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.
My kid’s virtual kindergarten class had a pretend election on Election Day. When the teacher described what a president does, she used only male pronouns, and then she presented the class with candidates for “president of the forest.” Those candidates were a bear wearing a suit, a fox wearing overalls, and a naked beaver wearing a bow, presenting her rump, and making bedroom eyes. See the photo below. This is nuts, right? Do I have to say something about this, or should I just keep teaching my kid that sexism is everywhere, including kindergarten slideshows?
So here’s the thing: I am an ardent feminist. I even majored in women’s studies. I still sometimes find myself defaulting to male pronouns. The other day my kids caught a lizard in the backyard. They came to show me, and after examining it for a while, I suggested they “let him go.” My daughter asked how I could tell it was a boy. I cannot. I have no idea what the lizard’s sex was, but my brain has been conditioned by the patriarchy, and I said “him” without even thinking.
That’s not to excuse the kindergarten teacher—she took the time to prepare this lesson, and I wish she had been more thoughtful. I think you should say something. But given the combined stress of the pandemic, distance teaching, and DEVOLSON (it’s a thing—look it up), let’s take a kind approach.
I usually recommend having these conversations in person or over the phone, because tone can be hard to read in email. But everyone is busy and stressed out right now. So if I were you, I would send an email telling her that you are glad she included a female candidate and excited that the students elected her. Then I would suggest a good children’s book that has a more empowering portrayal than that weird beaver. My daughter likes Madam President and Sofia Valdez, Future Prez, but there are many to choose from. Maybe you can buy one or two for your own shelves.
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My daughter is in a public pre-K program that is operating on a hybrid schedule so she is in the classroom 50 percent of the days and online the other half. The online days consist of three live class meetings on Zoom, some prerecorded videos, and occasionally another activity (find items in your kitchen that are different shapes, etc.). This isn’t a complaint about the effort the teachers are putting into the online days—this is probably the best they can offer without being physically present in a classroom. It’s just that … it’s so ineffective.
While her in-person days of school seem to engage her, I don’t know what she’s supposed to be getting out of the online days. Forcing her to stop what she’s doing to sit down in front of a computer multiple times a day is so disruptive, and she needs an adult by her side, so school offers no benefit to me because it does not keep her occupied. Inevitably, there’s some kid who’s not muted and talks over the class the whole time. She’s overwhelmed when someone on the computer is talking directly to her and finds it unsettling. For me, the only reason to put any effort into showing up for the online component is to make sure we keep our spot in the program. But I would just love to stop. It ruins the day when we have to participate and puts everyone in a bad mood.
Is it worth complaining? Do I do the bare minimum in pretending to participate and hope my daughter isn’t flunked out of pre-K? Because of COVID, I’ve never met her teachers or the school principal, never set foot in the school, never experienced an in-person school environment where parents are able to spend time in the classroom, and I have no sense of how willing they are to hear out parent complaints. I feel like I’m flying blind and don’t want to ruin the next seven years of her experience in this school by messing it up her second month in.
Dear Online Dropout,
No one flunks out of pre-K. At worst, she will not learn the skills we want kids to learn in preschool, which isn’t the end of the world either. The benefit of universal public preschool is that it functions as an equalizer between kids from different backgrounds and incomes coming into kindergarten, which snowballs into performance throughout school. You can “make up” for your child not getting the preschool experience by exposing her to lots of language in different contexts.
Now, Zoom fatigue is real. It’s incredibly hard for adults to stay engaged when there are too many Zoom meetings, which means that it’s even harder for kids like your daughter. I am fairly confident that if you reach out to her teachers, they will at least be understanding. You can get to know them better through a collaborative problem-solving process, but my gut says they will be empathetic to the issue you’re seeing with your daughter.
When I taught virtual preschool last spring, I didn’t mind if my kids were also rolling around on the floor or eating while we had our meetings, as long as they answered questions when I asked them. And even then, I was patient if the parents needed to bring their attention to the screen, and if they simply couldn’t answer me, I would just say, “Oh, I don’t think so-and-so is ready right now. Let me ask someone else.” It’s OK if preschoolers can’t do virtual school. Early childhood educators know that it’s a big ask, and if you need to give her play dough or crayons and paper to play with while she listens, I’m sure that her teachers will be open to that, as long as you ask them beforehand. This is a year where all teachers take “we need to be flexible” to a whole new level, and I’m sure your daughter’s teachers are no exception.
As you’re asking these things of her school, remember two things: First of all, you are not the only parent with these problems. It’s hard for kids to sit and stare at a screen all day trying to learn. Second of all, your daughter is basically a toddler. She’s not even in school yet. You are in no danger of ruining her schooling experience because she’s practically a baby. Any problems that arise in pre-K—and I don’t foresee any, based on your question—can be corrected over the 13 or more years of school she has ahead of her.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
In order to remain eligible for a scholarship and pay for college tuition, I signed up to volunteer helping kids with homework. I was assigned a fourth grader to work with on a weekly basis, and I figured it would not be a problem (I’m doing a degree in education and have already started my student teaching). I am starting to wonder, however, if the girl needs more help than I can really offer. We’ve been working for two weeks, and I’m not helping her with homework—I’m teaching her the material.
