Care and Feeding

My Daughter’s Teacher Is Seriously Behind the Times

Boys and girls line up at school alternating boy, then girl, then boy, then girl.
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.

My fifth grade daughter brought up a concern about gym class, and I’m debating how to handle it. Her teacher has worked for the district for over 30 years and has won state teaching awards. He’s got some old-school vibes, but he is engaging and the kids love him.

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The trouble is, he often segments the class by gender. “Alternate by boy-girl” or “Boys line up on the green line, girls on blue.” Stuff like that. Seems like a common tactic, and it seems like it’s just how he’s always managed the class. However, one of my daughter’s classmates came out as non-binary this summer, and that is why my daughter is concerned. This student is forced to pick a gender for completely unnecessary reasons. And obviously there could be other students who are non-binary or trans at the school who aren’t out yet. I was proud that my daughter recognized this, and we had a good talk about it.

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I feel that it’s not fair to put the onus on this one student, or even their family, to advocate alone. Am I overstepping if I address this issue? Should I reach out to this student’s parents and defer to their preference (they have a very affirming, queer family that I am on friendly terms with)? Should I raise holy hell with administration that this teacher wasn’t advised on how to protect a marginalized student in the first place?

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I tend to be a bit meddlesome by nature, and I am hoping you can help me decide just how much I should insert myself in this case.

—Meddlesome or Caring?

Dear MoC,

Raising holy hell is never advised. As teachers, we are always hoping to partner with parents on behalf of students, so a more productive approach is always better.

However, you are correct. Requiring students to separate by gender is a problem that should be addressed immediately. I also teach fifth grade and have taught my share of transgender and nonbinary students, so it’s likely that this teacher has taught a nonbinary student in the past and just didn’t know.

My suggestion would be to encourage your daughter to bring up the issue with him first, since she possessed the wisdom to see the problem in the first place. Via email or a private conversation, she could point out the problematic nature of the policy and explain why it should be ended immediately. It might make for a great opportunity for her to use her voice to promote meaningful change.

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If your daughter is unwilling or her attempt does not result in the desired outcome, I’d bring the issue to the teacher either through an email or a private conversation. The nonbinary student need not even be mentioned in this process. Simply pointing out the problematic nature of the policy and the inevitable problems that it will create for students will hopefully be enough for the teacher to reconsider his position.

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If that fails, I would contact administration and make them aware of your concerns. It’s never meddlesome to shine light on issues of inequity, injustice, and intolerance. But if we want to effect meaningful change and foster allyship, a soft warm glow is oftentimes more effective than a harsh, blinding spotlight.

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Congratulations on raising a daughter with so much empathy and social consciousness.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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My husband just started teaching at a local middle school as a lateral entry hire.

He’s struggling with the number of people who come in his classroom while he’s teaching. He has a coach from his lateral entry program, a mentor from his district, and he has another mentor specifically at his school. His grade level has two curriculum coaches, an assistant principal, and a lead teacher. All of these people feel it is appropriate to drop into his class at any time, for any reason. One will come in to ask kids about an incident that happened at lunch, another will pop in because she saw kids on laptops and thought they shouldn’t be, another will do a third “informal observation” of the week. It’s happening multiple times a day and is driving him crazy.

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I taught for 20 years at various levels and just left the profession a few years ago. But it’s been a decade since I’ve been in a public school classroom, so my experience isn’t up to date. I guess what I’m asking—is this normal in this day and age? I know teachers have a lot less control over their curriculum and their space, but this seems counterproductive to say the least.  He brought it up to administration and was told, “Oh, you’ll get used to it.” What should he do?

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—Open Door Policy

Dear Open Door Policy, 

This is normal at some schools. I once worked at a school that had a similar “open door” culture. While it can feel very disruptive, I did actually get used to it.

