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 family and I moved across the country in August to New York City. After some frustrations trying to navigate the public school system, we found a private/public preschool that had an open paid spot, and we grabbed it.
On their website, the school describes their public option as running from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., while their private option runs from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. I work an early shift and do not need care in the late afternoons, so I expected to pick my son up at 2:30 p.m. His teachers have discouraged me from doing so, saying that their full curriculum runs until 5:15 p.m., and that it’s disruptive for me to pick him up earlier. The students have three hours of curriculum and play, followed by lunch and a nap, then three more hours of curriculum and play. When I pushed back, the teachers reluctantly agreed that I could pick him up at 4:15 p.m. some days if I let them know ahead of time that I’ll be doing it—but they prefer he stays until 5:15 p.m. My spouse feels that we should do as the teachers ask and not pick him up until 5:15 p.m. I feel this is an awfully long school day for a four-year old and that it is just as important for him to have time at home with his parents!
What should we do?
—The Day is LONG
Dear Day is Long,
I can’t imagine a reason why a child needs to stay at school from 8:30 to 5:30—that’s a full 9 hours of school. That’s too long, and there’s no reason why you should have to pay for 3 extra hours of child care that you do not want. I know it’s competitive to find schools in New York, but this gives me a bad feeling. I would stick with your initial instinct that 2:30 is a reasonable end time, and if the teachers are shaming you for taking your young child out of school after 8 full hours, I would start to look for a different school.
In the meantime, I would ask for a schedule or information about the curriculum they are using. That hopefully can help inform you about when to pick him up. If, for example, the end of the day is quiet time, then it’s possible that the longer day is just a part of managing childcare needs in a city where many adults work long, unreasonable hours. Or, if there is free play, maybe that feels more like an extended playdate after school and that’s not a terrible reason to let him stay late.
Ultimately, I don’t love their response to your needs and I can’t imagine why a day that long is necessary, but there may be a way for you and your spouse to determine the best course of action for supporting your son’s needs, regardless of what the school says.
—Ms. Sarnell (early elementary special education teacher, New York)
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I am a high school science teacher at a private school. I enjoy teaching, and I value the bonds developed with my students. At our school, we respect a student’s choice about pronouns and chosen names. I also feel honored when they disclose sensitive information to me because it informs me that they have trusted adults in their lives. Our school also has counselors who do a great job looking out for our community. It makes me sad that sometimes kids cannot talk to their parents because not all parents accept who their children are. Of course, sometimes it’s simply an issue of high schoolers trying to navigate their lives, and their parents are accepting but just haven’t learned the truth yet.
My trouble comes when I sometimes interact with parents during a conference or at a game cheering on some of our students. I naturally call the students by their chosen pronouns or names during a parent/teacher conference or when I am on the sidelines cheering, and I realized once that I outed someone unintentionally, and I felt awful about it. I am fully aware how important it is to acknowledge kids’ identities, but I am also afraid of something happening to kids at home when their parents either don’t accept them. Sometimes the parents didn’t yet know and are then disappointed in themselves that their kids didn’t feel safe coming out to them when they could have done so with full love. I want to address this with our counselors, but I first want to hear from you so I can be as discreet as possible. Do you have any recommendations?
—Don’t Want to Out Others
Dear Don’t Want to Out Others,
I understand your dilemma as I have been there myself. Thank you for honoring your trans students’ names and pronouns! I also agree that it’s best to let trans students come out to their parents in their own way, in their own time. We don’t always know if it’s even safe for students to come out at home, but it’s wonderful when we can provide a safe space at school.
In the past, I have had students ask me to use one name and set of pronouns in class but not to do so when speaking to their parents. I tell the student that I will do my utmost to honor that request, and I make a note of it on my roster to help me remember. If you’re expecting a parent conference, sending an email home, or planning to attend a school event, check with the student beforehand so you don’t accidentally out them. That said, you can’t anticipate every social situation; just try your best. There are usually ways to support a student from a distance— “Go 14! [jersey number]” or “Go Huskies!” or “Great job!”—without using a child’s name, if you don’t have clarity on what to call them in public.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with a very helpful article about supporting nonbinary youth in school from one of my favorite educational resources, Learning for Justice.
