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 firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
We have our 6-year-old child in a Catholic school, and Catholic schools are the few schools open for in-person learning in our county. The year started with distance learning and without much notice opened for in-person learning, with an option to continue distance learning if desired. For a variety of reasons (rushed reopening with some serious safety concerns in the plan, no smaller class sizes, mixing cohorts at extended care, being the first schools in our area to reopen for in-person, and someone in our family who’s considered high-risk), we have continued distance learning for the past four weeks (along with half of the 30 students).
We’ve had quite a few concerns regarding the reopening plan, which we addressed with the principal, who did make some adjustments to make things safer. But it seems that in many ways, our child’s first grade teacher isn’t offering flexibility in some of the distance learning guidance. She won’t offer weekly packets of the required paperwork to distance learners, and we are expected to print all of the tests and graded assignments, use multiple platforms for different types of work, etc. My biggest concern, however, is how the teacher disciplines these 6-year-olds who are living through a pandemic!
Since we are on Zoom for at least five hours a day (also a serious concern of too much screen time for 6-year-olds), I am able to listen to the class. The teacher treats the class like they are middle school–aged kids. She is very strict in correcting what I see as normal 6-year-old behavior. She threatens to rip up and throw away tests if they talk during a test. She says things like “Are you bleeding, is there a bone sticking out?!! Why did you interrupt me?!” She also gets very annoyed and impatient when children who are distance learning (some of whom have working parents who may have to step away from the screen) get lost or ask questions. She spent 10 minutes today complaining to her students about all the work she had to grade last night after helping her own kids and making dinner, and that she lost her Saturday too because she was too busy grading their papers. It was odd behavior and not appropriate in my opinion to make the children feel guilty for turning in assigned work.
Now I am not only concerned about sending my child back due to the risks of COVID; I am also worried about this drill instructor first grade teacher. Am I just a big softie and have unreasonable expectations for first grade teachers? My hope is they’d be patient, kind, and nurturing, especially considering the unprecedented stress we are all facing.
I truly appreciate the difficulty of teaching a hybrid class of half distance learning and half in-person, and I frequently tell her thank you for all of her hard work. But I’m reaching the end of my rope with the negativity and strictness of this teacher. I have spoken to several other parents, and they share my concerns.
I’ve been the squeaky wheel already with the school’s COVID reopening plan and my distance learning concerns. I’m feeling tired of what seems like an ongoing battle of advocating for my child. But I’m wondering if I should contact the principal and discuss my concerns of her approach to discipline. I’m fearful to approach the teacher directly for fear of reprisal directed at my child. Should I ask the room parent to submit my concerns to the principal on behalf of an anonymous concerned parent?
Thank you for reading, and I hope to be able to work with the teacher to make this terrible situation a little easier for all!
—Tired of Being the Squeaky Wheel
As a teacher, I always try to assume that there is probably more to the story when a parent describes a situation like the one you describe in your letter, but none of the behaviors that you have outlined is acceptable, and it’s hard to imagine any scenario where they might be understandable.
It frankly sounds like an unproductive, potentially damaging dynamic that needs to be rectified immediately. We are all more fragile than ever before, but teachers must recognize that as much pressure, stress, and fear we may feel, our students are likely experiencing similar feelings to a far greater degree. Thus, we must be beacons of positivity and hope for our students. We need to make them feel safe, supported, and loved. We must put aside our own stresses when teaching so that our students can be successful, both academically and socially/emotionally.
In the case of younger children, this is especially critical. Your child is now developing an opinion and attitude toward school and learning. This opinion will likely persist moving forward, so it is critical that his experience is positive. It’s never fun to be the squeaky wheel, especially if you have squeaked before, but the difficulty and awkwardness of this moment will be far outweighed by the benefits to your child and the children in his class moving forward.
Momentary, temporary discomfort is little to pay when it comes to your child’s future. As always, I would advise that you speak to your child’s teacher first. Tell her exactly what you’ve heard that concerns you. Have notes on hand to make it clear that these observations have been documented. Perhaps a dose of reality and perspective will be enough to facilitate change. Express understanding for how incredibly hard it must be to teach remotely, but this doesn’t mean that the social and emotional health of exceptionally fragile children in the midst of a pandemic can be ignored. Be direct: “Will you be able to change the behaviors that I have described?” If she is receptive and responds affirmatively, give her a chance. But be prepared to speak to the principal too, if you don’t see the changes you desire. You don’t want this behavior to persist for any longer than necessary. You are right to be concerned. Don’t delay.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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My daughter is in sixth grade. Her teacher seems great, and I’m impressed with the way she’s handling virtual learning—she seems very committed to her students, to teaching, and she communicates with students and parents well.
But we’re three weeks into school, and my daughter (who loves school and does not typically complain) is miserable and bored in her English language arts learning block. The teacher clearly hasn’t divided kids up into groups yet, and the kids are all going through shared lessons together that definitely seem a grade level or even two below what my daughter is used to.
