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.
I have been teaching elementary school for several years, and I’m moving to a new school next year where the parents are notoriously…. intense. I am all about parents advocating for their kids, and I form strong relationships with families, which helps us all do the best for their student. But, I’m very petite and look quite young. Upon meeting me, parents regularly ask me if I’m a new teacher, and when I say that I’ve actually been teaching for many years, they ask how old I am. I don’t feel like I need to reveal my age to them, but I’m not sure how to respond to this (very rude and inappropriate) question in a way that still communicates that I’m interested in having a positive relationship. My strategy in the past has been to say “older than I look!” It usually works okay. But recently I met some parents at my new school for a summer class I’ll be teaching, and two parents would. not. drop. it. It was extremely awkward. Any advice?
—None of Your Business
How annoying! (And kinda surprising—even if you were as young as you appear, fresh-out-of-school teachers are a pretty common sight, especially at elementary schools. I would think these parents might at least have the common sense to know that you did not, Doogie Howser your way into the classroom.) Wanting to create strong, positive relationships with families doesn’t mean you can’t also uphold your personal boundaries, or that you’re obligated to accommodate objectively rude behavior. A parent badgering you to disclose your exact numerical age even after being deflected is not advocating for their child, they’re just being nosy and overly familiar, and if you don’t want to answer, you should feel confident in not doing so.
If you know the issue of your youthful appearance is often going to be a thing, I think it’s a good idea to have a standard, gentle line you deploy when it comes up. If you feel like “older than I look!” usually works for you, then that’s fine, but if perhaps the playfulness of it is being interpreted as openness to further discussion, then I’d try to acknowledge the question, but close and change the subject—like, “I do get that a lot, but I’ve been teaching for a number of years. So, I’d love to tell you about my approach to literacy…” If they keep bugging, then I’d also have a backup line, holding your limit politely but more firmly and clearly; something like a simple “I generally prefer not to share that,” without lots of apologetic qualifiers. If, heaven help you, they keep asking even after you’ve said you will not be answering, then I’d just keep repeating the line with a “like I said…” for effect.
You and I can’t know these parents’ intentions in inquiring about your age over and over, but the effect is conveying doubt in your ability to effectively lead a classroom. While I know the question is uncomfortable and annoyingly unnecessary, I think handling this question gracefully but decisively will help in establishing your authority. Fingers crossed it won’t come up much as you get more integrated into your new school environment!
—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)
My husband and I have a debate. Our six-year-old LOVES audiobooks. She figured out how to swipe the speaker and turn on her audiobooks whenever she wanted when she was four. It was the beginning of the end for quiet in the house. She listens obsessively, forgoing all other activities, save for occasionally crafting when re-listening to specific audiobooks. She’ll sneak the speaker into bed, hide it in the bathroom, claim she’s going to the toilet during dinner and not come back, and when we investigate we find her listening in the closet. She ignores her 3-year-old brother and puts a blanket over her head and the speaker to avoid people. (She’s also done this when cousins her age or friends were over.)
She doesn’t even have a huge variety of books; she tends to re-listen to the same books over and over again all day every day for three-to-six months per series. During quarantine, our family memorized the entire Ramona Quimby series as well as the entire Enchanted Forest Chronicles For a while, it was Winnie the Pooh, but, thank God, that seems to have been taken out of rotation, as she listens to the few others we have.
Our debate is two-fold: How much is too much audiobook, and should we force more variety into the line-up? We’ve downloaded a variety of authors and series, but her interest tends to be pretty narrow for, as we’ve noted, a three-to-six-month period, depending on the book. During quarantine, we appreciated that she wasn’t addicted to screens, but we are moving back to a more regular schedule these days, and we’d like her to explore other activities and interact with people more. She can be very sociable if we take the speaker away from her, but it has to be our decision because it is never hers.
—Audiobooks or Bust
Dear Audiobooks or Bust,
First, let’s celebrate that she’s taken a significant liking to literature! I think you’re right, though, to want to think this through a bit. I can see how this habit—which is great in moderation—can have negative unintended consequences. Here are some strategies that can help.
I’d begin by trying to ween her into other genres. You want to encourage both the habit of reading and trying new things. I’d find what story elements she likes about the books that she listens to on repeat, and do some research yourself or talk with her teacher or local librarian to find books in other genres that share those elements. That might serve as a good segue to exploring new things with a sense of familiarity.
Next, I’d set aside specific uninterrupted times for both reading and socializing. Setting clear boundaries will give her the opportunity to engage with her hobby, but will also encourage her to doing other things. I’d recommend maybe doing a 2/1 split of time at the beginning. Maybe for every 2 hours of audiobooks you allow, make sure she is getting at least one hour of reading or something social.
Lastly, I’d find a way to make reading and stories more of a social activity with something like a book club or play date story time. That way you kill two birds with one stone by giving her the opportunity to be more social while enjoying books.
—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)
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My kindergartner has her first active shooter drill tomorrow. The school calls it an intruder/ALICE drill. I am not exactly sure what happens. I think they encourage the kids to stay in the classroom and hide (which seems counterintuitive to me but we will go with it this year). My daughter has confessed to my sister that she’s nervous about it, so we need to talk about it. Any advice about age appropriate ways to discuss this terrifying scenario and help prepare her?
—Filled With Dread
An ALICE drill is not just a “hide in the classroom with the lights off and stay quiet” style drill. ALICE is a system for mass-casualty events. I have taken a similar training (Avoid-Deny-Defend), and while I cannot say I think it was good that I had to do it—we shouldn’t live in a country where I, a special education teacher with no combat training, may be the first and only line of defense between a shooter and children—I did learn some information that is useful, given that we do live in that country. ALICE stands for Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate, and it represents a system of responses based on the specifics of your situation. You can read more about how they are using those terms here, if that’s something you’d like to look at more closely.
