Care and Feeding

My Pompous Boy Students Think They Know Everything

A stressed-out teacher holding an open book in one hand and holding her other hand to her forehead.
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 or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I’m a ninth grade world history teacher. I love my job, and I work in a wonderful place and get a lot of really good support. But I’m struggling with one issue, and I’m not sure where to turn.

This year I have multiple ninth grade boys who know a lot about history, particularly about the two world wars, which we are studying now. This happens every year, and generally I allow those boys a moment to flex their knowledge and help other kids. This year is different.

These boys are pompous and dismissive of me—they apparently know everything. I’ve had students like this before, and redirecting when they go off topic or too far or having a private conversation used to work. It’s not. These boys talk over me and tell me I’m wrong. (I have no problem admitting I don’t know things, but I’m not wrong here.) Other kids are getting uncomfortable. Private conversations and emails home are responded to with an “OK.” Sometimes they stop talking over me for a couple of days. But they do go back to it.

Most of my history colleagues are men—I am a woman—and, while somewhat sympathetic, offer no solutions. One told me this couldn’t be real because it doesn’t happen to him. I understand a lot of my students’ actions and colleagues’ response is sexist. I can outright say this to my male co-workers and have done so, but with students it’s different.

I feel like we’re reaching a point of no return in the classroom where our previously positive culture is beginning to deteriorate. What is my next step? Parents have already been contacted. The assistant principal has enough on his plate. Do I let it go?

—Trying to Lay Down the Law

Dear Trying,

Do not let this go. You should inform both the parents and the students that you are done with this behavior and the next infraction will lead to whatever consequence your school uses (e.g., detention). It’s time for actual consequences: write discipline referrals. Talk to your assistant principal—he should be willing to help you, even if he’s busy. You don’t need to put up with this any longer. I also think it’s worth it to tell the students (and their parents) outright that this behavior is sexist. You are a professional with expertise in this field, and they need to learn their behavior is out of line.

A couple of other ideas that avoid discipline referrals: Divide and conquer—talk to the counselor about changing the boys’ schedules so they are no longer in the same sections. I’m guessing they feed off one another; separating them will likely take the wind out of their sails and drastically reduce their assholery. I realize this may not be possible, but it’s worth asking. I’ve asked counselors to separate problematic students before and experienced improvements.

You say that your school is supportive, so I hope your administration comes through for you. But if you cannot get assistance from the parents or the administration, kick these jerks out of the room. You can give one warning, then boot them. They can teach themselves in the hallway since they’re so smart.

There’s something I’d like all parents and male educators to hear: What this teacher describes is real. I have experienced this sort of sexism firsthand. Many students bring sexist attitudes to school with them and treat their female teachers differently. Sometimes it’s an unconscious bias; other times it’s outright disrespect or even harassment. These are societal issues, to be sure, and some students may be encouraged by their home environment to behave this way in school. But it’s something schools must address regardless.

Letter writer, I hope you feel empowered to bring the hammer down. You are the teacher in this classroom. You deserve to be treated with common courtesy and respect, and the rest of your students deserve a positive, orderly learning environment. Solidarity.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My son is a first grader with all E’s (equivalent to A’s) and loves to learn! He’s our first and only, and of course we think he’s very bright, but we also have people constantly comment on how smart and advanced he is. I know that in our school district, each school does the gifted programs slightly differently; however, it seems this is the time of the year children are being identified to be tested for the program. I’ve heard from other mothers at our school that first grade is normally when they identify these students. Worrying if he will be put in this gifted group has consumed me! I can’t stop thinking and obsessing about it.

I could just wait it out until teacher conferences and hope his teacher brings it up next month, or I could go ahead and send an email asking if he’s been chosen. I feel like such a jerk even asking, and I know all parents think their child is the best and brightest. But would it be strange to email and ask if he’ll be selected? And if I do, how do I phrase it? She is a young, brand-new teacher, and part of me is concerned I’ll rub her the wrong way. Also, his kindergarten teacher regularly told me how advanced he was, but the current teacher really doesn’t. Part of me is worried that because she’s new, maybe she doesn’t know and hasn’t recommended him for the gifted program due to lack of experience. Please help!

