Care and Feeding

I’m Pretty Sure My Kid’s School is Engaging in a Wildly Discriminatory Practice

A boy puts his head in his hands and looks upset.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by filip323/iStock/Getty Images Plus, lovleah/iStock/Getty Images Plus, pashabo/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and timsdd/iStock/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 seventh grader was recently suspended from school for getting mad and destroying a projector screen valued at $183. He has issues with PTSD and emotional dysregulation due to early childhood trauma — we adopted him at the age of 7. We’re working on these destructive impulses in therapy. I was shocked to find out that the school administrators offered us two options for the length of suspension: if we paid to replace the destroyed item, my son would receive a half-day suspension; if not, he would be suspended for the full day. To me, it is screamingly obvious that this is a discriminatory policy that penalizes poverty, since a child from a family that could not afford to pay would receive a harsher punishment.

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We chose to pay for the projector screen but accepted a full-day suspension. The school administrators told us in response they would record this as a half-day suspension, and a half-day absence from school at parents’ request. I don’t think they understand the problem with their policy. I would like to explain it to them, but do not believe they will receive it well. We have already been having issues with this principal and vice principal, who both are from an older generation and do not seem to have evolved with the times. I am sure that anything I say to them that could be construed as criticism would offend them, and they already seem to hate my kid as it is. What can I do to address this? Write a carefully worded email to school admin? Or go over their heads to talk to someone working for the district? Is there any possible way for me to address this inequity?

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—Privileged Parent

Dear Privileged Parent,

You’re right, this is a discriminatory practice and as far as I know illegal. I’m not a lawyer, and I can’t speak to the specific laws in your state, but I spoke to administrators at my school and at a friend’s school in another state, and both validated my perspective: Where they work and live, it is illegal to tie discipline to a financial restitution. It sounds like your son may qualify for certain protections afforded to ESE students, which potentially opens a whole other legal path for you.

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I’ll leave it to you to decide whether to seek out a lawyer who specializes in education issues—it doesn’t sound like this is where your interest lies in this particular instance. But what you can (and should!) do is report this unfair practice. Your school district should have a procedure for receiving grievances against faculty members. In addition, don’t be afraid to reach out directly to a school board member or your superintendent if you have concerns that reporting this unfair practice may further damage your son’s relationship with the administration at his school.

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That relationship is what is really important here. As frustrating as these administrators are, once you’ve gone through the process of reporting this misconduct, I encourage an earnest meeting with them about how you feel their approach is more focused on punishment than growth. While they have the unenviable job of conducting discipline, as educators it should be their focus to help your son’s development. Particularly as a student with recurring emotional issues, he needs to supported by them, not policed. As counterintuitive as it might seem, the students who are most often in trouble on my campus tend to have the strongest relationships with the administrators. Good administrators show students that they are helping them to create better habits, set boundaries, and manage their own behavior. It should not be adversarial and it should not be punitive. Your son deserves that. If this doesn’t seem like a possibility or he continues to struggle with this administration, it’s worth talking to him about who at the school he trusts. Maybe it’s a guidance counselor, maybe it’s a favorite teacher. Help him suss out who that person might be—he needs to feel like he has someone at school on his side.

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—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

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I’ll be retiring from a career as a college math teacher this year (yay!). I am a pretty good teacher, and have been teaching largely freshman and sophomore level classes, so my students are close to high school age.

I’ve always thought that K-12 teachers are the ones that do the most important work, and I would like to work part time as a substitute teacher in our public school district next year. Since I have a Ph.D. in math, I have a suspicion that I can be hired easily in our state.

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If I had a choice, I would like to work somewhere around fourth grade through middle school. That’s where students start to fall behind in their math, and so I’d really like to make a difference in that area.

I’m a single woman, with no children of my own, and very little experience with children in general. Am I totally off base here or do you think I can be of use? Would middle schoolers eat me alive? And if I can be of use, then what sorts of things should I be doing, studying, and thinking about to help me prepare to be an excellent teacher? I have taught math for future elementary teachers, and so I have worked with math manipulatives, and I’m a member of NCTM, although I have rarely had time to read any of their periodicals.

