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 son is in third grade at a Spanish immersion public school. For the first quarter, our school district gave us the choice between face-to-face or fully virtual learning for our children, and we chose virtual learning for our son. He was assigned an amazing and tech-savvy teacher whom my son also had for first grade and absolutely adores.
At the end of the first quarter, we were once again given the choice of instructional setting, and we once again chose virtual, because the teacher was so wonderful, and the academics were so strong. Fast forward to now, and the nationwide spike in COVID cases has caused our district to go fully virtual around Thanksgiving. While we were aware that some things may shift for students as a result, we did not expect them to shift too much.
Our principal, however, has decided to restructure the entire third grade and move to a departmentalized model. The students in the original virtual class are, as a result, being pulled away from their beloved teacher (I can’t stress enough how much she loves them, and how much they love her), and their entire community is being uprooted.
I immediately reached out to the school with not only my own concerns but with a good deal of academic research showing that having multiple teachers is not a good plan for children of this age, and that it will have detrimental effects on their social, emotional, and academic progress. It seems cruel to ask them to change wholesale their school experience three weeks before the first half of the year ends (in our region the school year goes from the beginning of August to the end of May, so they’re mere weeks from the end of first semester).
The administration blew off my concerns, so I went to the superintendent. He put me in contact with the person who oversees the principals in our district, but that person wasn’t willing to intervene on our behalf. I spent three full days going back and forth with the school administration about this, but they refuse to compromise on any element of their plan.
I know there is a great deal of parental outrage about this, as I’m in contact with a number of other third grade parents at the school, and I know I’m not the only one who pushed back on this. I also know that none of the third grade teachers wanted to make this change. My son is devastated. He’s gone from loving everything about school to telling me his “heart is broken” and that he “wants to quit school.” I don’t know what to do; he has rolled with every change he’s faced this year, and he’s done it with a smile. I’m just trying to get us all through this time as safely as I possibly can, emotionally and physically. And all our administration seems to care about is looking like a progressive program, and standardized test scores, and making sure “every student shows a year and a half’s worth of growth this school year.”
What else can I do? I will fight for these kids—all of them, not just my own, because I care about them and don’t think this is in any way in their best interests—so if there’s a strategy I can employ to get them to reverse course, or even compromise a little, I’d love to know what it is. Please help!
I’m so sorry. It sounds as if the only person really supporting this decision is the principal of your school, so if any change in policy is possible, he needs to be convinced to make the change via a convincing argument or strategically applied pressure.
It sounds as if you’ve already stated your case. If that’s true, it’s time to apply some pressure.
If it were me, I would take the following steps:
1. Go back to the superintendent. It sounds like he passed you off to an underling who failed to meet your needs. I would first return to the superintendent and argue my case once again, making it clear that you have the support of your school community behind you.
2. I would organize your community, encouraging every parent who supports your position to write or call the superintendent’s office. You might also reach out to board of education members, arguing your case with them as well. While board of education members cannot make administrative decisions like this, they can investigate claims, make recommendations, and apply pressure if they feel that a bad decision has been made. They are also often the parents of school-aged children and would likely be sympathetic to your cause.
3. I would use social media to make the problem known to as many members of the community as possible. The more parents whom you can enlist in support of your position, the better. Perhaps even start a petition. There is strength in numbers.
4. I would reach out to your child’s teachers to ask if there is anything that parents could do—publicly or clandestinely—to assist them in helping to facilitate the change that they seem to support. They may be aware of avenues or pressure points that you are not.
I’d also involve my son in the process, inviting him to write a letter, too. Allow him to listen in on your phone calls. Explain to him how and why you are doing what you do. There is no guarantee that change will come, but either way, your son will get his first exposure to protest, advocacy, and the levers of power that citizens can pull. Give him a sense of self-determination. Make this unfortunate situation a learning experience for your son.
Even if nothing changes, your son will be stronger and a little wiser in the end. Best of luck.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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I am a senior in high school. My family lives in a rural town with a relatively small and closed-minded school district. For my junior year, I transferred to online school because I wanted more academic resources, but my younger siblings still go to the local high and middle school. My youngest sister came home recently, and when talking about school, she said something that I can’t seem to let go.
Apparently, for English class, the students were asked to create illustrations of scenes from a book they are reading. One of the students chose a scene where the main character is arrested, and he illustrated the scene to look like what happened to George Floyd. A student pointed this out, and the class laughed it off. The regular teacher is on maternity leave, and the substitute did not say anything.
