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 found out that our child’s beloved fourth grade teacher, Ms. X, spent Thanksgiving alone. (She is 26, single, and has no family nearby.) We’ve had Ms. X as a teacher before—our daughter had her a few years ago, and completely adored her. We’re under the impression that the feeling is mutual. We feel close to Ms. X because of her relationship with our kids and our family, and we are all so sad to think of her spending the holidays alone. Would it be at all appropriate to invite her over on Christmas Eve or Christmas for some socially distanced cider or hot cocoa in our backyard?
I do not want to make this teacher feel weird or uncomfortable. And perhaps I’m mistaking how close we feel to her with how close she feels to us. But we do adore her, and we’d love to give her some company and a bit of COVID-safe holiday cheer. We would all wear masks, our kids are old enough to all be diligent about COVID safety precautions, and we have a backyard that makes it possible for everyone to be safely distanced. Is this a terrible idea? Or maybe there’s a way to phrase it so that it’s a very casual invite? I want to respect her privacy; I also want her to know we care about her.
—Where’s the Line?
Dear Where’s the Line,
This is easy. Invite her.
The way you don’t make it weird or uncomfortable is you don’t make any assumptions about how close you are or how lonely she is. You say something like:
Hi, Ms. X,
You probably already know this, but I want to reiterate how profoundly grateful we are that you are a part of our children’s (and our) lives. We so appreciate the way you [whatever she does that you appreciate—add as many examples as you can].
We don’t know what your plans are for the holidays, but we’d love to have you over for [describe backyard cocoa festivities and COVID precautions].
Would you be available on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day for a bit? If not, no worries. We know it can be a busy time.
Happy New Year!
Even if she declines your invitation, she has this lovely note saying how you feel about her. It’s always nice for teachers to hear how much we’re cared for and appreciated. And my favorite notes are the ones that note specific things I’ve done with and for my students.
—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)
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My husband and I run a nonprofit that we formed in response to COVID. We are overwhelmed and work a minimum of 80 hours a week taking care of the people that our local government services cannot. Through our program we met two 18-year-old twins who were abused, hungry, and homeless. We informally took them in and take care of them like family. (They are too old to officially foster.)
All of our spare time is making sure they are healthy and safe, dealing with their trauma, and learning how to function in a loving household. They are supposed to finish high school this spring, and we would like them to get their degrees. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that will happen. They are both barely literate and have an early elementary school–level understanding of math.
No matter what I do, I cannot make them attend their virtual classes. When we leave for work, they goof off or sleep. They do not get into trouble. After months of trying to get them to attend school, my husband and I decided to keep them enrolled in school but to take matters into our own hands, and we are teaching them math, reading, writing, and life and work skills ourselves.
We have encouraged them to work after school for our community program, which they love. There they learn math by looking at distribution orders and counting money, and literacy from inventory sheets and shopping lists. They work a regular schedule of paid hours and volunteer hours. Their people skills and motivation have improved dramatically.
They earn a sense of pride, stay focused, and they do their homework in front of us at our center. However, we are so swamped with taking care of work that we simply don’t have time to follow up the way we should with their actual school. One is barely passing, and we think he can earn his degree. The other has an IEP and can stay in school until he’s 21. We think it might be best for him to go to school another year. He is so far behind, and we want him to keep learning.
I’m not sure what my question is other than: Do you have any ideas for how to help these students get their degrees that I’m not thinking of? We know they need specialized attention we cannot give them. We can’t afford tutors, and the local resources are completely unavailable or maxed out during COVID. Thank you.
Thank you so much for caring for these young men! I am sure that having a loving family and a safe home is doing wonders to help them heal from years of trauma and neglect. As you’ve said, though, tremendous damage has been done for which there is no quick fix.
It sounds like offering them meaningful work in your community program is providing them real benefits, so I encourage you to continue down this path. At the same time, high school diplomas would greatly benefit them in the future. For the student who receives special education services, staying in school another year may be the best plan if he cannot graduate this spring. For the other student, I wonder if you have shared his story with his teachers? If they are aware of his situation, they may show him some grace and lend a helping hand since he is at a disadvantage compared with typical high school seniors. If he doesn’t manage to graduate, many community colleges offer remedial courses that could help him develop his literacy and academic skills. If he was ever in the foster care system, they might even be free, depending on your state.
You may find that work opportunities or vocational programs continue to be more appealing to the twins than academic work. If that’s the case, help them look for such opportunities in your community. Remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. If they do not walk the stage in 2021, they may still earn their GED in future years. Or they may learn job skills that help them to be independent, self-sufficient adults. Either way, you’re making an enormous difference in their lives. Thank you!
Do you have any suggestions for teacher holiday gifts this year? I usually like to send my child in with something heartfelt and homemade, but my kids are in remote school, and that doesn’t seem appropriate this year, and I also don’t have their teachers’ home addresses. I know they’re working harder than ever, and I’d love to acknowledge them in some way.
—What to Give?
Dear What to Give,
When it comes to giving a teacher a gift, I firmly believe that the best gift that you can give is a letter expressing your appreciation for all that they do for your child. I have written about this at length before, but I’ll say some of it here again.
Teaching can be a lonely profession. We work in isolation for much of the day, and our primary clients—the students—are not always forthcoming or insightful enough to adequately express their appreciation for their teachers. While we are routinely observed and critiqued by administrators, these critiques do nothing to elucidate the impact that a teacher can have on a student or a family.
I have letters from the parents of students that I cherish as much as any other object in my life. I read these letters after difficult days in the classroom, and they lift my spirits beyond measure. They serve as reminders that what I do is making a difference in the world when a tough day or an impossible situation causes me to think otherwise.
And if you truly believe that your child’s teacher is exemplary, send that letter to the principal and even the superintendent of schools as well. During my first year of teaching, a mother sent a letter to me during the holidays expressing her appreciation for all I was doing for her daughter, and a copy of a letter was also sent to the principal and superintendent expressing her support for me. As a first-year teacher, this meant the world to me. It was better than anything else I could have been given that year.
When deciding upon a gift for a teacher this year or any year, consider the gift of words and appreciation, as you let them know how much they mean to you and that their impact extends far beyond the classroom. I don’t know a single teacher who wouldn’t love this.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
I am looking for resources for my 4.5-year-old niece, who my sister tells me is having trouble forming letters without dots to trace. She knows her ABCs and can identify the letters in a word in order easily. She can trace them easily with the dots, but when it comes to freestyle writing the same letter next to the traced one, she can’t do it. The other kids in her age group can, and it’s really bumming my niece out. Are there workbooks or anything else that might help her? My niece is left-handed—could that be part of the problem?
—Wanting to Right Writing
Dear Wanting to Right Writing,
I’m sorry to hear your niece is having some difficulty with writing. As a fellow lefty, that could be contributing to the problem, but I wouldn’t put too much weight on that quite yet. Writing in general is really hard to perfect at this age. It’s important to remember that all kids develop their fine motor skills at different paces, and she’ll probably catch up to her peers in due time at her own pace. That said, there are some wonderful resources available that could help.
In my opinion, the best resource for handwriting (and phonics) is Fundations by Wilson Language Training. To be clear, this curriculum is mostly geared toward phonics instruction, but its handwriting component does focus on letter form and fine motor skill development. It’s really top-notch stuff. What sets Fundations apart from other resources is its instruction on how to properly form the letter on the lines of a page. The lessons go into granular detail on how to write letters, from clearly explaining how to begin the curve of a J to how to exactly position the arms of a K. If you’re looking for the best resource to help your niece with handwriting, I can honestly say I have yet to come across anything better. I hope this helps!
—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)
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