial minority, is she a racial minority outside of school? Or is she white? If it’s the former, make the best choice for her and your family. If she would feel more empowered being in a school with people of her own race, that’s something you should take into consideration. If it’s the latter, I think it’s actually beneficial for white people to experience being in the minority sometimes. It gives a person perspective.

I do worry a bit about the gender imbalance. When my classes are boy-heavy, I notice the boys often dominate, and the girls often shrink. I try to counter these effects with management techniques, but it takes awareness and skill. Do the teachers at your daughter’s school have both?

I’ve buried the lede here. You mentioned she has social anxiety and “exhibits some symptoms of depression.” While it’s true that middle schoolers have “more emotional ups and downs than at other ages, and that they struggle with perspective on what’s normal,” I don’t think you should ignore these symptoms of a mental health struggle. In fact, I think before you do anything else you should schedule an appointment with a therapist for her. Let her speak to an impartial party about the issues she’s experiencing. That person can help her parse her feelings and develop language to key you in on what she thinks is best for her.

Then have a big conversation, and weigh her perspective earnestly. She’s at the age when not doing so might cause bigger problems in the next few years.

—Ms. Scott

I am the mother of three young children, and my oldest will start kindergarten this fall. While I’m not concerned about his academic or social readiness—he knows all of his letters and numbers, he is starting to learn to read, and he’s friendly and social with other children—I am a little concerned about the adjustment to a school day.

We are very rural, and there is no preschool or day care offered in our area beyond Head Start, for which we do not qualify. Thus, minus the occasional play date, he spends the majority of his time at home with his brothers and me. I already structure his day as best I can: We have structured meals, rest, and bedtimes, but otherwise he does what he wants (within reason), and he and his brother spend their time playing. He occasionally helps my husband at work on our ranch.

Other than home-schooling him, which doesn’t really appeal to me, our only school option is our local kindergarten, which is a full day, four days a week. What can we do to help him be ready, and what can we do to make sure he’s getting enough play time when he gets home from school? And if homework is a thing in his kindergarten, does he need to do it? The school days are longer because of the four-day week, and I’m balking at him having to do any school outside of the school day. 

What do you recommend?

—Getting Ready

Dear Getting Ready,

Wow. I have immense respect for you! It’s hard enough to be a stay-at-home parent to three kids under 5, but taking on the role of preschool teacher to them, too, is incredible. To start, give yourself a little cheer because everything you’ve done so far, including structuring the kids’ day, is absolutely the right idea. Go you!

Moving on to your questions, my broad response is: Don’t worry. Yours is not the first kindergartener walking in on the first day without day care or preschool (especially since your area doesn’t have these programs widely available). Kindergarten teachers always teach school readiness skills and behaviors in the first weeks of school because they have to assume that none of the kids in their class have ever been to a classroom before. Given how hard you’ve tried to provide structure and enrichment, your son may even be better prepared than the average kid in the room.

So, what can you do? Kindergarten challenges young kids by introducing them to more “adult directed” activities (the teacher decides what they’re doing), versus those that are “child directed” (independent, less structured play). In the preschool model we use at my school, we aim for a roughly 50/50 split during our day—that is, we direct activities for about half the day, and let the kids run free (within limits) for the other half.

Maintain the routines at home (bedtime, wake-up, rest time if your son needs it, etc.), but plan to cut back on other structured activities once kindergarten starts. Once he starts kindergarten, try to keep a relatively open schedule after school so that he can have this free time at home. I’m a big believer in at-home routines because children do thrive when they have predictable structures, but make space in your routine for him to just be a 5-year-old.

And if I can get on my soapbox just for a second: Where I live, play dates have fallen out of fashion, but I recently visited a relative in Western Canada, and for the week I was there, his two kids had play dates every day. Admittedly, it was during winter break, but they saw friends every day. I love play dates, and I think part of the reason that they’ve fallen out is that parents have a hard time being the first one to invite someone else’s kids over. I get that, but play dates are a great opportunity for your children to socialize outside of the limited free time at school, and they can help your kid unwind while building bonds with their community. And, in turn, you can build bonds with the parents of those kids, which really does make it a win-win.