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
My second grader attends our neighborhood school in a district that is mostly Title I. Our school was remote last year, and since my son has ADHD, I homeschooled him because I knew online school would be difficult for him.
He’s back in in-person school now, and I’m troubled by how much the school is continuing to lean on the Chromebooks the district purchased during the pandemic. Every student has one, and the district seems to be on a mission to get their money’s worth out of the investment they made last year, relying on educational software for reading, spelling and math way more than I would like.
It sounds like there isn’t enough actual teaching happening. I have found that my son’s attention wanes much faster while engaging in learning on the computer. Often he presses random keys rather than tries to answer correctly.
I wouldn’t mind as much if he was older and using his device in school for research, but it feels like teaching second graders shouldn’t involve this much reliance on educational software. We live in a state that requires teachers to have a masters’ degree and is highly regarded for its schools, so I kind of expect the professionals to be doing the teaching, not the device. Am I wrong? Should I be less concerned? Can I ask that they limit screen time in his IEP? How do I reverse this trend?
—Worried in MA
Dear Worried in MA,
I would contact the teacher directly with your concerns and ask about the philosophy behind their decision to lean into technology. While it’s possible that teachers are making this decision, it’s more likely to be a decision coming from somewhere higher up on the food chain.
I know that school administrators are still very concerned about the possibility of classes, whole schools, or whole school districts being sent into remote learning this year depending upon the nature of the pandemic. In my son’s school, for example, entire grade levels have already been quarantined due to exposure. It’s possible that your son’s school district is continuing to make use of technology with the thought being that if children are quarantined for weeks at a time, they will still be a position to continue learning at home.
If this is a trend that your district is adopting simply because they think it’s best for children, this will be a tougher battle to fight, but I would make your concerns known to teachers, administrators, and the Board of Education. You might also try to find other parents who feel similarly. There is strength in numbers.
In terms of your son’s IEP, it might be possible to limit his screen time in school, but I would also be wary about placing your son in a position where his classmates are using computers for an assignment while he is working with a paper and pencil. If your son is being pulled from the classroom for individual instruction, perhaps that might be a time when screen time could be limited.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
Word has gotten to me that my son’s kindergarten teacher has been yelling at the class. This really upsets me, as well it should if it’s true. I’ve already emailed a few parents in his class to see if they’ve heard anything, as well as his special ed case manager to see if she’s observed anything. How else can I handle this without turning it into a witch hunt? I just want to get to the bottom of it.
—It’s Loud in Here
Dear It’s Loud,
I would contact the teacher directly and let them know what your son has reported, absent any initial judgment.
I suggest something like:
“Dear Ms. Smith,
My son has told me that you’re yelling at the class. I know that a kindergartener’s perception of the world is often skewed and sometimes way off (insert amusing anecdote about the time your son thought a cow and a horse were the same animal), but even if you’re not raising your voice, he thinks you’re yelling at the class, and it’s turning him off from school. Is there something you and I can do to fix this?”
It’s certainly possible that the teacher has yelled at the class, and if so, your phone call or email may serve as a much needed wake-up call for this teacher. It’s also possible that the teacher has raised their voice over the din of a pack of unruly children in order to get their attention. I also know that students will often say that a teacher yelled at them, when in truth, the teacher spoke to the students in a stern and serious way. Because of the fraught nature of the encounter, it is often perceived by some students as yelling.
In fact, I’ve had fifth graders tell me that I’ve yelled at them for not completing their homework, even though the conversation took place at my desk in a room full of students and paraprofessionals, yet no one else in the room heard a single word that I was saying. But I get it. A teacher is speaking to a student using a disciplinary tone that makes them nervous, so it is sometimes construed as yelling, especially if the student doesn’t get in trouble very often.
My suggestion is almost always to go directly to the teacher with an open-mind and a collaborative spirit. Sometimes it’s true: The teacher is wrong. This has happened to me plenty of times in my career. But often, a student’s view of reality and reality itself are more complex than what the student is capable of seeing. In these instances, it’s still critical for me as a teacher to know how the student is feeling. Even if their perception is wrong, their feelings are very real, so something still needs to be done.
Hopefully that is the case with your son.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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