I am, of course, horrified. I am furious that this went unaddressed, and heartbroken to think of the trauma this could have brought up for BIPOC students. My sister wants to move past the situation. I don’t think I can. I know that teachers are generally overwhelmed this year, and the student has not learned better, but I really think I need to step up and push the issue. My question is: As a former student, is it appropriate to reach out to someone like the principal? How should I raise the issue, and how far should I push it? Thank you for the help!
—Not My Place?
Hey there NMP,
First, I want to tell you how proud I am of you. Growing up as a Black kid in a rural area, I understand the environmental and cultural barriers that sometimes make it hard to stand up for what we know is right. Seeing someone of your age even asking the question of how best to take action in a place like this gives me great hope for your generation.
What took place in that classroom is wildly unacceptable, and someone should definitely reach out to the principal. If these children don’t learn that this behavior is wrong, they will grow into adults who haven’t been challenged or held accountable for finding humor in the death of an unarmed Black man. Moments like these are missed opportunities to educate one another on the very real and fatal experiences Black men and women can have with the police.
On the matter of raising the issue, I think you have every right to do so. I’d begin by sending the principal an email detailing the issue as you understand it. See what their response is, and if you don’t get one, I’d go directly to the school (adhering to COVID-19 protocols) and request an in-person meeting.
Taking action like this is the responsibility of every single person in this country, but especially those who interact directly with our school systems. Schools can either be sanctums of knowledge or cesspools of intolerance. While most fall somewhere in between these two extremes, it’s up to young people like you to take action when you see acts of injustice to push school cultures to change. Standing up can sometimes feel scary, just rest assured that there is a kid somewhere, maybe even in that classroom, who will thank you for your actions. Hope this helps, keep fighting the good fight.
—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)
Our (almost) 9-year-old daughter is not on the spectrum but attends a school with many students (including her best friend) who are. She can tend to be a bit literal, but that may be a function of her age. Her school focuses on engaging all types of learners—especially kids on the spectrum—with challenging curriculum and unique methodology. One technique is emphasizing the difference between facts (3x4=12) and opinions (“the best idea is…”). Kids are encouraged to say, “I don’t like bananas” rather than “bananas are gross” and preface ideas with “I think …,” especially in reading and social studies. Ideally, kids learn to respect one another’s differences and opinions. We believe that this will spark compassion and understanding, so we try to do this at home, too.
My mother, however, is our primary sitter and finds this ridiculous. My daughter adores Grandma but gets frustrated at the things she says. For example, if she expresses interest in a toy Grandma dislikes, Grandma will say, “You don’t want that!,” which clearly confuses her because she does, in fact, want it. When she and her friend wanted to make chocolate pudding for a sick classmate, Grandma responded with, “No! Nobody likes pudding! We’ll bake a cake!” You guessed it; pudding was that kid’s favorite thing. And there have been meltdowns when Grandma says, “There’s no more X” (meaning she can’t find X) and 10 minutes later my daughter goes to the pantry and finds it. Once I heard my daughter tell the cat, “Grandma’s nice, but she lies.” I tried to explain the difference between a “lie” (a deliberate nontruth) and being careless with language, but I am not sure I explained it well.
When I spoke to my mom about these things, she said we just needed to switch schools because her granddaughter was living in a fantasy world and should learn how normal people talk. My daughter loves her school and is excelling (above grade level in reading, language arts, and math). Students from her school seem to go on and be successful, but now we’re worried about the transition. Is this language thing weird? Should we switch schools? Can we make these issues with Grandma into teachable moments? Is being kind of literal a phase she’ll grow out of?
—Nobody Likes a Liar
I’m so relieved to answer your letter, because I think this is a highly navigable problem, and there are so few of those in our kids’ schooling these days.
First: No, I don’t think the school’s approach to language is weird; I think it sounds thoughtful and inclusive. I definitely would not pull your daughter out—she’s thriving and happy! I also don’t think she’s being unusually or overly literal. It sounds to me like she’s learning to be clear and deliberate and considerate of others. Furthermore, rigorously instructing kids on the nature of facts and opinions (and the concept that facts cannot be disputed) is something society needs more of, not less. So, rest easy there—all sounds well and good to me as far as her education is concerned.
