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.
My partner is a middle school teacher known for establishing a rapport with “difficult” students and advocating for BIPOC and LGBTQ kids. When he answered a call from a parent one evening, I overheard him talking about his sister. I confronted him about this after he got off the phone, because he does not actually have a sister. He told me that he tells stories about imaginary siblings, cousins, and other family members to connect with his students. I told him this was bizarre, probably unethical, and that I wouldn’t participate in these lies if asked a direct question by one of his students or fellow teachers. I think the lies put his entire career at risk, but he says they’re harmless and unlikely to be discovered. (He’s not on social media, which helps, but students have looked up our home address online and could easily find information on his relatives.) What’s your take on this? I’m not in education, but I find the whole situation baffling and don’t know what to do.
—Would You Lie to Them, Honey?
Whether or not your partner’s behavior is unethical is an interesting question; I suppose the answer lies in how important the truth is to you. Your letter reminds me of a strategy my friend, who is an attorney, used for many years. He was fond of using this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes in his closing arguments: “The law is man’s feeble attempt to be fair.” Juries found this aphorism very persuasive, but Oliver Wendell Holmes never actually said it! My friend doesn’t remember where he heard the expression (I think it may be paraphrased from Bonfire of the Vanities)—but assigning it to Holmes lent the message authority, and juries therefore responded to it. Likewise, your partner probably believes his stories about imaginary relatives convey a “truth” that resonates more than an anecdote about a friend, colleague, or hypothetical person could. Is it honest? No. Will it jeopardize his career? I doubt it. If I were a principal, and a student or parent complained that a teacher was sharing stories about fake family members, I’d probably shrug and continue working on the school budget. Maybe I’d have a conversation with the teacher, but I wouldn’t consider it a fireable offense.
That said, his credibility with his students is another story. If his students discover that your partner’s stories are not real, your partner might lose the credibility and trust he’s worked hard to establish. “Difficult” students are often “difficult” because of trauma induced by the adults in their lives, which makes it harder for them to put their faith in teachers. More generally, middle schoolers entering adolescence naturally become increasingly skeptical of adults. Educators admonish kids to be honest, and so students may view your partner’s fibs as evidence of hypocrisy.
I don’t think you have to do anything at all but let your partner decide whether he should continue to tell tales about imaginary sisters. Of course, you are under no obligation to affirm his stories if you do meet a student or colleague who asks about them. They are his fibs, so he alone is responsible for any fallout.
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
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My son is in fifth grade, doing in-person school so far, and thriving. A week ago, he was the last kid standing in what was basically a geography bee in his social studies class, and his teacher said he would bring him a doughnut as a prize.
For my kid, doughnuts are more valuable than just about any other material on earth, so he was naturally very happy about this prize. The doughnut has yet to materialize, and he’s miffed about it. He mentioned it to me before school this morning.
On the surface, a doughnut is a small thing. But if a teacher tells a student he’ll do something, what’s his obligation to follow through? Do we let this go, and let my son learn the lesson that sometimes people don’t keep promises or say, “Maybe he was joking,” and move on (and get him a sweet treat ourselves)—or should I drop the teacher a note and say, “Hey, you promised little Alphonse a reward, and it would be great if you would follow through on that. He prefers chocolate glazed”?
I’m overthinking this, aren’t I?
—I Doughnut Know
Here is my shameful confession: I am totally this teacher. I don’t offer rewards and prizes and other extrinsic motivators as a general practice, but there’s no denying that the occasional offer of a special treat ratchets up the stakes and injects some competitive fun and energy into a lesson. Unless, of course, you then forget for two days, run too late to stop at Dunkin’ the third, buy the doughnut but accidentally leave it in the staff room to be mistaken as a free snack on the fourth, and finally, on the fifth day, manage to proffer a fresh doughnut to the prizewinner, at which point the glory of the victory is distinctly subdued. I know. I know! I told you it was shameful.
