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 email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
It felt really validating to read Mr. Dicks’ advice about treating the school’s distance learning as a buffet of options, and I was hoping to put that into practice with our rising second grader. Unfortunately, it is not seeming like this will be possible for us, as our (private) school has rolled out a highly synchronous and structured program where they expect elementary schoolers to attend many, many meetings per day on a fixed schedule with “independent” work in between. Maybe there are some upper elementary kids with that level of independence, but I can’t see it working in the lower grades. There will be times due to our work-from-home schedules that we won’t be available to help our child handle these transitions, and honestly I don’t think it’s healthy for him to spend so much time with a screen or to try to handle a remote school day “independently” with no support from us.
We made the mistake of admitting to school personnel that it’s likely we won’t be able to fully participate in every Zoom meeting scheduled each week, and asked what other avenues—such as written instructions—might be available to keep up with what we miss. The administration says they can’t support this, as they are accountable for our child’s learning, and that if we cannot participate 100 percent, then we should withdraw from the school.
I now know it was a mistake to be open with them about our limitations, and we should’ve just kept quiet and done the best we could. Do we cross our fingers behind our backs and promise our child will attend all the meetings, even though we know it won’t happen? I have a feeling the teachers would have been more flexible than the administrators, but now that we’re here I don’t know what to do.
—Beg Forgiveness, Don’t Ask Permission
Dear Beg Forgiveness, Don’t Ask Permission,
I’m surprised by the response of administration. Given the enormous degree of uncertainty in the world today related to health, employment, housing, and child care, my expectation is for schools to work as closely and flexibly as possible with each family, keeping in mind that the support and stability available in one home will not be equivalent in another.
Frankly, it’s an appalling response. My gut says to withdraw from this school simply based upon their unwillingness to provide flexibility and understanding. If they can’t find a measure of empathy and understanding in the midst of a pandemic, how will they treat your family when the world has returned to normal?
If you’re willing to look past this, I would still be wary about proceeding with this school. You’ve unknowingly put yourself on their radar, which means that when your daughter misses classes, the school will be less inclined to accept your reasons for her absences.
This school year is going to be hard enough already without an adversarial administrator making your life even more difficult.
If you are set on private school, perhaps there is another one in your area that would be more understanding of your family’s needs and is more capable of empathizing with the needs of families during these unprecedented times. And of course, you may also want to consider your local public school. You need a solid, dependable partner in your daughter’s education more than ever. Find one that fits the bill. Good luck.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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My son Gavin is about to start first grade in the same class as our neighbor friend Samuel. Samuel is a good kid, but he’s had a unique set of circumstances involving an incarcerated single parent and shuffling guardianship, and he has a tendency to be controlling of his peers and sometimes bullies Gavin. This is truly not intended as a humblebrag, but I noticed an uptick of these behaviors after Samuel realized that Gavin is a stronger reader despite being six months younger. I keep a watchful eye on it when they play together in the neighborhood.
My question is about whether or not I should give their teacher any heads-up about the dynamic. My son still enjoys playing with Samuel, and I can’t tell if it’s because he’s unaware of the behaviors, or because, due to the pandemic, he doesn’t have many play options. He will likely want to be partnered with Samuel once face-to-face learning resumes. I don’t want to give their teacher an unfairly preconceived notion of this child because of course he deserves a chance, and perhaps finally returning to school will even him out some.
But I also have concerns that if they were in the same group, it may have a negative effect on Gavin’s behavior, or possibly his learning outputs if he does start to get the sense that his friend resents him for it. Should I send the teacher a kindly worded message that although they are friends, they may not work well together, or not say anything and let her determine who works best with who?
—Helpful or Harmful?
Dear Helpful or Harmful,
I’m sure some teachers would disagree with me, but I always prefer to have information upfront. There are so many variables that go into managing an early elementary classroom: gender, race, class, reading level, math level, writing proficiency, maturity level, ability to work independently, ability to work in groups, willingness to speak in groups. Factoring in interpersonal relationships, whether positive or negative, is an important piece.
I don’t think you need to share your hypothesis that Samuel feels resentment about Gavin’s reading level, nor is it your job to disclose details about Samuel’s personal life and your suspicions about why he might be acting out. You can just share that they know each other, that they’re “friends,” but that it’s not all wine and roses between them. Suggest that putting them in the same groups might not be best for either boy, and request that, if they are put in groups, the teachers keep their eyes peeled for controlling or bullying behavior.
Who knows? Their relationship might look totally different at school. But it’s worth giving the teacher a heads-up.
—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)
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My daughter will start first grade this year and will participate in the full-time
virtual learning option in our district for the first nine weeks. She had a great year in kindergarten last year (in-person and virtual to finish the year), and we had positive conversations with her teacher on how she met social and educational expectations.
The reoccurring area of concern, for a lack of a better word, is that she lacks confidence in her abilities. This is especially true with math and reading. For example, if a new math activity is challenging for her, she becomes quiet, sullen, sad, and frustrated and declares she’s horrible at math. We encourage her to try her best and give her reassurance that she is doing a good job, but it seems to make little difference. How can we foster more confidence and resilience at home, especially now that we are looking at virtual learning for the foreseeable future?
