Care and Feeding

Is Now a Bad Time to Ask My Child’s Teacher for Extra Help?

I know her teacher is stretched and overwhelmed.

A 6-year-old girl reading.
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.

My daughter is in first grade and has struggled with learning to read. She has made slow but steady progress under the guidance of a fantastic teacher this year. However, given the onset of remote learning, which is likely to continue until the end of our school year, I am growing very concerned about her being so behind at the beginning of second grade that it will be impossible to be even close to grade level again.

While many of her classmates report reading Magic Treehouse books in their living room forts during their time at home, we are so far from that that it worries me. I understand the incredible burden and pressure our teachers are under to switch to online teaching, especially in younger grades that need so much support, that I am hesitant to ask my child’s teacher about my daughter’s specific needs right now.

So far her reading homework is a book online that the students can read or have read to them (these books are too advanced for my daughter so she listens to them), but there is no information for her small group that outlines specific phonics help. I am more than willing to work with her during this time and through the summer on basic reading skills, but I don’t know where to start.

Should I wait a bit and then ask her teacher for a recommendation, or is there a straightforward reading program that a mom could use to do lessons at home (I would work best with clear steps and processes)? We were to have conferences when the shutdown happened, and I was going to bring up the possibility of testing for a learning disability, but now all that will be delayed by six months at least. I want to do all that I can for her in the meantime.

—Let’s Read!

Dear Let’s Read,

I have a lot to tell you. Let’s start with the good news: The Magic Treehouse series is written for kids in Grades 3–4, so your daughter is either surrounded by extraordinary children who are reading two to three levels above their grade level, they are rereading books that have already been read to them many times, or they are reading some of the words in the books but not really reading the books for meaning.

In other words, try not to compare your daughter to these kids. What parents see and what is actually happening with children’s learning are often two entirely different things. I’ve had students in third grade who had all of their multiplication facts memorized on the first day of school but still couldn’t subtract or even grasp the concept of subtraction. The initial assumption of their classmates was that these students were gifted in math, but in reality, these kids were often gifted memorizers who couldn’t yet explain that multiplication is repeated addition.

It’s hard to know what a student really knows.

That said, your daughter may indeed be struggling with reading at her grade level, and if this is true, I encourage you to first take a deep breath and relax a bit. We have entered an unprecedented time in our country, and our primary concern as educators at the moment is the physical and emotional wellbeing of our students. There will always be time to help a student catch up on their learning, but the trauma that children could potentially suffer as a result of fear, anxiety, illness, and even death that this pandemic is causing can be long lasting. While I want your daughter to get the best education possible, I strongly encourage that you to proceed cautiously, making sure she is feeling happy, safe, and anxiety-free first and foremost. This is not the time to increase the pressure on her.

Having said that, I do have some specific suggestions:

Yes, you can ask your teacher for guidance, and there’s nothing wrong with asking now. It’s true that distance learning has been a challenge to launch on a moment’s notice. Teachers and administrators are in the process of building an airplane while it’s already in the air. I have never worked harder as a teacher in my 21 years in the profession, and yet I have never felt so ineffective. Most of my colleagues feel the same. The opportunity to assist an eager and able parent with some specific strategies to help a struggling learner is something I would love to do. At the moment, many teachers—myself included—are spending enormous amounts of time helping students who haven’t seen their parents in weeks because they are health care workers, counseling students who have loved ones battling COVID-19, assisting students and families who lack the technology or expertise needed to access distance learning, and even ensuring that students aren’t suffering from food insecurity and inadequate housing. These daily challenges are immense and unprecedented for most teachers. Being able to help a student with reading sounds almost old-fashioned and quite lovely, and I suspect most teachers would feel the same.

Next, one of the best things you can do for your daughter at this time is read to her as much as possible. The research is clear: Reading to a child is nearly as beneficial as the child reading herself. Reading aloud is an excellent way to improve your daughter’s reading skills while also spending some quality time with her. The time spent curled up with her and a book could be enormously helpful on so many levels.