So, speaking from experience: The teacher absolutely should follow through! Maybe he genuinely forgot about his promise, or maybe he remembers and is already extremely rueful about the mishaps and personal shortcomings that have led to his failure to deliver in a timely fashion, but either way, he made the offer and he needs to stick to it. True, sometimes people don’t keep promises to other people, but teachers should keep promises to students, even if it is a small thing like a chocolate glazed. (And it’s in the teacher’s own best interest, too. While little incentives like this can add a quick shot of motivation in the short term, you lose that investment and more if the incentives fail to materialize. A late doughnut is still a whole lot better than no doughnut at all.)
I’d first nudge Alphonse to check in with the teacher himself; he might not need any more than a friendly reminder. If a check-in or two from a hopeful fifth grader doesn’t do the trick, do drop the teacher a note. Don’t say, “You promised little Alphonse a reward, and it would be great if you would follow through on that.” Do say, “Hey, little Alphonse has been coming home asking for a doughnut he won in the geography bee, but I’m not clear on when he should expect it. Could you clarify about the prize in case he asks again? Thanks, and we hope you’re having a smooth start to school reopening!” Give him the chance to fix it … and get little Alphonse his treat if he doesn’t. In a year with as little joy as this one has offered, fifth graders ought to, at least, see the promise of a doughnut fulfilled.
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)
Could you outline what you believe are realistic expectations teachers should have of elementary students attending school from home? I’m the mother of a second grader, and I often eavesdrop on the daily proceedings. While some teachers seem to understand that they can’t execute classroom management the same way they would in person, some of them seem to be doing the same old stuff they would’ve done in the school building.
My kid has mostly stayed out of the dragnet thus far, but he did get snapped at by one teacher for standing instead of sitting (who cares?!??). I heard the same snappy teacher give one kid a hard time for fiddling with drumsticks, and give another kid actual demerits for putting the answer to a math problem into the chat function of the virtual classroom. (Thankfully, my son’s main teacher seems to have much more reasonable expectations, so Mrs. Snappy is not ruining our virtual experience.)
Teachers of K–3 graders who complain about kids eating/drinking on camera, fiddling with something in their little hands, or taking any position aside from sitting still seem to have no understanding of how small children need to survive being in a virtual classroom for hours a day. I would love for you to write something I can link to if I need to ask that my kids’ teachers adjust their expectations during these horrible times.
Dear Grating Expectations,
You are correct. If teachers are not altering their expectations for their students in a virtual environment, they are making a terrible mistake.
I also think that the expectations are going to differ dramatically depending on the grade level. My wife teaches kindergarten, and her expectations are going to differ dramatically from the expectations of a third grade teacher. My wife, for example, describes the time she spends with her kindergartners online as “putting on a show.” She has to be incredibly engaging to keep the attention of 5-year-old children, whereas third grade students might require a little less personality and a little more rigor.
A lot will also depend on the time spent on the computer. My students, for example, spend no more than 30 minutes at a time with me, and they are 10 years old (fifth graders). As a result, I can ask them to assume a good listening posture (which includes standing), keep their cameras on, find a place where they are well lit, and refrain from eating or engaging in activities that will distract the class. But the younger the student and the longer the session, the more flexibility is needed.
Here are some general guidelines that I think can apply to most K–3 situations:
1. This is a time unlike any other. So many of the things that kids love about school have been taken away, and therefore, making engagement, joy, laughter, and happiness should be the priority. Kids have a hard enough time sitting in classrooms all day. Sitting in a virtual classroom is incredibly difficult for most human beings. How often have you been in a Zoom meeting and remained fully attentive for the entire time? Not checking email once? Not sending a single text message? Not shopping for the latest iPhone accessory? Now imagine being a kid. Teachers must understand, acknowledge, and embrace this reality.
2. When learning occurs online, the adult on the other end of the computer must now assume the role of co-teacher, with all of the rights and responsibilities of a teacher. If you think your child needs a break, take a break. If your child needs to fidget or sit on her head or eat a banana in order to stay engaged, you have every right to turn off the cameras (so those fidgets, head-sits, and bananas don’t distract the other students) and allow your child what they need, just like teachers do in school every day.
