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’m hoping for advice on how to discern the difference between having unrealistic expectations for a school and recognizing that your school is not a place you should continue to teach.
I teach middle school. I am a kind-of-new teacher. I used to work in a creative field and enjoyed it. Essentially by accident, I fell into doing side projects as a “teaching artist.”
After some failing and flailing, I became pretty good at it, and I realized I loved teaching even more than my main job. I worked in many different schools and with many different populations, and I always embraced opportunities to participate in equity/inclusion trainings. As a straight, white male I feel it is pretty important to recognize my own biases and avoid a “white savior” approach to the work.
Over a decade, I got my teaching license, and I finally landed my own classroom in a rural district that is a bit of a commute. While the commute doesn’t feel that long with an audiobook, socially it feels like I need a passport. I am struggling with both the school culture and the academics. Most classes here just push busy work; there is almost no critical thinking required. I’m trying to teach so students can be creative problem-solvers and good communicators, but the pushback is constant. The pushback comes from students, some families, and a number of staff members that resent change.
Even more alarming are the constant slurs and racist/homophobic imagery I have to address every day. At first I thought this problem was just students. But on a recent professional day I discovered some of my co-workers think passive bigotry is hilarious.
My principal has only been here a short while and wants the school to move in the same direction I do, but it seems most of the staff doesn’t. More importantly, from my limited viewpoint, it seems the greater community doesn’t want change. I feel like I’m wearing myself out and making no difference. I drive home feeling defeated and often have a knot in my stomach on the way to school. I grew up in a rural school district. I don’t think it’s just culture shock.
When I reflect, I sometimes wonder if I’m just taking a “grass is greener” view of teaching in this strange year; maybe I’m looking at my past work through rose-colored glasses. What ways can I frame my reflections so I can honestly tell myself if I should stay or leave?
—Exhausted, Kind-of-New Teacher
Recently, I got my first “I like [babysitter] better than you!” from my kid. And I wanted to say, “She probably likes you better than I do right now! She gets to drop in on special occasions, and I pay her to do fun things with you. Meanwhile, I’m the one who has to tell you to pick up your socks and debate the merits of brushing your teeth every day.” You were the babysitter; now you’re the parent. I don’t mean to diminish what you used to do. I’m just imagining, in your previous role, you used to teach what you wanted, and it was something the kids were really interested in. Now you teach what the state tells you to, and a small fraction of the kids want to learn it.
That’s going to be true, to varying degrees, no matter what school you’re in. And it’s exhausting. I’ve taught for 19 years in six different schools, and one thing I can tell you is that you will never not be exhausted.
I’ve been “I’m new and have no idea what I’m doing” exhausted. I’ve been “the system has failed these kids and I’m just one person doing her best” exhausted, “you want me to do how many assessments?!” exhausted, “my principal doesn’t like me nor does she hide it” exhausted, “these parents expect miracles” exhausted, and “I don’t get paid enough for this” exhausted.
And, occasionally, I’ve been “this is so hard but so damn rewarding” exhausted.
If you stay in the game, you do have some say in what kind of exhausted you are.
Let’s say you choose to stay. I’m feeling inspired by what Stacey Abrams did in Georgia, and I think, with very, very hard work, change is possible. Sometimes all it takes is one gentle nudge to shift someone’s perspective. In my first year at this school, after another teacher said, “Is this photocopier retarded, or am I?” I sent the staff a gentle email introducing my son, who has Down syndrome, and asked them not to use that term and not to let their students use it.
Can you gently but firmly rebut your students’ ignorant comments? How about the staff’s? Could you work with the principal to start conversations and trainings on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?
Maybe that’s not the kind of exhausted you want to be, and that’s OK. Teachers are expected to fill roles that we’re not trained for and that we don’t have time for. It’s OK to say, “Nope, not my circus, not my monkeys.”
But if you go, know that no classroom will be perfect. More likely than not, you’ll just be trading one set of problems for another.
—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)
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My daughter is 5 and is not scheduled to begin kindergarten until August. Though she did some classes and activities outside the home pre-COVID, we decided to homeschool instead of sending her to preschool when the pandemic hit.
It turned out that she loved it! She has also achieved much more than we anticipated academically. She reads fluently (probably a second or third grade level), writes neatly, can add and subtract even with numbers in the hundreds, understands fractions, counts money, tells time, etc. Recently we even started multiplication and division, and she can’t get enough. She ASKS for more math! We do lots of arts, crafts, and science experiments too.
At this point, we are planning to continue homeschooling since it works so well for our family. We talked to a co-op group about joining, but they were hesitant about how to accommodate her because she is so far ahead.
Is it okay to continue with homeschooling her and just find her non-academic social opportunities like sports teams, dance, and music? She does have some friends close to her age that we try to see safely. Do you have any suggestions for what else we could be doing for her? I know the term gets thrown around a lot but I think she is genuinely a gifted child. What resources might be available to us for her if she’s not in traditional school?
—Hoping to Homeschool
Sure, it’s okay to continue homeschooling her! Obviously, I’m an advocate and supporter of public schools, and if your question were about keeping her at home just because you suspect she’s gifted, I don’t think I’d advise you to make the same choice if your primary motivation was simply a hunch that the school won’t be able to accommodate her abilities. However, it seems like this choice genuinely works for your whole family—she loves it, and you sound like you do, too. If everyone is thriving and happy under your current arrangement, by all means, forge ahead.