As for how to prepare her, this is a tricky one. We’re asking her to be thinking about how she would behave in an unthinkably scary situation for anyone, let alone a child. There are a few social stories you can use to prepare her for what is coming. This website includes one specifically about ALICE drills, and there are others online as well. You can also reach out to the school counselor/school psychologist about making a custom one for your school. Many kindergarteners are likely feeling anxious about this, and the school is probably doing what they can to support their students through it.
Another thing you can do, painful as it is, is talk her through it directly. If she is willing, ask her why she is scared. Remind her that she does lots of drills at school (fire drill, bus evacuation drill, earthquake or tornado drills (depending on where you live), etc.) and that she knows these are only for emergencies, and they are not real. I do have students who continue to be afraid for a few days after drills, and I just try to hear their fears and assure them that, no matter what, teachers find ways to keep kids safe. It’s tough, because their worst scenarios are often not what I see as the worst scenario, but try to listen, hear her, and tell your daughter that should anything ever happen, an adult will protect her, because that is ultimately the reassurance she’s seeking.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)
My daughter Kate is in third grade at our local public elementary school. Last year, Kate started to get into trouble at school, and also started to hate it—pretending to be sick in the morning, etc. She got sent to the vice principal fairly regularly, and after having talked with Kate a couple of times, the vice principal called me in for a conference and she told me that she thought Kate’s struggles may be stemming from being highly gifted.
We started taking Kate to see a psychologist who found her IQ to be well over 150, and said that she thought that boredom in the classroom and difficulty relating to the other children could be causing problems for her because of this.
She was put in a special behavioral program at school, and started working some with the school’s gifted teacher as well. We felt we were on the right track. She’s been attending school in person this year, has a fabulous teacher who she loves, friends in her class, and has been in the gifted classes at school a half a day a week. She was thrilled for the first half of third grade, but for the past several months, she has been back to trying to avoid going to school, pretending to be sick in the mornings, sometimes just sitting in the middle of the floor and refusing to go.
What should I do? Kate says she is bored with her schoolwork because it is too easy and she already knows it. The gifted teacher says she does not believe that she is bored in her main classroom because she has such an engaging teacher this year, and thinks it is behavioral. Her classroom teacher says she isn’t being bad, just not paying attention. It feels like she has gone backwards all of a sudden the past few months.
We took her back to see the psychologist. She says Kate definitely doesn’t have ADHD or any other diagnosable issues causing her problems. Her psychologist said that the school simply isn’t doing enough to stimulate her brain for someone as smart as Kate is and that I should ask for an IEP and advocate for her to get more advanced work.
My problem is, I don’t feel like I really know what to ask for. Private schools in the area don’t offer gifted curriculum. Our school only offers gifted classes a few hours a week. We only have a month left of third grade so I don’t necessarily want to change anything this year, but if she needs something different for fourth grade I would like to have it in place before the new school year starts.
—Isn’t Life Supposed to be Easier if You Are Smart?
“Isn’t life supposed to be easier if you are smart?” is a very good question. Yes, a high IQ can certainly make aspects of a child’s school day easier, but I like to remind parents that it’s the learning that my students do relative to cooperation, collaboration, persistence, grit, friendship, patience, self-confidence, listening, communication, and courage that will have far more lasting effects on my students, long after their ability to multiply mixed numbers or test for a single variable or summarize a fictional text has waned.
When it comes to these critical components to a child’s future, IQ doesn’t help as much.
This includes the ability to deal with things that are perceived as boring, and this, too, is an important life skill. Not every moment of every day is incredibly engaging and entertaining. We must learn to maintain effort and focus even when the task at hand is not especially appealing. While I attempt to infuse as much of the school day with fun, engaging learning activities, there are also moments in a student’s day when they will be asked to demonstrate a skill that they already understand, practice a skill that they have mastered, or even listen to a lesson that they could deliver themselves. While this should not happen often, it will happen on a regular basis as students learn at different rates. As adept as a teacher might be at assessing and challenging students, there are going to be moments when a kid is listening or doing something that isn’t exciting them. But through that process, they are learning patience, focus, grit, empathy, and kindness.
All that said, I think exploring the possibility of modified instruction is entirely appropriate, and calling for a planning placement team (PPT) meeting (the right of any parent at any time) is a good idea. This team of professionals will meet to hear your concerns and decide, with you, if any testing, modified instruction, or specific accommodations would help your daughter. You can ask for this meeting whenever you like, but if you can meet soon, you may be able to put a plan into place for your daughter’s return to school in the fall.
There are many ways to accommodate your daughter’s needs, through a combination of gifted and talented instruction, independent study, and differentiation. Some of this may already be happening, but additional supports and accommodations might be necessary, and the PPT would also ensure that this modified brand of instruction is mandated, consistent, and accountable as your daughter moves through the grades.
What the plan might include will be up to the team to decide. That team will likely include teachers, a school psychologist, an administrator, and you, so I would look at this as an opportunity to explore all of the possibilities available to your daughter. Keep an open mind. Ask lots of questions. Approach the meeting with a collaborative spirit and the understanding that the most important things we learn in school have less to do with academics and more to do with becoming a responsible, accountable, reliable, and empathetic human being.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment in life sciences that seems inappropriate. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer and create a poster presentation to display for the entire school. This seems like a terrible idea, and an invasion of privacy. Should I talk to the teacher?