Care and Feeding

My Child’s Future Preschool Teacher Is a Conspiracy Theorist

A preschool teacher teaches a toddler.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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 askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I work at an early learning center that takes care of children from infants through pre-K. My nearly 3-year-old son attends the same center. Now it is time to start thinking about preschool for him. We have a wonderful preschool program, and you can’t beat the convenience of taking your child to work with you.

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The problem is that one of the preschool teachers is a right-wing conspiracy theorist. She thinks that all immigrants should be deported whether they came here with the government’s permission or not. She also won’t get the COVID vaccine because she thinks that’s how they put tracking chips in people. I know she has these views because she talks about them to her coworkers at school, even if children in her care are around. I know it is inevitable that my son will be exposed to conspiracy theories at some point, but a teacher’s word has more impact than some talking head on the news.

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I worry that we tell children to believe what teachers say so they can learn. Should I find another preschool for my son, or just tell him to believe his teacher when she says that this is the letter A, and this is an oval, but not to believe anything he overhears her saying to other adults. Can a 4-year-old even make that distinction?

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—Joe Biden Won

Dear JBW,

The only thing I remember from when I was in preschool at age 4 is writing a giant capital E with about fifteen middle slashes so it looked like a comb and then thinking, “…That doesn’t look right.” It was fun while I was writing it, but as the teacher came over to check, I spread my hand over my paper hoping to conceal what I was certain was a mistake.

In other words, your son may have memories from preschool, but he probably won’t even register the teacher’s conspiracy theories because pre-Kinders don’t usually have a context for that sort of thing. Even if he did remember, those “lessons” are easy to un-teach. “I wonder why she said that,” you say. “That’s not what I think at all, and here’s why… What do you think?”

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However… this woman shouldn’t be teaching. Any grade. Any subject.

First of all, teachers should believe in humanity first, that all people are worthy, and that they deserve life, safety, and education, regardless of origin. I hope this woman has no immigrant students because she is clearly xenophobic. She will not treat anyone she even perceives as “other” with respect, and that’s something a 4-year-old will remember. (The only reason I remember that incident with the E is that I felt shame. Strong emotions get lodged in our memories.)

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Second, teachers should draw reasonable conclusions based on sound evidence, to which this teacher appears impervious. “Chips in the vaccines” is certainly one of the dumbest of all conspiracy theories, an idea devoid of any basis in reality.

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Moreover, based on what I’ve learned the last four years, I’m willing to wager that she holds other backward positions based in internalized misogyny and unexamined—perhaps proud—racism. I don’t care if she can give lessons on the ABCs and 1-2-3s; if she doesn’t change her position when presented with new evidence, she has no business teaching anybody anything.

Have you confronted her about these views? Has the administration? Anyone? Is that possible?

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If not, should you find another preschool for your son? If she’s the only teacher available… I would.

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

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every week.

My daughter has a July birthday, and she is on the young end of her current Kindergarten class. She has been doing distance learning the entire year. (She will go back in-person a few hours a week this month). Distance learning has been very, very hard for her. She often cries under the table instead of listening to the teacher. While she listens at least half the time and completes most of her work, she does it very begrudgingly and without putting in a lot of effort. For instance, refuses to write her name on assignments, will only answer questions with the “shortest words” because she doesn’t want to write a lot, etc. That said, she seems to understand the concepts and is very excited and engaged about certain lessons, like learning about insects.

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Before she starts first grade, she is “supposed” to be able to count to 100 and to know 100 sight words. She can count to 100 by 10’s (with some help), and by 1’s with a lot of help (several reminders along the way). She has refused to practice the sight word flash cards, so she only knows a handful of them, but she is great at sounding out simple words and knows all the letter sounds.

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Her teacher has said it is up to me whether or not to let her go on to first grade next year. I am so torn. I feel so sad that she didn’t get a normal kindergarten experience. I also worry about her struggling a lot in the next couple of years. That said, she is really a very smart girl and catches on quickly when she tries (which she has been unwilling to do a lot of the year.)

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She has a group of friends she has made outside of school, and she very much wants to go to first grade with them. She is also socially mature and was very well behaved in preschool. I do not think we would be considering holding her back if this school year had been normal.

I have noticed that within the last two weeks she is suddenly starting to work harder and apply herself, and she seems to suddenly care more about her work. My hope is that if we really make sure she can count to 100 and knows all the sight words by the end of summer (and practice writing a lot) that she will be fine in first grade. But I am so worried about making the wrong choice that I am having anxiety attacks about it. I don’t want to set her up to fail or to take her away from her friends. What would you recommend in a situation like this?

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—Moving on Up?

Dear Moving,

Move that girl to first grade!

Your daughter is a member of a unique cohort of kids who will have more diverse learning profiles than any previous year, and teachers know this very well. Students will be arriving back from remote schooling with a variety of needs. As students in our district have been transitioning from remote learning back to the classroom, teachers have been quickly identifying gaps in learning and working hard to fill them.

It’s going to take time, but most children are in similar positions. Your daughter won’t be behind in her learning any more than most students. More than likely she will be very similar to her classmates, who have undoubtedly been dealing with similar struggles at home.