Academically, I’m going to level with you: I know very little about resources and best practices for homeschooling. So, I’ll advise you what I’d do myself, were I making this choice for my own five-year-old. First, I’d think through my general philosophy and goals. One of the major appeals of choosing to homeschool is the ability to customize the experience for your kid and your family system and values—so what do you want out of the next year? Investing lots of time in nature, in activities, in free play and independent exploration? How much screen-based learning are you open to? Are you hoping to adhere to a structured philosophy or a more organic approach? Then, I’d turn to Google, social media, and existing communities, looking for resources and guidance from folks who have some experience with this. I’m confident that you’ll be able to find a Facebook group for every flavor of homeschooling under the sun, and while I’m sure you’ll have to separate the wheat from the chaff, I bet you’ll also find a ton of useful stuff—from curriculum and materials to schedules to practical wisdom—to get you started. It might be that a group that’s more explicitly mixed age or mixed ability could be a better fit for her. I do think having some peers to collaborate with would be helpful.
I’d also add that, as you’re thinking about teaching her next year, try to make sure you’re balancing content knowledge and skill mastery with thinking strategies. She’s reading at a high level independently; what connections is she making between texts? When you do science experiments, what observations can she make and what conclusions can she draw?
Socially, to the degree that it’s pandemic-possible, I’d definitely suggest finding some fun, structured group activities for your daughter. Such socialization could allow her to make friends but also an opportunity to practice an array of skills in a novel context, away from your direct supervision: following directions, meeting expectations, receiving corrections and feedback from new adults, staying focused and engaged, responding to unwanted peer behavior, and so on. She’ll have those opportunities whether it’s dance or soccer or coding class, so if you can find a couple that interest her, I’d pursue them.
I think, in general, you want to go forward with a balance of confidence and flexibility. You can choose to homeschool, and you can feel free to reevaluate that choice at any time. It is by no means a permanent decision, so try it, see how it goes, and continue for as long as it feels feasible, successful, and enjoyable for all of you. Good luck.
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)
My child’s high school nor any of his teachers ever addressed or said anything about the Derek Chauvin verdict. While I know that some teachers shy away from talking about race, I feel strongly that we’re at a point where it’s imperative that our schools and parents talk to children about race in an open way. Should I say something to the school? What responsibility do you think teachers have to talk to students—in an age appropriate way—about issues surrounding racism and social justice?
—Wanting to Step Up
I do think that teachers have a responsibility to talk with students about racism and social justice. I will acknowledge that this can be difficult, especially if teachers are still processing what has happened themselves or if they are inexperienced with facilitating discussions on difficult topics. Sometimes teachers are discouraged by their administration from veering off the curriculum or even from talking about racism. However, our silence speaks volumes: when schools do not address such issues, students assume that means that we do not find them important.
Luckily, there are many excellent organizations that have created lessons schools can use to discuss the Chauvin verdict. My own school responded by having a circle discussion similar to this lesson from the Morningside Center during our advisory class. The organizations Facing History and Ourselves and Learning For Justice both have lessons on responding to the trial.
I think you should say something. In my experience, most teenagers do want opportunities to talk about what’s going on in the world, even–perhaps especially–when current events are controversial or upsetting. I would begin by asking your child’s teachers why they haven’t said anything in their classes. If they are unsure of how to do so, you might share the links above. If they believe the administration will not support these lessons, then you can tell the school principal that, as a parent, you encourage the school to facilitate difficult discussions about racism and social justice. After all, if we schools do not teach students how to have challenging but critical conversations now, how can we expect them to do so as adults?
As the school year starts to wind to a close, I’m curious what you think about standardized testing. My children’s school is skipping it, but I am wondering about lost learning. I am generally anti-testing, but after this odd year, do you feel like teachers and individual schools have enough of a handle on where the gaps are in students’ learning to rewrite curriculum to properly address these learning gaps in the fall?
—To Test or Not to Test
It’s impossible to monitor student growth, adjust learning plans to meet student needs, and pace instruction properly without constant, rigorous assessment. These assessments really vary—they can take the form of a daily “exit ticket” to assess a student’s performance at the end of a lesson, or consist of annual standardized testing. I find all assessments to be enormously helpful in monitoring student growth.
When it comes to state standardized tests, I tend to think that it’s not the testing people are opposed to, but to the weight that teachers are forced to place upon that testing as they teach in the classroom. It is sadly true that sometimes test scores can warp instruction.
In Connecticut, where I teach, we are resuming with standardized testing this spring, knowing that the data we receive about children’s growth will not be nearly as important or relevant as identifying where each student stands in terms of their learning. Remote and hybrid learning created enormous disparities in student growth, so establishing a new baseline for each student will be critical to designing lessons and filling holes next year.
So yes, in my opinion, assessment is necessary to determine student needs, especially as those needs have become so much more diverse.
As we prepare for these tests, I am working hard to keep my students’ level of test anxiety to an absolute minimum. Their anxiety related to the pandemic is still running high in many cases, so I don’t want any of them feeling the pressure of testing. Depending on how your state and school district are doing in terms of the pandemic, it may make more sense to conduct this testing next fall, when school returns to a more normal schedule. This may be their rationale.
Either way, I agree that teachers can’t be effective without knowing where each student stands. That will be critical to getting our kids where they need to be.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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