Care and Feeding

My Daughter’s Teacher Is a Bad Social Distancing Role Model

A happy woman driving a car.
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 first grader is attending Google Meet lessons with her teacher and classmates every morning for 30–60 minutes. Last Friday her teacher joined class from her car because she was driving with her family to another state to “help her mom.” Today I overheard class, which she joined from the home of a friend who also lives in the distant state. Our state’s stay-at-home orders are being stepped back, but it’s clear that social distancing remains the order of the day. I don’t presume that I can police the conduct of my kids’ teachers—but isn’t it reasonable to expect that during class my kids’ teachers will model appropriate social conduct in the moment in which we are living? I fully anticipate that at least part of next academic year will be conducted online, so I’d really like to have a policy in place that teachers cannot do this. How should I proceed?

—Please Stop Making This Harder on My Kid

Dear Please Stop Making This Harder on My Kid,

I think that throughout this pandemic we need to be cautious about making assumptions about other people’s lives and decisions. It’s impossible to fully understand anyone’s situation at the moment. I spend time every week with my 20 students and their families, and I can assure you that each family’s situation is unique. I have students living in other states with grandparents while their parents treat COVID patients. I have students going to work with their parents because of the lack of child care. I know parents who are quarantined in the basement while the children do their best to take care of themselves on the first floor. You can’t begin to imagine the diversity of each family’s experience right now.

There is no way of knowing what your child’s teacher’s life is like right now and what information she may be keeping private. I have friends who have been hospitalized for weeks with COVID-19 who have preferred to keep their hospitalization and diagnosis to themselves and a select few friends. I have colleagues sheltering in place all over the country, teaching their students from thousands of miles away because of unimaginable hardships. I know colleagues who have lost parents and grandparents to this disease but continue to teach, not saying a word to their students.

“Help her mom” might mean that her mother is dying. It could mean that her mother was battling cancer when the pandemic hit, and she is now unable to enter the hospital for treatment and requires round-the-clock care in the home. “Help her mom” might mean that your daughter’s teacher is making funeral arrangements for her dead father.

We need to be gentle with one another right now, and assume the best. This is the message I would offer to your daughter. With so much illness, death, and financial hardship in our country right now, let us be kind to one another, and assume that your daughter’s teacher is trying to be the best teacher, daughter, and citizen she can be.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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We have a kindergartener and a first grader working from home now. The K teacher has made a real effort to connect with us: a couple of Zoom meetings each week, including one with just our son and the teacher; video comments on the assignments he turns in; invitations to connect as pen pals via snail mail; a personal email to us explaining his progress and suggestions for what to work on.

Our experience with the first grade teacher is very different. Each week she sends out the weekly lesson plan, holds one 30-minute Zoom call, and adds a few tasks to the school apps, and that’s basically it. Not a single comment on any assignments, even the ones that clearly involved a great effort; no response to the personal letter our daughter wrote to tell her how much she missed her teacher; and a one-sentence form email the first week asking if we had any questions.

I’m really disappointed in the lack of connection (though I’m trying to hide it from Kid No. 1) but not sure what, if anything, to do about it. It’s reasonable to at least expect comments on assignments, right? I don’t think the explanation is an excessive workload as the teachers in our district are, if anything, being discouraged from creating significant online programs. She doesn’t have children at home. Maybe she’s really depressed and having trouble getting through the days? How should I handle this?

—Looking for a Little Less Isolation

Dear Looking,

Almost everything about school and education has been turned on its head in the last two months. But in your case, I’m pleased to give you the exact same advice that I would have before this all started: You should initiate communication with your first grader’s teacher. We could speculate all day about why her efforts seem more perfunctory than the very high bar set by the kindergarten teacher, but reaching out to her is going to answer your questions much more clearly and directly than wondering on your own.

Before you get in touch, though, I’d reflect a bit on what you really want out of the conversation. You didn’t mention any concern about your daughter’s academic skills, and if your daughter is disappointed by the lack of response to the assignments she’s submitting, you didn’t mention that either. To me, it sounds like you’re craving acknowledgment and connection on your daughter’s behalf—and that’s OK! Parents are shouldering an enormous emotional and logistical burden right now, so it’s understandable if your underlying desire is recognition of your family’s efforts to stay engaged and participatory, and an indication that the teacher is still invested in your daughter. If it is your daughter who’s missing the personal connection with her teacher, that’s completely natural too. But it sounds like you should clear it up for yourself, because it will help you frame your communication.

When you do reach out, after pleasantries and well-wishes, I would try to articulate the need you’re feeling and ask if she has suggestions rather than making them. So: “I’m feeling a bit lost and adrift on how this is all going. Is there a way we could connect and get some feedback about her progress?” Or: “Daughter is having a hard time with the abrupt loss of her school community, and I think she’d like to connect with you personally because she misses you. How could we do that?”

From there, hopefully, she’ll be able to come up with solutions that will work for both of you to create a stronger sense of connection. If not, I think you’ll need to let it go. To be honest, what she’s currently offering sounds adequate to me—not amazing, but not less than what your district has asked—and aligned with what many parents have expressed they can handle right now. (I think one of the toughest parts for many teachers has been navigating the way individual families’ needs and preferences directly contradict one another. While you’ve found your kindergartener’s experience ideal, for example, I can imagine that many parents would perceive it as overwhelming and unnecessary—and it sounds like a tremendous amount of work for the teacher.) Plus, the end of the school year is so close anyway. I don’t think pushing any harder is necessary or going to help much, so I’d chalk it up to one of the many small sadnesses this pandemic has foisted upon us.

