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.
I have a question about classroom equity and favoritism. I have a fourth grader and second grader doing remote learning. In the second grade class, you can tell the teacher systematically rotates through all the students so they get roughly equal opportunity to participate. In the fourth grade class, however, the teacher calls most prominently on one out of the 26 kids in the class, followed by three other students who also get priority. Occasionally the teacher will attempt to reach out to others, saying, for example, “I see you, No. 1, but first, is there anyone else who hasn’t participated yet who wants to say something?” But mostly, she reverts back to kid No. 1 and the group of three. Regularly, the teacher will go directly to kid No. 1 for all sorts of things, like picking the first group, sharing their opinion, sharing their work as an example to the class. Listening in makes me cringe. No. 1’s mom is also very active and involved, and for some reason we all have to pick up classroom books and materials from No. 1’s house instead of from the school, like we do for all the other classes.
The kids in the spotlight are eager and engaged, and I understand that other kids may not wish to participate. But my daughter notices the disparity and is upset and discouraged by it. For the record, she is also an eager and engaged student, and she “mostly” gets heard when she wishes to participate, but she participates less because of the sense of unfairness. (She has a strong sense of fairness.) I told my daughter it’s natural for those who participate aggressively to get called on more and that some people will choose not to participate as much, and that’s OK. But I also told her it would be good for her teacher to try to make it more fair.
My questions are, should I say something to the teacher? How do I do that in a constructive way? Could I be misinterpreting this? Overall I like this teacher, and I don’t think she has bad intentions. But I want my daughter to be in an environment that feels equitable, especially in this challenging time of remote learning.
—Mom Seeking Equity
Dear Mom Seeking Equity,
I am not surprised that the teacher tends to call on particular students, or even a particular student, especially if that student is eager to participate. This obviously isn’t best practice, but it is a common instructional pitfall. But picking up materials from the student’s house? That’s weird. I think you should say something.
I recommend scheduling a call with the teacher to discuss your daughter’s academic progress. You say that overall you do like this teacher, so start with something positive before you share your daughter’s frustration: “Nora enjoys learning in your class—she especially enjoyed reading and writing poetry. However, she notices that you tend to call on certain students and not others. She is frustrated and fears that you favor them over the rest of the class.” The teacher may feel defensive, but I think it’s best to be direct with your concern and not beat around the bush. Be honest and assertive.
Favoritism can sneak up on teachers; sometimes they don’t realize the extent of the problem. Of course, the teacher must be aware that she calls on this particular student more than anyone else, but perhaps she doesn’t realize the effect her instructional choices are having on the other kids. This is why I think you should bring it up: I’m sure she wants all her students to feel included and valued. Hopefully she will recognize that, right now, they do not, and she needs to make some changes. The good news? This is an easy fix. All she has to do is start calling on more students!
I know it’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, but it will help all the students in the class, not just your daughter.
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
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I am fortunate to have two reasonably well-adjusted kids. My 7-year-old and 9-year-old are both doing fine with remote schooling. However, the older one has been voicing complaints about his teacher—she has favorites and apparently favors the kids who “suck up to her” (his words). I have not paid particular attention to these complaints.
Today, though, the school called me to verify if my 9-year-old was “absent”. He was not. He is the anxious type, so he sits by his computer before the Zoom class starts. I saw him today at his desk Zooming away. But it’s made me wonder if the “teacher troubles” he has mentioned are true. Does she not pay attention to those she doesn’t personally like?
Or could my kid be slacking off? Pretending to be on Zoom while reading a book? He is bright for his age and struggles to stay interested. He skipped a grade, and the school supported him in doing so. Should I clamp down on what he can and cannot do during class Zooms? I feel like this seems hypocritical, since I work from home and will sometimes do laundry or get dinner started during a boring conference call for work.
So far I have made clear that my kids must get their schoolwork done and be responsible, but I have not specifically set down do’s and don’ts.
Do you think he’s OK? Or should I stop trusting him implicitly and monitor him more actively? Or just talk to his teacher? (I am hesitating to talk to the teacher because all educators seem overwhelmed right now). For what it’s worth, his grades are good and nothing seems off academically (yet?).
—What Should I Believe?
It’s impossible for me to determine from my desk if your son is taking his remote classes seriously, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with following up on his activity from time to time. He may be a good student, and his grades may also be good, but he’s also a kid, perfectly capable of tripping up from time to time. Following up on his work is something his teacher would be doing in class regardless of his past performance, so there is nothing wrong with doing the same at home.
As a teacher, I can tell you that teaching remotely is a challenge in terms of monitoring student engagement. More than once last spring, a parent entered a room and found their child playing a video game while supposedly listening to me teach. Responsible, hardworking students succumbed to the lure of the Xbox and their phone. I had no idea.
There is a Russian saying: “Trust, but verify.” I think that applies here. And if you find that your son is less than attentive, perhaps a list of expectations is needed.
And yes, I will sometimes find other things to do during virtual meetings, but a meeting and a lesson are two very different things. There are often agenda items in a meeting that do not pertain directly to me or don’t demand my full attention, and on conference calls, there are often people speaking a lot but saying nothing. Also, conference calls don’t conclude with tests, quizzes, and exit slips. One conference call is not the building block for the next conference call.
Lessons are far more relevant to all students and demand a higher level of engagement. They often build upon one another, and participation is important.