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—Wannabe

Dear Wannabe,

Congratulations! It’s noble that you’d like to use your retirement this way. Of course you can be of use. In the current climate, substitutes are nearly impossible to come by. Many districts are requiring non-teaching personnel—bus drivers and cafeteria workers, even—to cover classes when teachers are quarantining. New Mexico is requesting the National Guard to step in.

Plus, with your teaching experience, I have no doubt you can help students of any age learn math.

That being said, might middle schoolers eat you alive? Yes. I taught middle school for a decade, and they are a species of their own.

If I were in your shoes, I would prepare by (1) reading A Sympathetic Understanding of the Child by David Elkind to get a sense of what to expect from kids at each age, and (2) practicing not taking anything personally. A class whose teacher is out is, by nature, off its rhythm. Familiarity is gone; routines are upended. Those kids are in no way inclined to respect you, listen to you, or do what you tell them to.

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I also suggest you get there early and familiarize yourself with the lesson plans. Ask other teachers, front-desk personnel, or administration any questions that pop up. Then, make an effort to get to know the kids before you do anything else. A little goes a long way. An icebreaker game or a short conversation with each kid can do wonders for getting them on your side. Lastly, act like you’ve been there before. They don’t know you from a Fortune 500 CEO, so give off the confidence of one. However it ends up going, leave the teacher notes. I often bring in treats the day after I’m out for students or classes that get a special mention in the sub notes. And I definitely have conversations with the ones who made poor choices.

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The thing I wonder most after reading your letter, though, is whether substituting is the best use of your talents. Even during the best of times, substitutes are usually expected to do little more than babysit. And unless you’re doing a long-term sub gig, your assignments will be fragmented—this grade one day, that grade another—to the point where making an academic difference might be an unreasonable goal.

What about tutoring? If income was part of your calculation, there are plenty of tutoring services who are in perpetual hiring mode. You could also take on private clients. I have a friend who matches her full-time teaching salary with her part-time tutoring schedule.

If making money is not a concern, ask a nearby school if they need help. Maybe you could host a lunch bunch a couple times a week or volunteer in a specific classroom—that way, you could create a deeper relationship with the students and address their needs as they come up.

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Don’t get me wrong—you are exactly the kind of sub every teacher wants, i.e., one who wants to make a difference. But I’m just wondering if substituting will fulfill that desire for you.

Good on you, either way.

—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

My youngest child is a happy, self-motivated first grader attending a charter school. Last fall, his teacher and the school principal approached us about doing a hybrid model for his education—he would stay in first grade but go to a second grade classroom for math and ELA. They created this opportunity after reviewing his outstanding test scores and watching his independent learning. He has become a peer mentor in both the first and the second grades and is well-liked by both staff and classmates.

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The school has now approached us about what to do with him next year. He has mastered the first and second grade curriculums and continues to show growth on his exceedingly high test scores. They have watched him interact with both classes, where he moves fluidly among friends and is a leader. He loves school!

The school is offering the opportunity to skip second grade. The principal knows our children well and said she has promoted a child once in her 30-year career. She said she has spoken to the teachers and believes he meets the strict criteria necessary to skip. He has the maturity, emotional IQ, social skills, and academic ability to make a successful transition.

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I do not want him to skip for many reasons including the fact that childhood is brief so why rush it? My husband believes it would be better for him to stay challenged. The school likely won’t offer a hybrid model for him next year. He will sit through the same curriculum but possibly have opportunities to extend himself in small groups.

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What do you think?

—Skipping Through Childhood

Dear Skipping,

My answer is always the same in situations like these: Childhood is too short. Don’t shorten it any more than necessary.

If your husband is worried about your son being challenged next year, there are a multitude of ways, both in school and outside of school, to challenge him without taking a year of childhood away. Teachers are highly adept at differentiating instruction to meet the needs of students, so it shouldn’t be hard for them to design an engaging school day for your son.

And there are lots of ways to expand your child’s horizons and offer new learning opportunities outside of school, including classes in art, music, sports, and technology, as well as organizations like the Cub Scouts, the YMCA, and more.