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I promise you that she is not the only child in her cohort who has spent some time crying under her desk. In fact, crying under the desk is a very typical kindergarten behavior according to my wife, who is a kindergarten teacher herself. The fact that your daughter has some of the skills required of a kindergartener is great news, and that she has a love for learning is even better.

Had your daughter been struggling with counting and sight words in school, holding her back a year would never be considered. Kids arrive at kindergarten with different degrees of readiness, and much of what is taught in kindergarten is retaught in first grade.

Your daughter sounds like a great learner and a wonderful student who hasn’t enjoyed remote learning—just like most of us. Next year will surely be better for her—and hopefully for the rest of us, too.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I have a 4-year-old who is disabled. They have some physical issues that involve sensory issues, and we suspect they have ADHD. They’re in a HeadStart classroom with an IEP. Pre-pandemic there were some issues with listening and following the school routine, but not to this extent. Coming back to school, it has been worse and escalating rather quickly in the past few weeks. They’re now hitting peers and teachers while smiling, refusing to apologize, throwing toys, running away, throwing objects at people, and being generally aggressive, destructive, and disruptive. Last year we saw some uptick in problem behaviors at home due to some trauma, but we were able to utilize PCIT, and things are now much better. We do see some of these issues at home, but nowhere near the level they are having at school. What can we do? The teacher says they’re at a loss as to how to help my child. Why is this happening?

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—Nowhere to Turn

Dear Nowhere,

Your child has presumably been out of school for some time, spending all their time with you, the parents. For a child, those environments could not be more different. School—even preschool—has lots of demands, compared to the relatively few demands of home. I’m going to guess that at preschool, adult attention is divided among, maybe, 7 kids per adult. At home, children get much more undivided attention. And, unfortunately, even though most teachers know they’re not supposed to give inappropriate behaviors attention, when hitting is involved, we often have to. On top of all that, your child may be in sensory shock: school is nosier, has different smells, fluorescent lighting, etc.

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While I can’t say for certain why this is happening, I suspect since your child returned to school, they’ve learned new behaviors to gain attention in inappropriate ways. Your child hitting and then smiling at the teacher is a clue—it suggests to me that they know hitting is wrong and want to see the reaction it gets.

What can you do? Fortunately, a lot. I’d start by requesting a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). An FBA is something that goes with the IEP if you have one, and as the name implies, it is an analysis of why a behavior is happening. An FBA will require your child’s team to form a plan on how to address the behavior. The plan may be as simple as granting your child access to sound-canceling headphones or a visual schedule to cope with the sensory environment. If the FBA determines that the behavior is severe enough that the regular classroom environment or an informal plan will not address it, the IEP team will develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). A BIP is a formal plan that goes on the IEP as well, and it dictates what a child needs in order to change their behaviors in school.

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Because your child already has an IEP, requesting an FBA shouldn’t be an issue, but you can always talk to your child’s case manager to see if your district requires certain steps before getting one. They may say that since in-person instruction only just resumed, he needs time. If that’s the case, I would say that you can always share the strategies that work at home, or see if there’s a strategy they’re using at school that you can carry over at home like a social story or a particular phrase (like “gentle hands” or “touch gently”) to help their behavior at school. Good luck.

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

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Often I ask myself and others whether it’s possible for Black History to be taught in public schools full-time, and not just one short month once a year. How can this be made possible?

—Once a Month Isn’t Enough

Dear OaMiE,

Thanks for the thoughtful question! Yes, Black history should and can be taught year-round in school. The problem is that school districts lack the political will and resources to do so. Additionally, I have yet to come across a textbook from a major publishing company that offers anything close to an authentic account of the contributions Black men and women have made in this country.

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Many of the resources we teachers use to teach Black history have either been shared or compiled by other educators or scholars because the textbooks and resources from our own districts are so sub-par. For example, my district offers nothing in the way of support for teaching Black history. Thankfully my mother, a Black educator, left me a library of rich resources to share with my students.

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Ultimately, if we want to see this happen on a national level there has to be a shared commitment to educational accountability from us as a society. Many folks in our communities still believe that slavery was a choice, and they uphold the lies that many slaves lived peaceful lives free of violence and oppression. Furthermore, we limit our understanding of Black history to stories of trauma and violence, when we should be celebrating the advances and genius of black scientists, artists, etc. Until we can collectively reject these lies and demand that we create and utilize texts that share the true history of our country, I’m not sure that we will make significant progress here.

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However, what you can do in your community is demand better of your district by advocating to your administration, educators, and schoolboard. Since the tragic death of George Floyd last summer, some schools are changing the way they talk about race in classrooms and are adding courses and lessons in social justice. It’s important to remember that like many things, if we separate curriculum such that race is talked about only in one-off lessons, inequities grow in the gaps. In order for us to truly realize this goal we must accept that Black history is the shared history of all people in this country and incorporate it into every facet of our instruction.

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

More Advice From Slate

My partner is a middle school teacher known for establishing a rapport with “difficult” students and advocating for BIPOC and LGBTQ kids. When he answered a call from a parent one evening, I overheard him talking about his sister. I confronted him about this after he got off the phone, because he does not actually have a sister. He told me that he tells stories about imaginary siblings, cousins, and other family members to connect with his students. I find this completely baffling. What’s your take on it?

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