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 am a teacher, and I’m looking for some perspective on how to deal with students who lie. I teach math completely remotely, and it has been really important for student learning that students complete daily assignments, most of which are completed during class time (what would homework even mean when we are all at home all the time?). I have flexible plans in place for students in crisis, students without internet, students who just need me to cut them some slack. When an assignment is blank after its due date, I mark it missing (which at my school means a grade of 40 percent). For lots of students, that missing mark is the trigger that says, “Oh yeah—I spaced out in class today, I need to spend some time on this.” They finish it, they let me know, I update my gradebook. However, I have a few students who send me emails asking me if I made a mistake because a missing assignment was, in fact, completed. Sometimes they claim clerical errors, but usually they straight up lie and tell me something was done on time and ask me to fix my error. I know they’re lying, because practically everything is time-stamped.
It’s developmentally appropriate for eighth graders to lie in this way. I feel like it is my job to address lies directly (and gently), because it’s a learning opportunity. My response is usually something to the effect of, “You completed the assignment after it was due. I’m so glad that you finished it and updated your grade. Late assignments happen sometimes, but it’s important to be honest about it.” I’m getting emails now occasionally from parents with statements like, “We take these accusations very seriously,” and “I was sitting with him when he did the assignment” with requests for meetings to “discuss the allegations.”
As a result, I now don’t want to respond to anything, because I don’t want to deal with parents who seem to want to argue facts. When kids hand in assignments late, nothing bad happens. I update my gradebook and move on. Now I’m finding myself paralyzed when I need to address students about something like this, because I don’t have it in me to get bullying emails from parents, and I’m overwhelmed with the parts of my job that are actually about teaching children. What should I do? Keep addressing it with kids and ignore their parents? Arrange family meetings to explain to the family that their kid lied and it’s not a big deal (at the expense of other tasks that might be important)? Not address the lies? I’m exhausted.
—Is the Week Over Yet?
I feel you. Same same.
Teachers these days are in an impossible position. We’re expected to be experts in our field but get paid exponentially less than those experts. We’re expected to teach a ridiculous number of standards but also make time to create deep and meaningful relationships with our students. We’re expected to act as counselors but not to give any advice that conflicts with what the parents might say. We’re expected to be a united front with the parents, but they don’t believe us when we say, “Your kid told us both a lie.”
Here’s what I’ve started doing: Report just the facts. Instead of saying, “You completed the assignment after it was due. I’m so glad that you finished it and updated your grade. Late assignments happen sometimes, but it’s important to be honest about it,” you just leave off the last half-sentence—i.e., don’t acknowledge the lie. Let the students and parents draw the conclusions, and if they say it was a tech glitch, pretend you buy it.
And that actually might be the best way to deal with it. When I think back on my middle school years, some of the deepest, hardest lessons I learned about lying happened when I didn’t get caught. I’d just have to sit with the icky feeling inside. Not being called out on it didn’t allow me to turn my guilt into anger at someone else.
You’re providing all the accommodations. You’re giving students all the grace they deserve, and then some. It sounds like you’re being a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. You don’t get paid enough to be a pastor, so don’t be one.
—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)
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I have been home-schooling my 6-year-old granddaughter in first grade (using the Calvert program) since last August. When we started, it seemed she had forgotten pretty much everything she had learned in kindergarten. OK, I thought, she’d been out of school since March, so what could I expect … but there quickly ensued a slew of other issues. She could count but didn’t understand numbers’ meaning; she memorized their order. She was missing letters of the alphabet in her mind—like they didn’t even exist. It took her a long time to learn what rhyming was, even within songs and stories. I don’t think she can distinguish sounds very well, and she definitely cannot pronounce all the letter sounds.
She experiences a serious setback whenever I am unable to see her for more than a weekend. We recently started working on sight words; she can recognize only 23 of the Dolch pre-K sight words, a number that has remained consistent for the past two months. Kindergarten and first grade–level sight words are down in the single digits. I am pretty sure she has a processing disorder, but with all the schools closed, I cannot gain access to special help for her.
Her parents both work incredibly long hours and do not, apparently, have the bandwidth to sit with her and read or practice phonemes, rhyming games, simple addition facts, etc., because they only get an hour or two with her before it’s time for bed. She goes to bed by 9 p.m. because her babysitter and I insisted (she used to be allowed to stay up till midnight and beyond). There are some other issues at home, but I won’t get into that here—just that there are other contributing factors to the overall situation.
Between the chaotic household, the lack of learning support at home, and her difficulties learning and retaining information, I am kind of at the end of what I feel I can do for her. Yet I am, by now, very invested in her education. Is it OK to forget about completing the first grade program with her, since she might (I hope!) repeat it anyway, and just keep going on with multisensory practice with letters and numbers? She loves her schoolwork, especially the lessons about families and animals, but I am stymied and quite frustrated by the difficulties in language fluency. I try to keep the lessons fun and light for her, so that she doesn’t get a bad feeling about school in general, but I have no background in special education and have no idea what “adequate progress” looks like in this case. I am also worried that her parents do not think this is a problem and that they might push her into second grade, for which she is in no way ready.
I am really struggling right now. What is your advice for the best and most reasonable path going forward?
—In Over My Head
It seems at this point you’ve done all you can, and this child needs to be enrolled in school. While your efforts are very admirable, and it’s wonderful that you’ve been as dedicated as you have, as you say, you don’t have a background in special education (or even education, possibly?), and it’s time to get this child in front of a professional teacher. Based on what you’ve told me, it does sound as though she has some signs of developmental delay, which could be affecting her ability to learn. And kids at this age also benefit from learning with other kids, even if its virtual. While the physical schools in your granddaughter’s district may be closed, teachers are certainly teaching students remotely. If you want to help your granddaughter succeed, I highly recommend her parents enroll her in their local public school immediately. Those teachers will be able to assess her abilities, get her the help she needs, and give her the tools she needs to have greater success at school.