How long should I give this teacher to settle in before I talk to her about some possible enrichment learning for my daughter? This teacher typically teaches math, so I wonder if she’s just getting her feet wet with the ELA material. Or I wonder if she’s in the midst of assessing students’ abilities so that she can group them according to their needs? But another part of me worries that given the pandemic, this is just the best her elementary school can offer this year. How long should I wait before I talk to the teacher about my daughter’s dissatisfaction? How long does it generally take for teachers to really start to tailor learning to kids’ various abilities and needs?
—Patience Is a Virtue, but I’m Not That Patient
How long it generally takes for teachers to start to tailor learning to kids’ abilities and needs and how long that will take this year are two different balls of wax.
I teach eighth grade English, and I usually start the first quarter reviewing concepts that all of my students will be applying all year. I provide remediation and enrichment for each topic, and they have a lot of choice in how they complete the projects, but the lessons themselves are pretty uniform. By second quarter I know the kids, their strengths and challenges, and I’ve reviewed all the data, from previous standardized tests and from my own classroom assignments. I feel confident then separating them into groups based on what they know and can do and tailoring instructions as necessary.
This year, I don’t even know what color hair many of my kids have. They didn’t take the end-of-grade test last year. And I can’t stop their last year’s teacher in the hallway to bend their ear. I’m having to deduce their capabilities and needs based on limited Zoom interactions and digital assignments. It’s weird, man.
That said, it’s always OK to ask your kid’s teacher about intentions, timelines, etc. Be tactful, obviously—something like: I’m so happy my daughter is in your class this year. You’re obviously very committed to your students, to teaching, and you communicate with students and parents well. My daughter has always loved ELA, and she seems to know the material you’re going over now. Are the students going to be broken into ability groups at some point? Her previous teachers have done that, but I know teachers have tons on their plates, so things are taking longer than years past.
The other thing you could do is encourage your daughter to reach out to her teacher. I had one student email her whole team of teachers asking for more work. She and I formed a classics book club and will be reading The Count of Monte Cristo. We’re going to see if any other students want to join. After we’re done reading, I think we’ll have a viewing party for one of the movie versions!
Your daughter is in sixth grade. It’s a good time for her to start communicating independently with her teachers and advocating for her own needs as a learner.
—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)
My 4-year-old son (turning 5 in November) is really struggling in his pre-K Zoom class. He already knows his ABCs, 123s, days of the week, etc., and his teacher last year felt he was ready for kindergarten. But he’s an only child, so we enrolled him in pre-K again for socialization. But given the virtual learning environment, he’s not really getting any of that. What he is getting is in trouble. He gets very bored and frustrated and is then scolded by the teacher for not watching the screen. He is listening, but he will color or read a book when he gets bored. I don’t think he should be called out for it because he’s not disrupting anyone else by doing it, but she’s insistent. Do I make him stare at the screen? Do I try to get him into kindergarten? Do I give up and try again next year? Should a 4-year-old really have to pay attention to a conference call for 2½ hours?
—Bored in Baltimore
Well, first and foremost, no one should have to “pay attention” to anything for two hours by staring at it. That’s not a reasonable expectation for an adult, let alone a 4-year-old. It should not be a problem if he’s listening and his eyes are elsewhere; it’s normal.
Maybe I’m biased because a big part of special education is finding ways of accommodating a student’s sensory needs so that they can function for a full day, but I think having a fidget or doodling are totally acceptable for anyone. I listen better when I have something in my hands, and as I often remind parents, we’re all guilty of habits like tapping our feet or clicking our pens or biting our nails when we’re thinking or spacing out. It’s natural.
That said, I’d give his teacher the benefit of the doubt. She may be under some kind of pressure from the school’s administration to make sure the kids are “engaged” for the full class time, and since she can’t see what he’s doing off camera, the easiest way for her to do that is probably to try and get him to do nothing but look at the camera. It’s not great pedagogy, but it might be the best she feels she can do.
To your larger question about what to do: Truthfully, I would have sent him to kindergarten. He would have been a hair on the young side, but turning 5 in November is old enough to hack it. I don’t know your son, so I can’t say with certainty that you made the wrong choice, but unless you have a specific reason to be concerned about his social skills or his maturity level, I would say kindergarten might be the way to go. It’s possible it’s too late for this year, but it might be worth a phone call to your school district to see what options you have available.
If you can’t enroll him in kindergarten, I’d have a frank conversation with his teacher. Explain to her that he’s trying to listen, but it’s hard for him to be still that long—something she almost certainly already knows—and ask what she’d like him to be doing with his hands. In my preschool classroom, we had a box of appropriate fidgets for circle time (books and crayons are not what I’d consider appropriate fidgets for circle time, for the record). Our box contained items like stress balls and beanbags, for example. If she doesn’t have an answer, suggest a fidget. You can buy them online, or you can make your own at home.
For what it’s worth, the teachers I know who are running virtual classrooms this year are constantly evaluating their lessons and trying to improve as we attempt to navigate this strange, new world of learning. It’s possible that she doesn’t have a good plan in place for a student who already possesses the skills she’s teaching. Hopefully your conversation with her will prompt her to develop one.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
I’m pregnant with my first child, and above all the fears I’ve been having, there’s one that I worry about the most: that my child will struggle in school in the same way I did. Yes, I do realize it’s incredibly premature for me to have this worry. But I suppose I’m writing to validate my own experience and to get an idea of alternative ways my parents and teachers could’ve handled this.