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Proponents of frequent observations and “open door” policies argue that administrators should be in classrooms often and that teachers should also observe one another in order to create a culture of improvement and shared learning. Since your husband is new to the profession and it sounds like he’s earning his certification while he’s teaching, he will probably receive more visitors than are typical for other teachers.

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At the same time, I understand why this is frustrating. Observations feel evaluative even if they aren’t meant to be, and interruptions to class time are interruptions to learning. Your husband could ask for observations to be scheduled ahead of time and for administrators and coaches to only visit his room when absolutely necessary. He could also discuss this with his teachers’ union. However, if the school principal has embraced a culture of frequent observation, this will be an uphill battle. The first year of teaching is so challenging, I personally think he’d be better off letting this one go and focusing his attention elsewhere.

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When I started out teaching and I had lots of people visiting my classroom to observe, I helped get over my “jitters” (and frustrations) by reminding myself of this: I am doing the best I can and I have nothing to hide; my classroom is a welcoming place where kids are learning. 

I wish your husband a successful first year of teaching! I hope he sticks with it; we can’t afford to lose more teachers.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

Our 7-year-old is bright, funny, and an absolute sweetheart, but our nickname for him is “Absent-minded Professor.” He’s constantly forgetting things (masks, school supplies, something we asked him to do 10 seconds ago, etc.). Now that he’s in second grade and has more things to keep track of, his absent-mindedness is making things more stressful for everyone. Any tips for helping a kid with their head in the clouds to become at least a little more organized?

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—Don’t Lose Your Mittens

Dear DLYM,

I feel your pain. I have a child who is very much the same. I have two suggestions:

1.     Take it one step at a time. You can’t get your child to suddenly become organized overnight, so begin with one simple task, and don’t add another task until the first is mastered. So “Have your mask in your pocket before you leave the house every day” might be the first goal, and until that task is mastered, don’t add another. Build slowly. It will be painful for you, but it will ultimately result in a more organized life for your child.

2.     Create incentives for being organized. As adults, we feel the benefits of staying organized in time saved, reduced stress, less cluttered space, etc. Kids don’t recognize incentives like these as valuable, so others need to be used to change and reinforce behavior. Find a way to positively reward your child when he is successful in his organization, and continue to reward him as you add on new responsibilities.

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I wish I could tell, you that there is a magic pill. Sadly, there is not. Diligence and patience are required. Good luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

How should I talk to my kindergartner about school shooters and lockdown drills? We’ve already had extensive conversations about racism, sex, covid, and other heavy subjects, but this feels different. I don’t want to scare him, but I want him to understand the severity of the situation.

—Gun Shy

Dear Gun Shy,

I think it’s a good idea to talk to him. Kids should be given the correct information in order to prepare themselves, even if you have to couch that information in a way that is going to be developmentally appropriate. Fortunately—or unfortunately, given that we shouldn’t have to do this—there are numerous resources available for this. For most difficult new situations, I think a social story is a good place to start. This website has a few, or if you think it would help, you can reach out to the teacher or school counselor about creating a custom one that is tailored to your son, his stress-coping strategies, and the school’s lockdown procedure.

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I would make sure to stress that his safety is the most important, and that every adult involved (his teachers, you, the principal, etc.) are going to work together to make sure of this. Most children get accustomed to fire drills as soon as they enter school or childcare, so use that as a jumping-off point: do you have fire drills because fires at school are common? No. You have them because they are possible and, in an emergency, it’s important that he knows what to do so that the adults around him can keep him safe. Likewise, with a lockdown drill or evacuation drill, you’re not holding it because he’s going to need it necessarily. You’re doing it because if he is in a dangerous situation, it’s important that he knows what to expect so that the adults can keep him safe.

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Ultimately, if he is scared, that’s okay. Kids have a right to be afraid of something that is real and could hurt them. The important thing to emphasize—with this, and with most fears—is that there is a plan in place to mitigate the danger, and that he knows the plan. By telling him the truth, you gain his trust and will help equip him to handle other dangerous situations as well.

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

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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?

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