—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)
We’ve been in virtual learning since mid-March of last year. It’s definitely been a roller coaster of emotions, but everyone is trying their best. My second grader used to love math, but starting with this school year she has been saying how she hates it and will actively refuse to do it during her math Zoom sessions with her class.
As I’ve observed her behavior to try to understand what is wrong, I’ve noticed that it isn’t so much that she can’t do the problems, it’s that she feels overwhelmed when she sees a page of blank problems, and she feels anxiety about making mistakes. Her teacher does reach out to her to figure out what’s going on, but my daughter just pretends she can’t do the problems, rather than talk to her teacher about her fears.
I’ve talked to my daughter many times about how it’s OK to make mistakes. Take it one step at a time. All she needs to do is try—it doesn’t need to be correct. None of these things seem to help her; in fact, they seem to make things worse. The fact that my daughter is feigning ignorance to her teacher, however, is testing my resilience and patience. Do you have any suggestions for what I can try?
—Helpless in Common Core Land
I think you need to be the one to connect with her teacher! It sounds like you’re nudging your daughter to advocate for herself here, and I very much support that, but I think right now your expectations may be a bit high. Second grade is really quite young for her to articulate her fears and learning anxiety to any teacher, let alone a teacher she’s only ever met through a computer screen. I’m glad her teacher is trying to suss out what’s troubling your daughter, but it’s also really hard to explore and coach students through the emotional aspects of learning via Zoom; so few of the strategies a teacher would typically use to comfort and encourage students are available in the virtual realm. What you’ve observed from home will be really valuable information for her teacher. Ask her teacher for a meeting, and hopefully you’ll be able to come up with a plan to tackle these challenges together.
In the meantime, I would also try to make sure that when she shuts down, your first move is to validate her feelings. All the messages you’ve been sharing with her about mistakes being OK and giving it a try are true and correct—but jumping straight into trying to solve her problem rather than really hearing and empathizing with it can feel like a dismissal, and I wonder if it’s why she’s digging her heels in. It’s so human to drag your feet and get overwhelmed when faced with a daunting, unappealing task. Also, although we pay a lot of lip service to having a growth mindset these days, I think that can be easier said than done. Making mistakes, and feeling incompetent as a result … really kinda sucks, especially if you’re not used to it. Try sharing some of your own experiences with feelings like this—and resist the urge to end with a tidy “but I kept trying, and eventually I got the hang of it!” See how “I struggled with this, and I felt embarrassed and frustrated, and it was really hard” lands instead.
Some additional strategies you could employ: If the size of the task is freaking her out, you might try reducing the scope. Could you experiment with covering most of the page and asking her to complete just one problem, then take a break? Then, uncover one or two more and prompt her to try those before another break. The goal is to scale her tolerance for frustration up gradually. There are also a lot of books out there right now focused on overcoming a fear of failure or error; you could add some of those into your reading rotation (try Rosie Revere, Engineer, Ish, The Dot, The Book of Mistakes, or Beautiful Oops!).
Really, though, talking with her teacher is your best bet. Start there. I hope your daughter is calculating up a storm soon.
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)
I am in sixth grade and my Spanish teacher gave me 100 percent on a few assignments, but then two or three weeks after I turned in my assignments, she lowered my grades by 30 percent without an explanation. I have emailed her about this, but several weeks have gone by and she still hasn’t responded. I understand she could be receiving a lot of emails because we are in virtual school, but even when I send her a private message in Zoom asking her about these grades, she still doesn’t respond. What should I do?
—Sudden Drop in Spanish?
Dear Sudden Drop,
First of all, it’s really great that you’re independently and consistently checking in on your grades. Keeping track of how you perform on assignments after you turn them in is an important skill, and not all sixth graders have gotten the hang of that yet. But it must have been really surprising and disappointing to see such a sudden drop on work you thought you’d aced, and especially frustrating to have no explanation!
I wish your teacher had at least acknowledged your private message on Zoom, but I’m not surprised she couldn’t give you an answer in the midst of your class session—whether in-person or virtual, it’s usually hard to answer individual questions about past assignments while in the midst of teaching a lesson about another topic to the rest of the group. However, you deserve an explanation for the major loss of points on graded tasks, and while your teacher probably does have a full inbox, she definitely should have answered your email.
Since it’s been several weeks since you first got in touch with her, I think it’s important to get an answer fairly quickly, before the assignments become too distant of a memory. It’s OK to send another email if you don’t get a response to the first one; “following up” is common in work life, and most adults with jobs expect to both give and receive reminders like this from others. Email your teacher again. Say hello, and then describe the change you noticed in your graded work. When you do that, it will be really helpful to your teacher if you can name or describe the assignments where you lost points as specifically as possible. After that, you can ask what caused the drop in your grade, and you can also mention that you have sent her an email about this before. When you write your email, I think you’ll be more successful if you try to use language that sounds like polite questions rather than angry accusations (even though you might feel angry!).
If you don’t get an answer within two or three days, you should ask your parents to help you communicate with the teacher. Your parents might have other ideas of how to get in touch with her, and unfortunately, some teachers do respond more promptly to parents than they do to students. Hopefully, after that, you’ll be able to have your questions answered.
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)
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