I struggled with math every single year I was in school, to the point that I now have zero desire to use math any more than what is absolutely necessary for day-to-day life. I’m 30 years old, and I still can’t grasp how to subtract percentages to get a sale price. But I feel OK about that because, hey, smartphones!
Growing up, however, we weren’t allowed calculators in many math classes. Every year was a new battle filled with daily anxiety attacks, embarrassment in class, crying, you name it. My parents tried every resource they could think of: workbooks, private tutors, tutoring centers, staying after school on every available tutoring day, extra credit assignments to bring up my grades to the point of barely passing.
I excelled in every other subject in school, but my math classes always threatened to fail me an entire grade. I couldn’t, and still don’t, understand why a student passing everything else would be penalized for difficulty in one subject, when algebra isn’t actively practiced in so many career fields.
I know my child isn’t even here yet, but I already feel fiercely protective of her. We plan on sending her to a public school (the one we’re zoned for is supposed to be great). Aside from the resources my parents implemented, what on earth else can a parent do for a child who just doesn’t get it? What I would want to do is tell the school that geometry is unnecessary (because no one is forcing anyone into becoming an engineer) and to lay off (because, again, smartphones and calculators). But ultimately I know that it’s probably not an option for a student to abandon an entire subject because a parent doesn’t think it’s necessary.
That said, I don’t want to force my child to miss out on electives and time spent outside in their childhood so they can sit crying and struggling for hours to get through five math problems. I realize this is all hypothetical, but it’s giving me anxiety nonetheless. My school experience was in the early ’90s to mid-2000s. How do parents and teachers handle this issue now? And how can I help my child if it does become a thing in the future? Do schools let kids use calculators now? (Please say they do.)
—Math Gives Me Nightmares
I hate to break it to you, but unless your district is vastly different from most, your daughter will probably need to take both algebra and geometry. Will she be able to use a calculator? I know that many high school students do use them in advanced math courses, but their use in elementary school remains controversial. Since I am an English teacher, I don’t consider myself qualified to say when or how students should use calculators. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ official position is that calculators are useful tools but they “do not negate the need for students to develop paper-and-pencil and mental methods.” In short, your daughter is going to have to learn to do math on her own.
But try not to get ahead of yourself. Your struggles with math were very real, but they will not necessarily be your daughter’s. She might love math! Or she might be “just OK” with it. She is not destined to share your trauma.
You’ve asked what a parent can do when their child “just doesn’t get” a subject. My first piece of advice is to caution you against passing your math anxiety on to your daughter. You can be honest about your struggles, of course, but avoid negative self-talk (and negative statements about math) in her presence. Children sometimes cast themselves in a role, like “the kid who’s bad at math,” and these roles can make their challenges even more difficult to overcome. Instead, focus on helping your daughter embrace a growth mindset, to teach her to believe that she can learn new things and overcome challenges.
If your child does struggle in school, of course you must address the issue. But first you need to identify it. Your letter gives me the impression that your parents made a valiant effort to support you academically, but you don’t say whether or not you were evaluated for a learning disability in math? It’s possible that while you were offered lots of help, it may not have been the right help. Sometimes students with learning disabilities need support that differs from traditional tutoring. In fact, many special education IEPs require that teachers provide calculators, which you may find reassuring. To be clear, I’m not saying that you definitely have an undiagnosed learning disability, but it could explain why all of that tutoring didn’t seem to help you.
It’s also possible the academic support you received was insufficient for a different reason. Obviously math was a struggle for you, but so was anxiety. While the tutoring was meant to help with math, it did nothing to alleviate your stress. It’s possible you could have used some help with mental health and coping strategies instead. Since math was bringing on the tears and panic attacks, I can understand why your parents provided you with tutoring, but perhaps they should have addressed the feelings before the academics. I’m not criticizing your parents—I think as a society we have become much more aware of anxiety than we used to be.
Finally, know that you can give yourself permission to do things a bit differently than your parents did. You are right that there can be such a thing as “too much” when it comes to school. Extra tutoring or time studying may be necessary, but time to play outside and explore other interests is equally important. If a child needs to spend an hour or two at a tutoring center on Saturday morning, then I think they should get an equal amount of time (or even the rest of the day) to do whatever they want.
I do sympathize with your worries. I spent much of my first pregnancy ruminating over dozens of “what-if” scenarios. Motherhood can certainly be anxiety-provoking, and if you feel your anxiety continuing to plague you, get some help! It’s a common problem many of us face.
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I had my daughter three months ago. I’ve always been tall and thin, and I had a 9-pound baby. I got back to my normal weight almost immediately, just due to good genes I guess. My issue is that other women are pretty mad at me. My co-worker this morning upon seeing me for the first time since returning to work said, “I hate you.” I know this is all meant as a compliment, but I’m really at a loss as to what to say. Any advice?