Care and Feeding

Why Is My School Spending Its Precious Resources on Virtual P.E. Right Now?

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Big Cheese Photo/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.

I am writing to you with a question that I am afraid to ask my children’s principal or district administrators for fear of sounding insensitive or unappreciative.

I have two sons attending remote elementary school in first and fifth grade. We live just outside of Seattle, and our district is committed to entirely remote learning for the foreseeable future. The kids are scheduled to be at “school” from 9–3 every day with periods of synchronous and asynchronous learning and frequent breaks. This has been going more or less OK with a few minor glitches, but their teachers are really working hard, and I am very grateful.

Once or twice a week they will have pretaped lessons with the librarian, P.E. teacher, or music teacher. These videos are about four or five minutes long and sometimes (not always), the lesson has been the same for my first grader as my fifth grader. The kids have to film themselves doing an assignment outlined in the video (which usually requires parent help for the first grader). The students then send the video back to the specialist teacher, upon which the teacher will give them a heart or a thumbs up response. My question is: What are these specials teachers doing all day? Aren’t the full-time grade-level teachers who are working their tails off angry about this?

I’m perhaps wondering this because our principal just informed us that due to low enrollment, we are losing a first grade teacher. In the meantime, they have these fully credentialed P.E., library, and music teachers pulling full salaries, and it seems like they aren’t adding as much as another full-time first grade teacher would. Am I missing something here? Is this a really insensitive thing to wonder about?

I really want to support the teachers because I cannot even imagine the kind of commitment to craft that it takes to teach first graders remotely. But every time I see the three-minute music teacher videos (that my kid always needs me to stop working and come help him with), I can’t help but wonder whether this music teacher’s salary could be put to better use elsewhere.

—Money Well Spent?

Dear Money Well Spent,

I’m really happy to hear that your kids’ virtual learning experiences are going more or less OK, and I totally get your frustration. However, I’d be slow to place your critique on the specialist teachers or even your principal. First, while moving teachers from a specialist position to a classroom position is certainly possible, it is very unlikely to happen. As is the case with most public schools, public school teachers here in Washington are represented by a local education association (union) and our collective bargaining agreements (contracts) often include very clear guidelines and restrictions on changing job assignments, which means that there’s not much room for flexibility.

Second, I believe your perception of what the specialist teachers provide is limited. As a classroom teacher, I am responsible 25–30 students. Specialist teachers are responsible for the entire school—at my school, that’s about 500 students, who these specialists meet with weekly. Like any other educator, specialist teachers have curriculum they need to get through and standards they need to teach. While the nature of their job and instruction may be different, it is just as critical to the health and well-being of the school and students to have specialist education. In fact, I’d argue that during these times specials throughout the week can provide students with a crucial respite from more strictly academic learning.

As an administrator, even if it was within my control to have some flexibility with staffing, I would have a hard time justifying pulling a specialist teacher from their current position to cover a single first grade classroom, because then the entire school would be left missing out on an educational opportunity for the good of 25 kids. I’ll also add that with so much uncertainty and change, I think it’s valuable to be understanding of just how much our educators, administrators, and all school staff are trying to juggle as we try to make the best of a truly unprecedented time in our history.

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

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I have three girls in public school in Massachusetts, and part of the district’s public health initiative is measuring students’ BMI at school. This is, as far as I can tell, done because of a law passed to combat obesity.

I just really don’t want my girls having their BMI measured at school. Not only has it been established that BMI is a poor indicator of health or obesity, I am afraid for what it could stir up in my daughters who could struggle with body image issues as they get older. I have a history of disordered eating and body dysmorphia and try very hard to not expose my kids to it. I want them to have healthy relationships with food, exercise, and their bodies, which is hard enough in a world where people, girls especially, are bombarded with messages about what they “should” look like. Not to mention their height, weight, and health is evaluated every year by their pediatrician, anyway.