Good luck—it sounds like your son will have all the tools he needs to get off to a great start.

—Ms. Sarnell

My 7-year-old daughter is in second grade and was diagnosed with ADHD last year. Her kindergarten and first grade teachers worked really well with her. Because of the atmosphere of those early grades, she had lots of time to run around and play and get her energy out in order to focus in the classroom, and they had a relaxed academic atmosphere.

Now that she has entered into a more academic phase of learning, she’s started to struggle a lot more. Second graders at her school only get one 20-minute recess a day, and they don’t have PE every day. Her time at school primarily consists of staying in her seat all day to work, and there is very little physical movement associated with their learning. To the best of my knowledge, her teacher is old-school and enforces a strict sit-still-and-be-quiet policy for her students.

Because of her squirming and fidgeting during class (which I believe is primarily caused by a lack of adequate recess), her teacher is taking away her recess at least twice a week, and making her sit on a bench and work on math problems while the other kids run around.

I have talked to the teacher about this, but she says that district policy says that this is really the only real discipline she can use, and that I should put her on medication because she’s “very disruptive.” I don’t think that she needs medication, I think she really needs time to run around and be a kid. I also really think the teacher is overstating how “disruptive” my daughter is. How do I go about navigating this situation?

—She Needs to Move

Dear SNtM

Wow. I’m never happy to hear stories of teachers making terrible decisions, and this appears to be a multicar pileup of bad decisions.

Here are some of my issues:

It’s ridiculous to think that the only discipline a teacher can impose is the removal of recess. Any teacher worth her salt can find other ways to impose consequences on students who require them. Your daughter’s teacher is either not being honest or is incapable of the most basic problem solving.

Also, it may violate state law to take recess away from your daughter. At least 12 U.S. states now require that students enjoy at least 20 minutes of recess, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has described recess as a “necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development” that should “not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”

I agree. Most educators would, too. This teacher is not making good decisions. I can’t see you making any headwind with her, so my suggestion is to give her one more chance to find solutions to your daughter’s struggle, and if that doesn’t happen (soon), take this issue to your principal. Ideally, you want your daughter to have recess every day without exception, and if a consequence is required for her behavior, the teacher must find something else than recess.

Let me add that I feel overwhelmingly that a student who is squirming and fidgety may not even need to be reprimanded or punished. There are plenty of simple strategies to try first that could significantly mitigate her disruptive behaviors. There are chairs specially designed to allow children some movement that can often be helpful in reducing fidgety behavior. “Fidgets”—small objects that children can hold and quietly manipulate in class are also often helpful. The teacher can include regular breaks or incorporate physical activity into transitions. Your daughter could be assigned jobs in the classroom that allow her to get up and move around appropriately. These are just a few.

I’ll also add that medication for ADHD can be exceptionally beneficial for some students, so keep an open mind. I’m not sure why you and your daughter’s doctor decided to forgo the use of medication, but I meet many parents who reject it outright without ever giving it a chance, but for some students, I have seen it change their lives. It’s possible, for example, to have your daughter begin taking medication and monitor the effects.

My daughter takes ADHD medication daily, and our approach to her diagnosis and the doctor’s recommendation was to try the pills and see if they made a difference, and weigh that difference against any side effects. I’ve seen students on medication lose their appetite, for example, so much so that weight loss became more of an issue than their ADHD. My daughter thankfully exhibits no side effects, and the medication has made an enormous difference in her life, so I encourage you to not dismiss medication if that’s the case. It might help, too.

You should also be aware that when teachers suggest to parents that medication might be in order, as your child’s teacher has, parents can often require school districts to supply that medication, since it was an educational recommendation. Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks

More Advice From Slate

My daughter is currently in half-day kindergarten. She loves it. She loves her teacher. All seems well, and she seems to be excelling academically—at least as far as I can tell, but I have no real feedback from the teacher, and no idea if any is coming. How much info should I be getting about a kindergarten student’s performance?