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 child recently went back to in-person school, and every day when I walk him to school, I see the vice principal outside to greet families and help direct children, and his mask is hanging below his nose. It’s driving me insane. Not just because of the potential health risks, but because he’s supposed to be modeling good behavior for the students. He seems aware of it, because I’ve seen him fiddle with it. Can I say something? Send him an email? Anonymously send him a pack of accordion pleated, better-fitting masks?
Dear Mask Up,
This man comes out every morning, greets families, and directs children. To me, that sounds like he’s “modeling good behavior for the students.” …And his mask is below his nose, which is not OK.
So first try looking at him through that lens—he’s someone earnestly trying and stumbling—but then yes, sure, any of the above and more. What are you comfortable doing?
You could say, “Good morning, Mr. VP! So nice to see your friendly face out here every day! Oopsy-daisy, your mask is falling down.”
You could send him an email: Hi, Mr. VP, I’ve noticed your mask tends to fall down. I had the same problem but found this great one that fits snugly around my nose. Here’s the link…
Sure, you could also anonymously send him that pack of masks, but who knows if he’d get the implication?
If your kid says that other students are regularly wearing their masks below their noses, a bigger conversation might need to happen, but for now, just remember that school staff are (a) human and (b) stretched thin. Assume he’s doing his best and needs a friendly reminder.
—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)
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My kids attend a well-regarded neighborhood public school in a state that has in-person learning. I kept my kids in remote learning until March but finally sent them back to in-person school because I was feeling completely overwhelmed.
My older child is in third grade and is twice exceptional (on the autism spectrum and gifted), but he has had mostly wonderful experiences with school until this year. All of his prior teachers have been great with him and frankly, most of them have taken a particular shine to him because he has a very sweet, gentle disposition. He has also had mostly good social experiences–he sometimes struggles to connect and is of course a bit awkward, but at least so far, he doesn’t seem to have encountered any active bullying.
Well, this year’s teacher is a dud. She obviously resents having had a new student with some additional needs put in her class fairly late in the school year. (In addition, teachers are required to wear masks in school for the obvious reason, and she doesn’t.)
My son had a very close friend in the class, but unfortunately, he moved out-of-state two weeks after my son’s return to in-person instruction. Ever since his friend left, my son has struggled socially and complained about feeling lonely and left out, especially during recess. I tried to discuss this with his teacher and offered suggestions of (simple, basic) strategies we have used to help him engage with peers in the past; she repeatedly just told me to send in a book for him to read instead.
He does have other friends in the class. There are several girls who are former classmates who are very friendly toward him. I think he would be happy to join them during recess with a little encouragement, but I’m not allowed on-site at all because of COVID, and all of my communications with the teacher are either via email, text, or phone. I did discuss this issue with an administrator, and we had a zoom meeting with the teacher. When pressed on helping him feel less isolated, she became very defensive and said that because he came back to school so late, all the peer groups had been formed, and there was nothing she could do. She also claimed she has taken the steps I suggested to help him connect with peers at recess, but I’m pretty skeptical since she was so dismissive when we spoke without an administrator present.
I have two questions: What, if anything, can I do to support my son given his teacher’s negative attitude? If there were more time left in the school year, I would absolutely ask that he be switched to a different classroom, but that seems like it might make things even worse at this point. I also think it’s good for him to remain with the peers with whom I know he has positive connections.
Second, how should I handle end-of-year notes and gifts? My mom was a teacher, so it’s very important to me to recognize teachers’ hard work. I usually send a note with a gift card, and in the past, I have been able to offer very sincere thanks. But what can I possibly say to her? “Thanks for resenting my kid and making him feel bad?” “I’m so thrilled my son only had you as his teacher for a quarter of the year?” “You’re not very kind, and it shows!”
It would also feel weird to get a gift card for her since they’re usually a token of appreciation. Should I just be the bigger person and send a gift card in a blank notecard and sign my name to it? Or is it appropriate to just skip a gift since I don’t feel grateful to her in the slightest?
—Stymied in the South
Dear Stymied in the South,
In reading your letter, I tried to find empathy for your son’s teacher, thinking she’s probably overwhelmed by what has been a frightening, challenging, exhausting year for most teachers, but I could not.
By your account, your son is being treated terribly and deserves much better. I’m so sorry to hear this is happening. Since March, I’ve had two students return from our remote academy to our classroom. Though these moves naturally add new challenges to my school day, these are children who deserve my best, and I adore both of them. Your son deserves the same.
You’ve taken all the correct steps in my estimation. I might try one more call to an administrator, asking the same questions you have asked in your letter, but based upon your previous contact, I’m not holding my breath. I might try to organize some after school and weekend opportunities for your son to play with his classmates outside of school. Strengthening relationships with a weekend trip to a playground with some classmates might lead to greater opportunities at recess time.
As for the letter and gift, these are not expected nor are they required, so I would not send one. Gratitude is earned, and in this case, it is not deserved. A note thanking her for keeping your son safe this year might’ve been appropriate, but if this teacher isn’t wearing a mask, even that can’t be said.
Instead, my suggestion is to send a note to others in your son’s life who have been more supportive this year: The physical education teacher. The music teacher. The art teacher. These teachers play enormous roles in kids’ lives but are often forgotten by parents. You may also consider sending notes to his kindergarten, first, and second grade teachers, letting them know how much you still appreciate all they did for your son.
May I also suggest that you send a copy of these notes to the teacher’s administrator, too? This means a lot to teachers.
Happily, the school year is nearing its end, and this teacher will soon be in your rearview mirror. Good luck.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
I’m currently in teacher’s college, doing an in-person practicum at a high school. I’m a cis, gay woman, and my associate teacher (let’s call him Joe) is a middle-aged straight man. For the most part, we get along and work together really well. However, I’m concerned about some of his behavior toward our students, and I don’t know how to address it with him.