I think Grandma’s the one being a bit difficult, actually. From what you’ve said, this doesn’t sound like a figurative language issue; she’s not peppering her conversation with figures of speech or dramatic exaggerations that your daughter can’t interpret. It sounds like sometimes, Grandma is being imprecise and confusing, and other times, it’s not about her communication style at all—it’s that she’s blowing off your daughter’s knowledge and preferences. (The pudding incident, for example, wasn’t due to a misunderstanding or lack of clarity between them. It was because Grandma disregarded the information your daughter knew about her friend’s treat of choice.) While she may not be lying to your daughter, per se, your daughter is also not wrong to identify that she feels a certain degree of mistrust in the way her grandmother presents information or responds to her. I think these conversational sticking points have the potential to be a teachable moment for Grandma—but it also sounds like your prior attempts at delivering that feedback have been dismissed. You could keep trying, but if she’s the type to take it personally or continue laughing it off, it’s also not the hill I would die on. It sounds like you, your daughter, and your mother are all generally very happy with this child care arrangement and their relationship, and I wouldn’t blow all that up over this.
So, if Grandma’s going to be intractable about being more mindful of how she communicates—including how she listens—you can make it a teachable moment for your daughter instead. I think you’re right to explain the nuance between deception and inaccuracy, and I’d keep trying to illuminate Grandma’s good intentions—but also validate for your daughter that it’s frustrating to try to interpret Grandma’s meaning when she’s careless with her phrasing, and it’s very frustrating to be ignored. But I would also highlight the fact that she adores Grandma, and just like she’s learning to recognize and respect the opinions of classmates in school, it’s also important to work on tolerating the quirks, foibles, and minor flaws of the people we love.
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school, New York)
My 4-year-old is in fully remote pre-K. The school has the option of doing blended learning (two to three days in person, the rest remote), but we decided to keep him home for now because I’m in a high risk group. The beginning of the year was going pretty well. My son loved his teacher—she was very engaging, communicated exceptionally well with both students and parents, and is an all-around great teacher.
A few weeks ago, however, the school decided they needed to make some changes. The school’s other pre-K teacher has taken over all the remote learning, and so far, it’s been pretty disastrous.
The new teacher’s meetings drag on way too long—often more than 30 minutes. He frequently has tech problems, and his setup is also visually a little disturbing—he is in a room so dark that we can hardly see him. Perhaps worst of all, his meetings consist almost entirely of him playing YouTube videos for them. My son is certainly not in need of more passive screen time, since my husband and I often have to rely on that to get work done.
Should I address these concerns with the teacher, and, if so, how do I do this tactfully and with kindness? I am a teacher myself and hate teaching online, so I understand how frustrating—even devastating—it may have been for him to be taken out of his in-person classroom and deemed the new remote-only pre-K teacher. I want to be understanding and don’t want to be “that parent,” but it’s been a few weeks and none of this is improving. I’m particularly anxious about bringing these concerns to him because he has already sent a couple of slightly passive-aggressive emails when my son has left meetings early, which makes me think he is already taking my son’s lack of engagement with his approach personally.
Is it better to try to address this with the teacher directly, or should we just acknowledge that the Zoom meetings aren’t working for him and stop asking him to join them? We would still stay enrolled in the school and can post about his progress in the Google Classroom that is set up with activities. (I had also already confirmed with the previous teacher that this wouldn’t be an issue with student attendance on the administrative side for the school.)
—To Speak Up or Not to Speak Up
This is tricky, and I understand how hard it must be to see this stark contrast between two different teachers. But I do think you have some options, and as always, I think what you should do depends on your relationship with the teacher.
If you feel comfortable talking to your son’s new teacher, I would take a collaborative approach. “I’ve noticed, too, that my son has been dropping off in terms of attention. I think one thing that the previous teacher was doing that really worked for him was XYZ—maybe we could develop a system where we can use that to help him.” It’s always hard when another teacher has a way of dealing with a kid that is better than yours, but ultimately, no one works in preschool because they don’t care about connecting with kids. If this teacher is the kind of person who is open to working with preschoolers, I expect he would be open to feedback, especially since Zoom teaching is new for everyone.
If you’re not comfortable, or if his emails have given you the sense that he’s not open to collaboration, I think your next best bet isn’t to give up on Zoom, per se, but to make Zoom your child’s background while he does something else. When I was teaching preschool in the spring, I had a student whose parents logged into every call, and then let her play with her toys in the room. If she came over and engaged with us, great! If not, that was fine. She was hearing the familiar songs, and she heard the question or letter of the day. I found it to be a good compromise, allowing children to still participate a bit in a way that worked for them.
Try to remember that it’s not your job to make sure his preschool teacher is engaging. It is his preschool teacher’s job. Put your son on Zoom the same way you put him on the bus or drop him off at the school. After that, it’s up to his teacher to figure out how to make Zoom meetings more fun than toy time alone.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
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