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Not only do I recommend preserving childhood for the sake of your son, but do it for yourself, too. He’s going to grow up quickly. Give yourself that precious year of childhood, too.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I’m a community college professor at an extremely large metropolitan community college for the last two decades. I typically teach older students, and most of the traditional classroom population at our institution is older, so I’m very accustomed to teaching folks in their late 20s and older—I usually have a fair distribution across ages, including students in their 60s and 70s. These students are typically independent, busy, and autonomous. They are great students, but I recognize that balancing school, a job, family, and the rest of life means they approach school a lot differently than someone who is in the 18-22 age range. I have good relationships with my students, in general, and I often get good reviews for respecting student’s autonomy and time.

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Very occasionally, I get a student who is dual enrolled and still in high school. Usually, it’s a good mentorship opportunity because I was that student when I was younger. And, no matter how bright and talented the student is, being in an environment where one is the only one under 20 can be intimidating, so mentoring helps build their confidence and awareness as they mature into college at a rapid pace.

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However, this semester is unusual in that I have practically an entire cohort of these students in my only on-campus class. (Every other class is off campus.) Like me, some of these students are queer/non-binary (I use they/them pronouns) and it seems that this is the reason they signed up for my class.

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I also perform in drag in my city, though I’ve not done so since 2020 due to the pandemic. (For full-time drag performers, this isn’t an option, but since I am more of a casual/hobby performer, I feel like I should be leaving the open bookings for folks who need to earn their living, plus the obvious Covid precautions.) For the sake of keeping things smooth at work, I keep my drag life and my work life separate—it’s not a secret, some of my colleagues know, but I recognize a professor doing drag isn’t received the same way as, say, a music professor or art professor who may have an entire creative career outside work, being accepted much more smoothly.

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We have optional workshop days on Fridays, where students bring their laptops and work on that week’s assignments, and ask for help when they need it or to go over material they find challenging. Most of the older students don’t attend—they feel comfortable doing their assignments on their own time. The only students who show up are these high school students. They come mostly to talk to me about stuff other than school, and there is a lot of mentoring happening around college transfers and career goals, which is great.

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They keep bringing up the city’s drag scene. I’m pretty sure they’ve found me out (it’s not hard), and I can understand that they want mentorship from an older queer person. The problem is I’m just coming out myself—I have only recently starting broadcasting my non-binary identity, and as someone with CPTSD, it’s not an easy process. I don’t think I’m truly ready to be a queer elder to these kids as I’m only just figuring out my own queerness. They seem pretty out and proud, and I absolutely love that. But I’m not there yet, despite the two-decade age gap. And keeping drag and my academic life separated is an important feature of safety for me as I ease into being out at work.

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Any advice or guidance? I don’t want to invalidate or otherwise send any negative vibes to these young queer teens—and it honestly makes me so happy to see that younger people are getting space to be their true selves. In many ways, I have been mentored and guided by many people younger than myself as I’ve navigated the waters of gender exploration. I want them to know I am here for them in whatever ways I can be, but talking about drag at work isn’t it for me just yet. How can I do that while still being supportive and providing the kind of mentorship I know I can give?

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—Don’t “Drag” Me at Work

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Dear Don’t “Drag” Me at Work,

You have come to the right lady! I love boundaries. While not queer myself, I do empathize with your competing desires to be the supportive adult these teens are seeking and to also maintain healthy boundaries.

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I think one of the best ways to mentor is to be a good listener. Are you comfortable listening to your students discuss the city drag scene? If so, you can sit back, listen, smile and nod without contributing your personal experience.

However, if listening is uncomfortable or even triggering for you, you may need to take a more direct approach. The next time they bring this up, you can say something like, “I do appreciate our local drag scene as much as you do. However, this isn’t something I am able to discuss at work. I need to keep my personal life and work separate. Thank you for understanding.” Most students won’t push past a limit like that.

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Don’t feel bad about maintaining boundaries, Don’t “Drag” Me at Work. Healthy boundaries are one of the keys to longevity in education. Sometimes students may behave as if they are seeking friendship from a teacher, but in truth they don’t need their professors to be their friends; they need them to be educators. You can have positive, supportive relationships with these young people and protect your personal life at the same time. Simply being a nonbinary professor makes you a powerful role model for them. As you probably know, many queer students don’t feel welcome in schools, even in college. The fact that they regularly come to your optional workshops is a sign that you have made your classroom a welcoming, safe space. As you give them academic and career guidance, you are mentoring them. Caring for yourself is a way to ensure that you can continue to mentor future students for years to come.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

More Advice From Slate

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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