Joe is well-meaning but under-informed about issues surrounding gender, race, sexuality, disability, etc. He’s also…not very observant. For example, we have a few trans kids in our classes, and he often misgenders them. When it happens in front of the whole class I try to speak up and refer to that student with the correct pronouns within the next few minutes, which I’ve been trying to do in a way that doesn’t draw extra attention to Joe’s mistake or embarrass the student. Is this the right strategy? I want to also check in with the student after these incidents, but don’t know how to do that without being disrespectful to Joe? For the record, I’ve never heard any of my students misgender the trans kids in my classes, but I have heard several teachers and admin make those mistakes, even while the school’s policy claims to be inclusive to LGBT+ students. I’ve corrected Joe privately after the fact a few times, and those conversations seem to go well in the moment, but then he makes the same mistakes again, and I don’t know how to proceed when it continues to happen.
Without getting specific, there have been other moments or conversations with Joe where I’ve been concerned he’s not meeting the needs of our Black, queer, and disabled students, but I don’t know how to address it. I want to do right by my marginalized students and I also need to do well in my practicum and hope that Joe can provide a good reference for a teaching job next year. How should I handle this?
—Teaching My Superiors
Welcome to the profession! I’m happy to know that a conscientious, equity-minded person like you will soon be teaching high school!
You are in a difficult position as a student-teacher. Your ability to effect change in Joe’s classroom or the school at-large is limited, since you’re not yet a faculty member nor in a position of authority. You’re also not likely to be at this school for very long; I don’t know how long your practicum lasts, but many end before the semester is over, which is not enough time to address complex issues such as these. I advise you to focus on successfully completing your practicum and acquiring a good recommendation so that you can go on to become a teacher who advocates for marginalized students. While you want to look out for these students’ well-being during the moments of your day when they are in your care, these students are not your larger responsibility right now.
That said, you are working with Joe on a daily basis and describe him as a “well-meaning” person open to discussing these issues with you. If you feel comfortable, you might consider educating him further about the importance of learning all his students’ names and pronouns correctly. I can say, from experience, that once a teacher has “learned” a student’s name incorrectly, it is challenging to fix and requires conscious effort. Personally, when a trans student has told me their name and pronouns (which often differ from official school records), I make a note on my roster, highlighted in yellow, so that I am reminded at the beginning of each class that I need to make this switch. I also thank the student for telling me and let them know that I want them to correct me if I make an error.
I also recommend that you discuss the issue with your advisor and your school more broadly—they may have knowledge about the school you’re teaching in, or advice on how best to address this with the teacher. You might ask whether the college has considered partnering with local schools to help them address equity and inclusion, particularly if the institution has a long-standing relationship with the local schools.
You mention at the end of your letter that you’re “concerned he’s not meeting the needs of our Black, queer, and disabled students.” It’s tough to offer concrete advice without knowing more—are these issues of bias or stereotypes? Holes in the curriculum? Discrimination? Is he failing to recognize students’ needs for support services? I’d need to know more, so feel free to write back, but here are some general resources that may help prepare you as a future educator. GLSEN is an excellent organization with the mission to make schools “safe, supportive, and LGBTQ-inclusive.” One important GLSEN program is their Gender and Sexuality Alliance, a student-led club that promotes a positive, supportive school climate for LGBTQ students. Finally, to help learn how to address issues of bias or inequity in schools, this guide from Learning for Justice about speaking up in schools is a great place to start.
I wish you the best of luck on becoming a high school teacher! I hope you will reach out in the future; I love talking with new educators.
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
Last fall, I enrolled my daughter in a Montessori school to spend the last two years before kindergarten. I’m a former teacher, and I love the Montessori method and really wanted my daughter to foster a love of inquiry and learning before going off to what will likely be an academics-focused public school.
In October, her teacher (who was Montessori certified) had to leave because of an ill parent, and she eventually was replaced by her current teacher who is “almost done” with her Montessori certification. But the teacher seems really traditional. My biggest concern is that my daughter seems to spend a lot of time practicing writing—she has come home with worksheets full of the same letter, over and over. And when a child acts out during circle time, he has to go to a table and write his name several times.
This is exactly the opposite of what I wanted out of preschool for my kid. I don’t want her to see writing as a chore or punishment. I’ve spoken with the teacher a few times, and the writing assignments have slowed, but not stopped. My daughter loves her friends and has enjoyed the school aside from this work. Am I overreacting about how harmful this is, or should I have her attend a different school for her pre-K year?
—Am I Overthinking?
It’s never easy when there’s a sudden change in a child’s teacher. However, I think you may be overreacting a bit here. Change like this is common in adult life, and kids need to experience it to develop traits like grit and resilience. Adapting to new structures and expectations, while difficult, is a critical skill kids need to practice early on. I’d view this as an opportunity to discuss that with your daughter. You could say something like, “I know the writing assignments (and other things) haven’t been fun, but I want you to know that learning should always be fun even if some grown ups use it as a punishment or chore.” It’s important to remember that you won’t always have the same approach to learning as your daughter’s teacher, so you’ll want to build up her personal love for learning regardless of who she has as an educator.
As for next year, I think there are some things you could try before uprooting your daughter from a learning environment she seems to really like. You could check in with the school administrators or whoever may be her future preschool teacher and ask that person and/or the administrators about their educational philosophy. If the school and/or teacher philosophy aligns with your expectations, then I’d say don’t switch schools. If you find that the school’s culture is more in line with the current preschool teacher you don’t like, then ultimately, it may be better to find a new learning environment where you feel your daughter can thrive. Good luck.
—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)
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