3. It’s reasonable to expect that students will keep their cameras on unless they are putting food in their mouths or sitting on their heads. It’s hard enough to ascertain engagement and understanding in a virtual environment where everyone is two-dimensional and muted. Turning the camera off for no reason makes teaching even harder.
4. Distracting behaviors like funny faces and playing with toys are not acceptable simply because they distract from the learning of others. That said, a wise teacher might allow for three 30-second funny-face breaks over the course of a learning session or allow students to bring a toy for the start of every class to accommodate the students’ desires and keep them happy.
5. Students should refrain from using the chat function until the teacher has offered guidance in this regard. While giving a student demerits for entering an answer in chat may sound excessive, students also use the chat function in distracting ways, so it’s reasonable for a teacher to establish guidelines.
6. In all things, I believe in my wife’s mantra: “Compassion over compliance.” It’s a pandemic. Kids are frightened, sad, and lonely. We must do everything to keep them loving learning and loving school until the world returns to normal.
I hope this helps!
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
How much mask compliance is reasonable to expect of a group of 4-year-olds? Fortunately, my daughter (almost 4) took to wearing a mask without a problem. But she is in preschool with 10 other kids, and two of them consistently refuse masks. The school “strongly encourages” masks for this age group, but of course won’t force a child to wear one. What is a reasonable and age-appropriate response? Of course we want all the kids wearing them, but I’m not sure if I have unrealistic expectations. What should I realistically expect the teachers and the school to do? I’m thinking issuing warnings to parents is probably not right, and adding to a teacher’s already huge burden isn’t right either. But at the same time, it’s a safety issue. What is reasonable here?
—Two Too Many
Dear Two Too Many,
You’re not going to like this answer, but I don’t think there’s one reasonable expectation for all 4-year-olds. At my school, the kindergartners (most of whom are 5, but there are a handful of late-birthday 4-year-olds) have generally been compliant with masks, and truthfully, this surprised me. I’ve spent some time reflecting on why they’ve been more successful than I thought they’d be, and I think a few factors are at play.
First, as one of the kindergarten teachers at my school put it, these kids don’t know any better. As far as their lived experience goes, all kids have to wear masks when they come to elementary school. Unfortunately, your daughter’s classmates may be reacting to change; they were used to being mask-free at their preschool, and the change in expectation might be a hard adjustment. But hopefully, if these children have acclimated to the masks in their home lives, wearing the mask at school can be folded into that.
Second, mask compliance where I live is high overall. If mask compliance overall is low where you live, or if those kids’ parents don’t value it, it will be harder for those kids to acclimate to wearing them. (As an aside, I do see a lot of adults wearing their masks just below their noses, and as a result, a lot of my students wear their masks that way, too. Please remember: It must cover your nose!)
Third, you don’t know why these kids won’t wear them. My school district has an incredibly strict mask policy: If a few polite reminders don’t get the mask back on, the child goes to the principal’s office, and the parents receive a phone call. Our district does have, however, two schools filled with students who, for various medical reasons, aren’t expected to wear masks. It’s possible your daughter’s preschool has allowed these students to be exempt from wearing a mask for one reason or another.
The reality, of course, is that no one can “force” a child to wear one anyway. Sure, the school can set a policy like “All students must wear a mask full time or they must enroll in virtual learning.” But since preschools make their money exclusively from tuition, they may be more resistant to enforcing very strict policies.
I think it would be fine, given the circumstances of this pandemic, to inquire with the school about its policy so that you can gauge whether there might be any hope of getting these children to come around on mask-wearing. But if it doesn’t seem like there’s much chance of that, and it feels unsafe to you, you may have to look into other programs.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
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My son is in third grade, and I’ve been very active in volunteering in his classroom. When I emailed his teacher earlier this week to ask what I can do for the Halloween party, she said that she doesn’t need help with it. I’m so upset, and I’d really love to help with it. What should I do?
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