Testing your child for a learning disability probably can’t happen right now, since these tests often require one-on-one interactions and observation. Also, reading is a highly developmental skill, so we tend not to test students in kindergarten and first grade if they are struggling with reading. In many cases, it simply takes some kids longer than others to figure out reading, but once they do, they are quickly able to read on level or above.

I wish you the best of luck and deeply appreciate the concern you clearly have for your daughter and her teacher. This is a difficult time for all of us. Your thoughtfulness is to be admired.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I’m a public high school teacher. Our campus has had several tragedies over the last three years, including a student death by suicide and two recent-graduate deaths, not to mention parent suicides and two helicopter crashes. A student of mine was just killed in a traffic collision this last week. Every time the campus seems to get back on an even keel, something terrible happens.

The pandemic has complicated this. With schools canceled for at least three weeks, if not more, I find myself at a loss about what to do for my students, who have lost a classmate and cannot even mourn together. Our move to distance learning at the end of the week was going to be difficult enough, but in this shocking and terrible moment, school itself seems almost cruel.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but could you offer some perspective?

—No Respite

Dear No Respite,

I’m so, so sorry. This is awful. I’ve been thinking a lot about people who are going through their own individual tragedies unrelated to the collective tragedy we’re all living through right now. In my experience, one of the most painful aspects of grieving is how the wider world continues on in the face of it, unmoved by your personal devastation. I can’t imagine how much that’s compounded in the face of a global crisis like this—how lonely it must feel. My sincere condolences to you and your community.

In terms of how to move forward with your students, I think you’re absolutely right that tending to their mental health right now is critical—but best practices right now are, to say the least, unclear. You can’t rely on the cues you’d typically be observing in a classroom setting, you can’t have a quick hallway chat to touch base with your colleagues about how students are doing … it’s a very difficult situation. There’s no playbook here, but if I were you, I would prioritize transparent, compassionate, and consistent messaging that you recognize how painful and scary this is, whatever they can offer right now is OK, and their well-being is paramount. If you’re doing any videoconferencing, I would always begin with a check-in where students can simply share how they’re doing, and you can, too. If you’re just posting work online, I’d always preface it with a warm reminder that you hope they’re well, you want them to take care of themselves, and they can always reach out to you with concerns. I’d also reach out to parents with the same message.

That said, it sounds like you’re hesitating on whether to make schoolwork available at all, and I think you should. A lot of students—a lot of people—struggle in the face of unstructured time, let alone vast, endless amounts of it, and being alone with your thoughts all day in a climate like this can get really dark, really fast. You might find that there are plenty of kids craving the sense of normalcy and the opportunity to focus on something productive that schoolwork will provide, so I would go forward with those kids in mind, while offering ample caveats to those who aren’t in that mindset. I would not dump something like the remainder of the AP U.S. History syllabus on Google Classroom, but the kids for whom learning would be a comfort should have access to that, I think.

Good luck. This has got to be so hard, and I really feel for you. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too.

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school, New York)

I teach a mixed-grade elementary class, and like most, we’re doing “digital learning” for the foreseeable future. I’ve been trying to put together screen-free options for my class, and last night came up with what is either a brilliant or terrible idea. Could my students send one another letters or postcards? My physical materials need to be ready for parent pickup in a few days, and I could easily provide some stamped envelopes or blank postcards. I think my class would love getting and sending things to their classmates, but I don’t want to turn my homework into a disease vector!

—Pen Pals or Pandemic Pals

Dear Pen Pals or Pandemic Pals,

The most recent reporting indicates that the virus cannot be passed via U.S mail. That said, this virus has only existed in humans for about four months, and there are still so many unknowns that personally, I don’t think it’s worth the risk. I also strongly suspect that there will be parents who want no part in pen pals right now. My wife and I take in the mail wearing gloves and microwave the mail (and the gloves) just to be sure, and I know other families doing the same thing. I’ll admit that these may be unnecessary measures and possibly an overreaction, but I always feel it’s better to be safe than sorry when you have kids. The last thing I want is to be spending time in an ICU unit right now.