These are two very different things, and therefore your expectations for them should be different too.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
I’m in my early 20s, working as an instructional assistant in an elementary school and taking the prerequisite courses I need to apply to teacher certification programs. (I hope to work with English language learners in either upper elementary school or middle school humanities.) Working with kids has always come naturally to me, I love my job (well, except for the whole school-during-a-pandemic thing), and I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Here’s the thing: My own experiences as a student were mostly negative. I have ADHD that I wasn’t diagnosed with until I was older, so a lot of my time in elementary school was spent being told to sit still or focus better while I wondered why I was having such a hard time with things that came naturally to my classmates. (One teacher’s idea of dealing with me was putting me in an empty classroom to do worksheets apart from the rest of the class.) By middle school, with the exception of a few teachers I connected with and will forever be grateful for, I decided I hated school. From then on, I went through the majority of my school years feeling bored and isolated.
Almost all of my friends and family members who are teachers entered the profession because they loved school and are passionate about the subject they teach. I know from experience that the struggles I experienced in school have given me more empathy for kids I work with who are dealing with similar challenges. But from an academic standpoint, I’m really doubting myself. How do I teach subjects that I know can be fun and exciting but that I couldn’t stand as a student? Is it even possible for someone like me to become a good teacher when my own experiences were so bad?
—Do I Have What It Takes?
It’s not just possible for someone like you to become a good teacher—it’s likely.
Think about it. Your experiences are going to make you look at lessons in a completely different way. I loved school—read-alouds, projects, and hands-on learning, yes, but also tests, worksheets, rote memorization, all of it. If you gave me a fat grammar textbook and some loose-leaf sheets, I was happy as a clam. I didn’t need a lot of prodding or puppet shows to get engaged in the work.
But that’s a detriment to my teaching practice, because most kids aren’t like that. Even if they don’t have ADHD, few students think, “Yaaaaaayyyy, a geography bee!”
Most kids need some kind of hook for every lesson. They need varied methods to keep them interested and capitalize on their strengths. What better perspective to have than yours? “I hated this. How can I make it interesting for them and ensure their success?”
On another note, I hope you’ll share your experiences with your students. Though it’s certainly your choice what to divulge, it would be powerful for kids to know your diagnosis. The ones with IEPs would feel seen in a deep, deep way. Plus, kids of all stripes need to see that teachers (and computer programmers and CEOs and … ) are not all dean’s list regulars.
I am worried about my 9-year-old daughter, who’s in the equivalent of fourth grade in a European public school system. (We are American but my own schooling was done in the local language.) Here, kids have the same main teacher for two years in a row. In second grade, my daughter’s main teacher left and her class was taken over by a young, inexperienced teacher who couldn’t manage the class (of mostly boys). Worse, the academic program was dismal. I had some worries midyear but figured my daughter was academically robust enough to manage it. But at the end of that year, my daughter performed below average for the region on a standardized test.
Once she started third grade, I thought we’d scored a great teacher—she’s experienced and well regarded. But my spidey sense is itching again, and I don’t think she likes my daughter. Last Christmas, she complained that my daughter was too involved in the myriad social disputes in class. Next report card, the teacher trashed her academic performance. I spoke with her teacher about both of these issues, and she airily said things were now fine socially and was nitpicky about my daughter’s academics. She told me my daughter doesn’t match her friends when it comes to academics. I said her report card made it sound like my daughter has a learning difficulty, and she responded, “Well, yes.” (!) My daughter does not have a learning difficulty.
I left with a sneaking suspicion that this teacher has labeled my daughter. This year, I can feel it again. Her decisions on grading seem haphazard—my daughter has gotten poor grades on math and spelling lately, and it’s unclear why she’s gotten the grades she has. When I try to prop my daughter up, my daughter says I am wrong, that she is OK but her friends are “so smart.” I find it odd she uses exactly the words her teacher uses about her friends.
As a foreigner, I feel out of my depth. The school system and culture are still relatively old-school and rigid. Teachers are protected, and there is not the same level of parental involvement as in the U.S. I know we are already at a disadvantage being, in spite of our education, foreign, American, and basically nobodies. I am afraid of rocking the boat. I speak the language but am unsure of the culture. My heart is broken for my daughter. If my older child had the same grading system used on him, he would not have passed the grade. I was thinking of having her evaluated (I am certain she is fine) to cover my bases with this teacher (and what she might tell her colleagues in future classes), but I know my daughter would panic at the thought. Please help me advocate for my daughter.
Dear Feeling Lost,
It’s hard to know exactly what is happening given that you are immersed in a culture and system completely unknown to me, but if this same thing were happening in the United States, I would tell you to have your child evaluated immediately. I think it would be enormously helpful to have an impartial third party help illuminate your child’s strengths and weaknesses and determine whether any of the concerns these teachers have are founded.
Armed with that information, you can better advocate for your child. It’s difficult to be an advocate when you are only armed with personal knowledge and hunches. An evaluation will objectively determine if your child is a typical learner, perfectly capable of doing well in school under the present circumstances, or if she has areas of need that require specific, targeted support from the school.
It’s hard to make an argument without data. I would get that data.
In terms of your child panicking at the thought of an evaluation, I think you can frame the evaluation in a positive light. Tell your daughter that evaluations like these happen all the time to all types of children and are designed to provide information for teachers and parents so they can best assist a student with their learning. I would tell her she’s lucky to be evaluated in this way. It may even help her understand herself better as a learner.
Once, an especially nervous student did an evaluation of this type, and before he did so, I had him take a bunch of those online quizzes to answer questions like:
• Which Disney hero you would be?
• Which Hogwarts house would the Sorting Hat choose for you?
• Which pet is right for you?
After taking these quizzes, I explained to him that the educational evaluation is similar. Longer and more complicated, of course, because it’s designed to determine real-life stuff, but in the end, the evaluation would show us new, interesting, and important things about him.
I also know a parent who underwent the same evaluation as her son so they could compare data when they were finished, and her son saw the evaluation as a little less out of the ordinary.
Best of luck. These situations can be hard enough in a culture and system with which you are familiar. Navigating these unknown waters must be especially hard.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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