Dear Girl Power,
I’m sorry to hear your daughter isn’t feeling confident with math and reading. It can be tough when subjects and concepts that are so important occasionally make so little sense. To help, I’d recommend finding ways to gamify her instruction. If you’re new to that concept, gamification is the application of game-design elements into non-game contexts—in your case, first grade math and reading. You can read more on the subject here, but in essence the goal is finding ways to make this learning fun. Gamification through rewards-based incentives is one way to help make learning less laborious. When I was a kid, I hated reading, so my mom, a teacher herself, put Skittles at the bottom of every page of a chapter book, and I could only eat it when the page was complete. If you’re not down to bribe your kid with candy, there are of course non-sucrose methods you can use as well, but you get my point.
In addition to gamification, I’d recommend doing some socio-emotional work on how to be OK with failure and to help her develop a growth mindset. One of my former co-workers introduced me to the “power of yet,” which is a teaching philosophy where instead of allowing students to say they can’t do something, we challenge them to say and believe they can’t do it yet. There’s a super-cute Sesame Street video featuring one my favorite artists Janelle Monae that does a great job of explaining this.
—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)
I am a new teacher, starting my first year this September. I graduated with my bachelor’s of education this spring and did some small-group online teaching, but it was nothing too challenging since the students were all really well-behaved.
I am so stressed about the upcoming school year. My province has not yet told us how we will be teaching yet—whether it will be online, in person, or some combination of the two. Since I am new, I don’t even know how things are supposed to be normally, so I am planning everything from scratch without knowing where we will be in the fall.
I want to keep my students safe. I want to keep myself and my family safe. I also want to impress my principal and show her I’m a competent teacher so that I will be rehired next year.
How can I keep my students safe when we don’t have enough tables to have students 2 meters apart? How can I best support and inspire my students when I am so stressed and terrified every day? How can I show my principal I am a devoted and enthusiastic teacher during a pandemic? I know everyone is going through the same things right now, but being a new teacher I can’t push back or question anything because I’m not yet permanent!
Basically my question is: How do I plan for the upcoming school year with so many unknowns?
—New Kid on the Block
Dear New Kid,
Your letter broke my heart a little. I can’t imagine going into the classroom (or … not, as the case may be) for the first time under these circumstances. You sound like a conscientious and committed new teacher, and I want you to sustain your eagerness. Most teachers I know have periods where they feel burnout nipping at their heels; COVID will make this even harder. So, if you want to be a lifer—or even a longer-than-five-yearser—you should prioritize a tenable, long-term mindset. To do that, try to focus on what you can control. You can’t control your province’s decisions or the speed at which they’re made. You certainly can’t control safety when you haven’t been given the proper space or equipment to do so. You can’t control the pandemic, nor the way it’s affecting your students, nor the impact it will have on your classroom.
What you can control, first, is the way you take care of yourself. You can take care of your well-being and your mental health, using whatever strategies suit you best. You can control the expectations you set for yourself; you can focus on improving one attainable, bite-size, tangible thing in your teaching each day rather than feeling disappointed and guilty because you set your vision too lofty for the circumstances.
You also can’t control the way your principal ultimately perceives you, but you can choose to set yourself up for success. Teaching is a learn-by-doing profession, so if your principal is decent, they won’t be expecting academic miracles right out of the gate (especially not this year!). What they will be looking for is potential for growth—your adaptability, your receptiveness to hearing and implementing feedback, your ability to reflect on and learn from mistakes, and the gradual improvement all those qualities will bring. One way you can demonstrate that is by seeking out resources. Many districts offer a formal coaching program for first-year teachers, but if you haven’t been introduced to anything like that yet (or if your district doesn’t happen to have one), I’d get in touch with your principal and ask to be connected to an experienced, effective teacher who would be willing to mentor you as you get your feet wet. Then, the very first question you should ask your mentor would be to explain the best practices for virtual teaching that they were able to develop last spring. (You may find Slate’s teacher guide to effective distance learning helpful.) Next, you should ask for help developing a simple, straightforward plan for the first two weeks of school, with a clear contingency plan for each of the various modes of delivery you might be asked to facilitate. Get through the first week and a half. Then start thinking about the next two.
There’s going to be a lot more to it than that, of course. You will be fielding curveball after change of plans after rude awakening after curveball again—but you can’t control or prepare for that. What you can do is ask for all the guidance you can handle, and then put one foot in front of the other, taking it one manageable chunk at a time. Two weeks by two weeks, you’ll get through it.
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)
More Advice From Slate
Is lap-sitting with a teacher OK? Recently I volunteered at my son’s school for a few hours for an assembly. I was looking around at all the kids watching the program and noticed a child who appeared to be a first grade special-needs student sitting on the lap of the school’s only male teacher. My alarm bells were going off. What should I do?
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