Is there any recourse here? I don’t want to make them stand out from the crowd by opting them out of this particular form of humiliation any more than I want to subject them to it. It also seems like the spirit of this law is to monitor public health … can’t they just request anonymized pediatric health data if that’s the case? What would you do in my shoes?

—Leave the Kids Alone

Dear Leave the Kids Alone,

It looks like the state of Massachusetts did in fact pass a law in 2009 mandating BMI screenings for public school students in first, fourth, seventh, and 10th grade. According to these guidelines published by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the school is supposed to notify parents in writing that they can opt out.

I share your concern with this practice, especially since there is not sufficient evidence to prove that it promotes health. Furthermore, I agree with you that health comes in all shapes and sizes, and healthy self-esteem is as important as a healthy body.

If I were in your shoes, I would consider the impact the BMI screening would have on your daughters versus the impact of not participating. The guidelines I mentioned above do state that the BMI data must be kept confidential, so the school is most likely conducting these screenings privately in, say, a nurse’s office, not with dozens of kids lined up in the gym peeking at the number on the scale. Therefore, no one else should know their BMI, and no one should notice if they don’t participate.

I also recommend that you talk with your daughters about the BMI screening, especially when they are in seventh and 10th grades. Your first grader may not think twice about being weighed at school, but by middle and high school she is likely to have her own opinion. Share your perspective and listen to hers. An open, honest conversation will give you a sense of how much of an impact this experience will have. I think it’s perfectly fine to empower your daughters to make the final decision on whether they will participate.

In the meantime, write to your state lawmakers! After 10 years of data, they ought to evaluate whether or not this program has had a positive impact on public health.

Best of luck to you and your girls!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My daughter is in fourth grade and has dyslexia and ADHD. She has an IEP and gets support with writing. I’ve been advocating for support in math and was planning on pushing hard for that this year. Her teacher is amazing, and it would be a perfect fit if they were in class. My daughter actually does pretty well with online school except for math. I’ve watched the class and her teacher is clearly trying her best, but it isn’t working for my kid.

In a regular school year, I’d ask to meet with the teacher and come up with a plan. This year, I’ve decided that instead of having her learn math through her online class with her teacher, I will use a home-school math program that closely mirrors our school curriculum, and she and I will schedule the time in (our already packed) schedules for her to learn it. I am not officially pulling her out of the school system for this—she’ll probably still do the end-of-unit assessments and any tests with her class—but I will be teaching her the material rather than her teacher.

I wonder how much of this I should tell the teacher. On one hand, I know the teacher would like to know what is going on and how she can help. On the other hand, there is little she can do, and I don’t want her to think that we put any of the responsibility on her. I don’t want to add to her stress knowing that she can’t do much to fix it. She’s an amazing teacher and I want to be supportive of both her and my daughter.

—To Tell or Not to Tell

Dear To Tell,

Education at its best is a partnership between teachers and parents. In order to make that partnership work, communication and transparency are key. I understand and appreciate your concern for the feelings of your child’s teacher, but ultimately, your child’s education is of paramount importance. This should come first and foremost. Teachers are professionals, so they need to be prepared to receive feedback of all kinds.

So yes, I would talk to her teacher. Some kind words and reassurances can probably soften the blow for your teacher, but even that might not be necessary. No teacher entered this profession with experience, expertise, or training on remote learning, so I suspect that most teachers understand that this year they may be falling short to meet some of their students’ needs.

In fact, your approach may be a relief to the teacher. If I knew that a parent was going to assume the helm of math instruction, I would be thrilled. Knowing that an adult will be sitting beside my student, assisting in their instruction every step of the way, sounds ideal in this world of distance learning and videoconferencing. If I can’t be standing beside a student, guiding the way, I’d be excited to know that someone else will be.

I’d also want to know because even if the parents does assume the role of math teacher, there are many ways that I could support that parent. I might be able to share simple strategies to help my student gain understanding. I could suggest ways of bringing manipulatives to traditional paper and pencil mathematics. I could direct the parent to online resources or even literature that might connect math to other parts of the curriculum. There are many ways for teachers to support parents at home.