—Smartest Boy in the Room

Dear SBitR,

How exciting! It sounds like your son is doing well at his school. It’s perfectly fine to email the school or your child’s teacher for more information about the school’s gifted identification process and its selection timeline. Even if your son isn’t “selected,” I’m sure you could advocate for his placement in the program by some other means if you think it’d be a good fit for him.

That said, I’d recommend you try to curb your obsession over whether he is selected or not. As you said, gifted programs often look very different from school to school. At this young age, a gifted and talented designation does not determine the course of your child’s entire academic career. Instead of fixating on whether he gets selected, I’d focus on whether his current learning environment is a good fit for him. For example, I teach a general education classroom and have had several parents opt to keep their kids, who have been identified as “gifted,” in my classroom because they prefer my teaching style. While it sounds like your son would thrive in any learning environment, I’d go visit the gifted program at your school and get an idea of what the classroom is like. If your program would have your son in another class, or even at another school (versus just being pulled out for certain instruction throughout a regular school day), I also like to recommend to parents that they involve their kids in the process by asking them whether the program is something they are interested in. I find that the more ownership you give kids over these kinds of choices, the bigger impact it has on them long-term. Good luck, and I hope you get the best outcome for your kiddo!

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington state)

My daughter, who has loved school since the day she started preschool, is having a terrible, no good, very bad year in third grade. Her teacher is strict, in strong contrast to her second grade teacher, with whom she had a lot of fun, so there’s certainly at least some aspect of “suck it up” that she needs to do. But I’d like some advice in dealing with the teachers and administration with respect to how the class is organized.

First of all, two third-grade teachers have made an arrangement to split two classes, so my kid’s main teacher teaches math to two classes and another teacher teaches English language arts to both classes. I’ve been explicit with both teachers that my daughter does not like switching classes, but I actually think that it’s worse than that. I know that in middle school, they will get a lot less face time with each teacher, but in third grade, this seems to unnecessarily diminish the relationship between kids and teachers that young children need. My child is doing average in math, but at the first conference, when I expressed that for the first time my daughter isn’t enjoying coming to school, the teacher said, “Yeah, I think she just doesn’t like math.”

At my midyear conference with her ELA teacher, I expressed that she’s been in a rut reading the same books over and over (she’s testing at a ninth grade level), and the teacher assured me that no, she’s reading very good books in class. The teacher pulled out a stack of respectable books, which I had to point out were labeled with another child’s name. Then she pulled out my kid’s stack, which was filled with the same schlock I see her read at home.

All of this makes me think neither teacher seems to know much about my child, and I’m very concerned. What should I do? I know from this column not to rush to administration, but this is not going well, and I’m worried about the long-term consequences. She begs not to go to school and has started turning down academic extras that last year she would have jumped at.

—Change for the Worse

Dear CftW,

I firmly believe that a teacher’s two primary responsibilities are to keep their students safe during the school day and ensure that their students enjoy school.

I believe in this so much that I tried to get the word fun included in my school’s mission statement years ago to no avail. It was argued that the word fun made the mission statement sound less than serious and a little silly. Nonsense, of course. Happy children who love coming to school every day are the best learners by far. And there is nothing a parent wants more than for their child to love school.

It sounds like your daughter’s teachers are failing to fulfill this important responsibility, but even worse, they don’t seem concerned. “Yeah, I think she just doesn’t like math” is not an answer that a parent should ever hear. While it’s entirely possible for a student to not enjoy math (I’ve certainly had my share), it’s the teacher’s job to try like hell to find a way to change that attitude. Admittedly it doesn’t always happen, but the teacher needs to try everything short of the kitchen sink to make this possible.