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

My daughter is at her wits’ end with my 14-year-old grandson. This kid is the sweetest kid you could ever meet, still a hugger at his age. If you want to talk about anything he is interested in—aviation, black holes, high-powered cars—he will talk your ear off, and he really knows what he is talking about! But as he is finishing up eighth grade, going to high school in the fall, he is failing every class but one. When it comes to school, he just does not care.

This is not just a COVID-19 thing. He was diagnosed with some reading issues and ADHD at 10. His parents got right on it, getting him medication, therapy, and tutors. He has a good social life, and he participates on his school’s cross-country team and ski racing team. I even signed him up for cotillion last spring, and he did great! His dad is a pediatric anesthesiologist, and his mother is an EMT/firefighter, so there is some pressure to succeed, but they are not jerks about it. Any ideas on how to deal with this? Could it be depression or something else? This is the last kid in the world I would have thought to have such disregard for his education. Any advice is appreciated.

—School Is Not His Thing

Dear SINHT,

It sounds like your daughter has tried every appropriate intervention. One thing that’s not clear to me is what your grandson says about it. “He just does not care”—is that what he says? Or does he have some other explanation for his performance?

It’s worth considering that it’s depression. I’d consult with a mental health professional about it.

But if it’s not, maybe your daughter can just … stop fighting. I teach eighth grade English (probably your grandson’s grade level), and let me offer you the perspective of the mother of one of my students who was in the same situation as your daughter. I reached out during third quarter to say that, while her twin boys both had B’s at the beginning of the year, their effort had steadily declined to the point that they were barely passing.

She wrote me a very thoughtful email explaining that her three older children (all boys) had struggled when they were in eighth grade as well. The issues were various, but they all had a hard year. And then they all did well in high school.

She said that while she tried to make sure the twins read and encouraged them to get their work done, she wasn’t going to be hard on them about schoolwork. The way she saw it, she was hard on the older three, and it didn’t help at all and only made them all miserable. She told me her “fight” was gone, and I absolutely understood.

She asked that I be patient and speak to them individually to let them know I thought they could do better.

So I did. It helped some before distance learning started, and then they both lost momentum. And that’s OK. Maybe they’ll be like their brothers and perform well in high school. Maybe it’ll take until college before they get their acts together. Maybe they won’t go to college; they’ll just pursue a field they’re interested in. Say black holes, aviation, or high-powered cars.

If your grandson has intellectual interest in certain areas and finds ways to learn about them, maybe that’s his game. I’m not saying the stuff he learns in school is useless; I’m just saying he’ll probably pick and choose the skills that will help him pursue his passions. Would that we all did that.

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

We have a sensitive, spirited 4-year-old daughter who has been in the same in-home day care since she was 3 months old. She loves the owner and her family and is close with two of the kids near her age (six total). She’s gotten great care, knows all her letters and numbers, is well adjusted socially, etc.

We wanted her to get in at least a year of pre-K before kindergarten. She got a spot in a nice preschool near our house, starting in July. Then COVID-19 happened. Her day care is now open, but we’ll keep her home until at least early June, and she’s supposed to start at this school in July. My wife wants to put her back in the day care she knows and maybe move her to the preschool later, like August or the fall, or just wait until kindergarten.

I have some reasons for wanting her in a pre-K: getting her ready for a classroom, spotting any potential learning issues before kindergarten (she avoids writing, and her fine motor skills are behind those of her day care peers), being around a larger group of kids (she’s the dramatic center of attention now). The other day care families are friends with each other, and we’re the only outliers who don’t hang out with them, which has caused some issues in the past (we never got invited to play dates; they plan theme days and don’t tell us), which makes me wish for a bigger, or at least different, circle of kids and parents.

But my wife has a point, and life is different than it was before COVID. Our daughter is doing well at home, but she’s bored and lonely and misses her friends. Times are weird, and comfort is important. Will it be damaging to keep her in a day care until kindergarten? Will it be a big issue if she starts later than the “start” date of her pre-K? Am I neglecting to teach her about resilience and some stuff?

—How Important Is Preschool, Exactly?

Dear HIIPE,

Since I’m a preschool teacher, I am obviously biased, but I think you have some valid reasons to want to send your kid to preschool. A preschool is a more structured environment than a day care. Providers at a preschool must at least pass a certification in early childhood education, whereas day care providers are only required to pass background checks. At least in New York, where I work, preschools are required to have a curriculum and work toward state standards of education for children, which is meant to better prepare them for kindergarten. This isn’t to say that day care providers aren’t also amazing educators, or that all preschool teachers are better—just an observation about qualifications and expectations.

However, I don’t think that the issue here is whether preschool is better or worth more than day care. It sounds instead like you and your wife have different opinions about what you want out of your child care. You’re concerned about the social group of the adults at the school and about your daughter’s fine motor development and social skills. Your wife either doesn’t share these concerns or doesn’t prioritize them the same way you do. To me, that’s the crux of the decision—not necessarily whether preschool is important or whether day care is better, but what you and your wife prioritize in terms of your daughter’s next year of life before kindergarten.

Again, as a biased third party, I do think that if you’re concerned about her fine motor development, and her day care program doesn’t have a process for occupational therapy referrals, a preschool program might help you there. I wouldn’t keep a kid at a school with a group of parents that was cliquey, but that has to do with my personal priorities. So the answer to your question is not so much that preschool is or isn’t important. It’s what you and your wife think is important for your child. And that, unfortunately, is something only the two of you can decide.

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education, New York)

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