My advice: Trust in the professionalism of the teacher. Foster the power of the educational partnership.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I need some advice on how to get my almost-12-year-old daughter to listen to us. She just started her first year of middle school. It’s been overwhelming, as in elementary school she had no homework, and her teachers were quite lenient about unfinished work, often not requiring her to finish it. She now has homework every day. She has many missed assignments, though teachers have given her opportunities to finish them. Ultimately, her grades in some this first quarter were “fail” because of the missing assignments. I have been very frustrated by it.

She refuses to ask for help from her teachers. In her mind, she thinks if she asks a question, it means that she is not smart. She also has expressed that she doesn’t feel comfortable asking questions. While she doesn’t seem to care much about how she does at school, she also seems very stressed.

I have tried sitting down with her to give her advice, but she has refused to listen to me. I am now seeing bad behaviors at home as well. Our school is all virtual, which only makes things harder. Do you have any advice?

—Where Do I Start?

Dear Where Do I Start,

Well, my first suggestion is try to look at this transition through your daughter’s eyes. It’s hard to parent middle schoolers, and it’s hard to teach middle schoolers. But it’s even harder to be a middle schooler. As Pen15 and Big Mouth and Eighth Grade have all served to remind us, being 12 years old is in the upper pantheon of human agonies. I know you’re frustrated, but your girl is struggling. She’s not refusing or apathetic; she’s struggling. I think you need to lead with empathy, good listening, and encouragement as she gets through this period of early adolescence.

Second, I want to reassure you that this is normal. Going from elementary school to middle school is a considerable transition, and even under nonpandemic circumstances, it’s very, very common for kids to struggle to get their bearings. As you’ve noted, the workload increases, and correspondingly, the need for executive functioning skills does too. Middle schoolers are on a steep learning curve; skills like time and task management, organization, and planning ahead are more critical than ever before, but mastering them takes explicit instruction, repetition, and practice. Many kids flounder at first. And as you’ve also noted, this process corresponds with the new and intense self-consciousness of adolescence, leaving many kids very reluctant to advocate for themselves and seek help, even when they really need it.

On top of that, we’re not in normal circumstances—at all. While many people, kids included, have developed some situational coping skills since this pandemic began, we are still living through a crisis, and it doesn’t surprise me that making an already-jarring transition in an unprecedented and imperfect learning environment has left her stressed and flailing.

So: It’s time to schedule a parent-teacher conference. Most schools I know are offering some sort of virtual office hours with teachers, and it is perfectly OK to reach out and ask for some time to discuss your daughter’s progress so far. She’s not a 15-year-old who’s learned the ropes and is ready for some independence and accountability; she’s still quite young and actively learning how to Do School, including how to interact with her teachers, so it’s not an overstep for you to set up a discussion. You should reassure your daughter that the meeting is not punitive; it’s because you know she’s stressed and uncomfortable and you want to help her be successful. If she balks, well, do it anyway. Use the discussion to explain what you’re seeing at home, but again, keep the framing kind and supportive. Ask concrete questions and look for actions you, your daughter, and her teachers can all take to help her get on track. What have her teachers observed about the work your daughter does complete—are her academic skills meeting expectations, or does she need help with the content of the material? How can your daughter best keep track of what assignments are due and when, especially in the virtual context? How can you help her manage her time to ensure her work is complete? What are the most important steps she can take to improve her grades in the next quarter? How can she get more comfortable with advocating for herself and asking questions when she needs to, and how can you stay in the communication loop too? If you can get some answers to questions like those, you’ll be in good shape to guide her through this.

Your daughter’s bumpy start to sixth grade might be a distant memory by December, or it may take her awhile to figure herself out. It may take you awhile too. It’s hard to strike a balance of being encouraging and validating while also maintaining firm, high expectations. I hope these steps can help you do both.

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

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