I understand that the pandemic changes a lot of things, but she still has trouble with stuff she should have learned in first grade. And some of her difficulties make me really wonder whether she might have a diagnosable learning disability, as she doesn’t seem to understand very basic subtraction like 4–1=3. She’s below grade level on English as well, although not as far as she is in math. (I live in a foreign country, and she is learning English as a second language, not her first.)
I have no contact with the school at all and have no way to be in touch with her teacher, which also means that I have no way of knowing what to prioritize, or even sometimes what they are up to in class (I’m entirely dependent on the student for this, as the mother doesn’t seem to have any idea what’s going on).
I find working with her very stressful, but I don’t get graded on this, so it doesn’t hurt me to go over every week, do my best, and then leave. But I worry that I have an ethical responsibility of some sort to the student. I’m incredibly busy, and I don’t have time to come up with a remedial English or math curriculum for her. I tried talking to my supervisor (who doesn’t have a background in education), but she just told me to keep trying. I don’t think talking to the mother will get me anywhere. The mom always seems busy, leaves in the middle of my time with her daughter, and we only share a mutual second language. I would truly appreciate any advice or perspective you can offer me.
—I’m Not Even Certified!
Dear I’m Not Even Certified,
You’re in a tough spot! Your job as a tutor is not to design curricula, diagnose a learning disability, or even advocate for this student at school. Those responsibilities belong solely to her teacher and her mother. However, as a future educator yourself, you notice a problem and feel obligated to help. I understand where you’re coming from.
That said, you’ve only been working with this student for two weeks; it will take more time to build a rapport with her and potentially with her mother. In the meantime, I would test the waters to see if the mother is interested in hearing more about her daughter’s progress during tutoring time. For example, you can offer updates at the end of a session before you leave: “Maria finished five math problems—she was very focused today!” If she’s already gone, you might try at the beginning of the next session: “I’m looking forward to helping Maria practice her new vocabulary words.” These conversations will give you a sense of whether or not the mother is receptive to discussing her daughter’s academic progress with you. If she asks for more information, you can describe what you are noticing (be careful not to suggest that the student has a disability, since you are not qualified to diagnose one). On the other hand, you might discover that all she wants is for you to come over and help with homework. If that’s the case, there’s nothing wrong with you continuing to do your best while you’re there. That’s your job.
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
My son is in first grade in a district that is doing all remote learning for the foreseeable future. Over the summer, he worked on math skills and continued reading every day.
We are about two months into school, and he is so bored during math and ELA. Each class he has is one part online and one part offline. I do my best to encourage him to pay attention and follow along, but he often tunes out and fidgets. He is an advanced reader, so the reading assignments are extremely easy for him. During the offline time, he completes his assignments correctly. When he is supposed to be on programs like IXL, he and I choose something new or more complicated for him to do. When he has something sufficiently complicated or that requires creativity, he is happy and engaged.
Overall, my son is doing well in all of his subjects. He regularly participates in all classes. He has lots to learn about other subjects, like science, Spanish, and art. I did not receive any reports that he acted this way during in-person kindergarten. I have considered asking his teachers for suggestions, but they are pretty busy with his integrated class.
What can I do to keep my son engaged during classes when he is bored by the material?
—Need Some Inspiration
Ask his teachers for suggestions. As busy as his teachers may be, no teacher wants a student spinning their wheels and not being challenged. One of the hardest things about remote instruction is the inability to see our students on a minute-by-minute basis and assess their progress, their needs, and their level of engagement.
Having a true understanding of how our students are doing is critical to a teacher’s success. When we’re in a classroom, an experienced teacher can survey the class in a matter of seconds and isolate the students who are struggling, the students who require a greater level of challenge, and the students moving along at an average pace.
All of that is stripped from us in remote learning. Instead, teachers must assess progress solely on the work being completed, and we don’t have the knowledge of the time, attention, and effort it took for a student to complete that work. We are forced to gauge engagement by staring into tiny windows on a small screen, which is often impossible.
My school is currently in in-person instruction, but when I was teaching remotely last spring, I told my parents that I needed their eyes and ears more than ever. I asked them to tell me if their child seemed overwhelmed, underwhelmed, properly challenged, or not challenged enough.
Yes, it’s true that differentiating for students in a remote environment is incredibly difficult and time-consuming, but teachers want students to be reaching for their greatest academic potential, and that can only happen when we know how our students are performing on the task at hand. Teachers are never too busy to make this work happen.
When approaching your child’s teachers, I would make it clear that you are not blaming the teachers for your child’s lack of engagement and that you understand the challenges that they face. Be sure that your communication extends an offer of partnership with his teachers rather than accusations or expressions of disappointment.
Your offer of partnership will make a greater level of engagement for your child so much more possible and manageable, and it will be appreciated.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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Last weekend, my wife’s and my mutual friend had a pool party for her 16-year-old daughter’s birthday party. The birthday girl invited male and female schoolmates to the party, all around 15-to-17-year-olds. My wife started to put on her one-piece swimsuit to join the swimming until I stopped her. I felt like it was inappropriate for her to consider swimming with a bunch of teenagers, since she is a teacher at that school. What do you think?