I don’t think the idea is bad, though, and an alternative could be for kids to write a letter, take a photo of that letter, and send it along to their pen pal digitally. Your students could even create videos for one another, inviting friends into their home to share the books they are reading, the blanket forts they are building, and exercise routines they have adopted, and all the other ways that they are spending their time.

Probably best of all, though, is some digital face-to-face contact using services like Google Meet or Zoom to bring the kids together. I’ve been using both platforms for a week, and the kids have been so excited to see and talk to one another.

Honestly, I think our students would much prefer this kind of connection right now more than physical letters anyway.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

A bit over a year and a half ago, I took over the care of my 17-year-old younger sister under less than ideal circumstances. She currently attends the public school near our house. We are both mixed-race Hispanic, and we speak fluent Spanish because our family lived in our home country for several years when we were children. For her language credits, the school offered her a spot in their Spanish for native speakers class.

The teacher of that class is not Hispanic. She was born and raised in the U.S., and she has only been to Latin America as a tourist. She downplays the poverty found in much of Latin America. When my sister spoke up in support of organizations that help rural areas gain access to clean drinking water and hardy food crops, she told my sister that she needs to stop viewing our experiences in Latin America from a colonialist perspective. We lived in an area of Latin America where it isn’t safe to drink or cook with tap water. Our grandmother earns roughly $200 per month, and she would not be able to make ends meet if my parents didn’t provide substantial financial assistance. My sister got in trouble for mentioning this in class.

My sister is white-passing. This teacher has a fairly consistent history of humiliating white-passing students for sharing their experiences in Latin America and for criticizing them for supporting colonialism. The other students in the class are second- or third-generation and, for the most part, have never been to Latin America. This teacher has also taught these kids that some notable Latin American dictators and revolutionaries were merely strong leaders that the world can’t understand. My sister was shouted at because she asked about the homophobic and racist policies that one of those dictators put in place.

I’m really tired of seeing my little sister come home in tears because of this lady, but she doesn’t want me to say anything to the teacher or to the administration because she’s worried about retaliation. My sister, who was very enthusiastic about school at the beginning of the year, has come to dread showing up every morning. She’s been skipping her first couple classes of the day to avoid having to go to that class. In all her other classes, she’s fine, and she’ll show up on time and ready. I have no idea how to address this. She’s nearly an adult, so I feel she should get a say in what I do about this, but we can’t continue on like this.

What is your recommended course of action?

—Troubling Teacher

Dear Troubling Teacher,

Wow. This situation reminds me of the old Dave Chappelle sketch, “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong,” except in this case, it’s “When Being Woke Goes Bad.” Because I think (?) that’s what the teacher is trying to do: be “woke.” Thus, her admonishments about viewing Central and South America from a colonialist perspective, but … it seems like she totally misunderstands what your sister is saying. Your sister is hardly promoting colonialism—she’s advocating for improvements to infrastructure. And she’s standing up for other progressive values, anti-homophobia and anti-racism. I’m so confused.

You said your sister doesn’t want you to intervene—and there’s part of me that says you should respect her wishes—but given that she’s missing classes and other students are having similar experiences, I think it’s worth inquiring about. I understand that your sister may fear retaliation from her teacher, but in my experience, it’s rare. Plus, what is the teacher going to do that’s worse than what’s already happening?

I’d call or email the teacher to request a videoconference. At the meeting, I’d recount, as dispassionately as possible, your sister’s experiences and ask for clarification. It may be that the teacher misunderstands Latin American history or how her comments are landing.

If you don’t feel comfortable having a discussion, write an email, again in as flat a tone as you can, outlining your concerns, and if you don’t get a satisfactory response, this is an issue that’s worth taking up with the administration.

I really hope you get the matter sorted out. Your sister deserves a positive school experience.

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

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