I also agree that third grade seems too early for students to have two teachers like you describe. Middle school typically starts around fifth or sixth, and even that can be too early for some kids. It sounds like these teachers have created a system that does not conform to district standards but instead personal preference. Frankly, it sounds like they may simply be trying to make things easier on themselves; rather than prepping for four subjects each day, they only have to prep for two. While the argument could be made that they are more effective by concentrating on just two subjects, 8-year-old kids probably do better with a single teacher throughout the day rather than two.

What you describe is a multitude of challenges ranging from “Do you really know my kid?” to “Have you created a system that is good for you but not so good for students?” to “My kid doesn’t like school, damn it! Do something!”

I would approach both teachers in a single meeting with one simple message:

“My daughter is not enjoying school for the first time in her life. Something must be done. She is a kid who loves to learn and has always loved school, but something has changed this year. I’m trying to figure out what has reversed that trend. I’m not assigning blame. I just want to work with you to fix this.”

I would listen carefully to their possible solutions. If they need a few days to consider the possibilities and do some investigating, great. But politely demand that a plan be made, and if their plan seems reasonable, give it a shot. If they seem to be placating you or seem uninspired to act or unnecessarily defensive, I would request a meeting with administration, where I would lay all of this out on the table.

Your daughter should be safe and happy when she is at school. If this is not happening, alarm bells should be sounding in her teacher’s ears.

They would be sounding in mine.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I have a 15-year-old high school sophomore who is bright and, for the most part, enjoys school. What he struggles with are testing skills, namely following exact instructions or multiple directions. For example, he will study for a science test and verbally be able to answer questions when I help quiz him on his study material the night before. Then on testing day, he comes out of the test feeling confident that “he knew everything and did great!”

But when he gets his tests back, his grades are lower than he expects they will be because he gets marked down for things like not showing his work as instructed, or missing the second half of a question and only answering the first part. Two teachers have come to me and said they feel like he is not testing to his ability; they know he knows the material because of his classwork, but his test scores don’t reflect that. There seems to be a disconnect in getting the knowledge out of his head and onto a paper the way that is asked.

When he sees his graded tests, he understands why he got marked off, but that does not seem to help him the next time. This is starting to affect his self-esteem and is making school frustrating for him.

His teachers say he does not need more time for testing; in fact he is often one of the first ones finished (this is likely part of the problem—he rushes), and he has already been screened for issues like ADD. While there were some focus issues, nothing was high enough to receive a diagnosis, although his father does have ADD and we both see similarities in how he does schoolwork. His handwriting is terrible—almost illegible, even for me—and he prefers typing, but that is not always possible.

Are there specific ways we can help him build his test-taking skills?  When I search for classes or tutors in our area, most are specifically designed for preparing for the ACT or SAT, and while he will have to also deal with those next year, I am looking for help more in the general test-taking skills variety. Do you know of any specific strategies that would help him take tests better, other than telling him to slow down and read more carefully?

—Yes, Please Teach to the Test

Dear YPTttT,

I have a few thoughts for you. It sounds like you’ve done testing to rule out any learning disabilities, and you probably would have noticed by 10th grade if he had a reading or writing disability. But sometimes these issues fly under the radar, so if you haven’t already, you might want to have him tested for dyslexia and dysgraphia. I teach 10th grade and certainly have taught students who were not identified with a learning disability until sophomore year.

More likely than not, though, given what you’ve told me about him, it’s more that he needs to hone his test preparation skills. Before hiring a tutor, have him visit his teachers for some one-on-one help, which most high school teachers offer before or after school (or even during lunch). I think it would be very helpful for him to review his tests with his teachers so that they can work with him on the questions he missed and help him identify patterns in his test taking.

What can you do to help? It’s not that he needs reminders to “slow down and read more carefully”—he needs to practice slowing down and reading more carefully, showing his work and checking his answers, ideally with the sorts of questions he’ll see on the test. His homework, classwork, and textbooks should be good resources; some teachers even provide study guides or test reviews. He could create his own “test” questions as part of his studying, a practice that is supported by research. If you do hire a private tutor, find someone who can help locate or create practice problems that will mirror the complexity of his upcoming exams. A college student or experienced tutor should be able to do this.

I know this is frustrating for him (and you). Hang in there!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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