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.
What do you do about a bad teacher if she’s not harming your kid?
My daughter is a sophomore and at a new school this year. She started health class a few weeks ago and it’s… bad. She was warned ahead of time that the teacher—we’ll call her Ms. Rook—was a bad teacher but wrote it off as sour grapes for kids who had bad grades.
But this first day was eye opening. “There’s no excuse for late work. Even if you’re out, you need to turn in your work.” (in a pandemic?) “Now, read these pages online and take notes.” (“Taking notes” seems to consist of cutting and pasting portions of the text into specific fields?) “I’ve been teaching this class the same way for more than 20 years, and I’m not going to change.” That last one made my alarm bells go off.
Now she’s got her first actual assignment and it’s to create a collage on mental health. She’s 16 and hasn’t done a collage for school since elementary school but … OK? But the grading rubric says she’ll be graded on: the number of pictures, whether the pictures are in color, whether they overlap, and the size of the poster board. Nothing, as far as I can tell, about the content.
I’ve said that sometimes you need to deal with people who mistake the process for the product, but that I will talk to the principal if she wants me to. She says no—”I can cut and paste, it’s just a waste of my time.”
Should I do something? Can I do something? It bothers me that she has to waste five hours a day on this nonsense. And I’m very worried about what the gender and sexuality units will look like—my child has a great grounding in the issue, but I know not all kids do.
Dear Confused Mom,
I understand your frustration and your confusion. I hate to say this, but there isn’t much you can do. Like any profession, there are bad teachers. It is just as frustrating for the teachers who are really giving it their all as it is for the students who have to put up with them (and by extension, for their parents, too). At least she only has one crummy teacher and your daughter, as you said, already has a decent foundation in the subject.
So, let’s make lemonade from lemons; let’s turn what could be a decidedly un-educational experience into an educational one. There’s a lesson to be had—a lesson we all have to learn at some point—about how to put up with people who just aren’t good at their jobs. Instead of wasting your time trying to get this flat tire of an educator to change her ways, open a dialogue with your daughter instead. How can she be strategic with these time-wasting assignments? What questions does she have on the subject, and how can she seek answers on her own? If your daughter were teaching the class, what would she do differently?
As tempting as it may be to have a meeting with the principal or to try to get your daughter a schedule change, I’m not sure this aggressive approach is necessary when your daughter has expressed that she is not unhappy, merely apathetic about the lackluster coursework. Perhaps when the semester ends, it’s worth sending a note to the principal about how disappointing this teacher is. This doesn’t go against your daughter’s wishes or escalate the situation, but it would alert the principal to the situation. They probably already know, but it gives them a reason to address this teacher’s performance during end-of-the-year evaluations. While it doesn’t help you right now, it does voice your concerns and could get the ball rolling on change.
—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)
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My second grader is bored to literal tears in school. He comes home and cries about how boring school is. He is way above grade level in all subjects. He has friends, loves his advanced math class where they do simple algebra, and loves his specials (P.E., art, music, etc.). That’s it. Science is sooooo boring and easy. English is the same. He cried forever today about it. I’m going to talk to his teacher soon, but I’m hoping to get some ideas about how I can support him and his teacher. I feel bad that he hates the material/activities, but I suspect that he needs to be challenged. He is a very easygoing kid, so I’m sure my email to the teacher will catch her off guard. Any advice? I’m a bit at a loss.
—Bored to Tears
Dear Bored to Tears,
Ask for a meeting with the teacher, and keep an open mind about what the teacher may tell you. It’s entirely possible that your child needs to be more challenged than he currently is, but I’ve also experienced many situations in which what a student describes as boring is simply a child’s lack of affinity for a subject or even a struggle with mastery of a subject.
My friend loves cross country skiing. I think it’s boring. It’s not because I need to be challenged. I just hate the stupid sport. Your son may feel the same way about some of the subjects being taught. You’ll want to know how the teacher assesses your child’s performance in these areas before discussing ways to further challenge your son.
If challenges are warranted, I’d offer to partner with the teacher to support any differentiation that they might offer. This might include additional or alternate homework assignments to go along with differentiated schoolwork.
Above all, avoid tones of criticism or complaint. Instead enter the meeting with an open mind and a belief that you and the teacher both want what’s best for your son.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
I’m a 25-year-old mom to a 2 ½-year-old and a 9-month-old. We currently go to a daycare-type program that is just over an hour long twice a week. My daughter struggles with anxiety which is one of the reasons she is in this program. When my husband drops her off, he says she rarely gives him issues. Half of the times I drop her off she goes from being excited and happy to go to school… to not wanting to walk in. She becomes scared and clingy. I try my best to comfort her.
But I’m at a loss. Today I almost gave up and walked out with her instead of her going at all. She wasn’t even throwing a temper tantrum—just feeling hesitant. I feel like I’m the common denominator. I don’t know how to handle these hesitations. I feel like a bad mom. I don’t want her to be afraid of school just because I’m a bad emotional container. What do I do? What am I doing wrong?
You’re not a bad mom. It’s normal to feel like if your actions lead to your kid crying, you’ve done something wrong, but the reality is that sometimes you have to make choices your daughter doesn’t yet understand. That doesn’t make those choices wrong or bad. Give yourself a little space there.
Now, to the issue of your daughter crying, I have two thoughts. The first is that 2 ½ is not very old, and she has lived almost her entire life in the pandemic world, where she was seeing fewer people than pre-pandemic babies and toddlers. She is likely not experienced with you or your husband leaving her. And while you’re not a bad parent, I think it’s possible that your reaction may be part of the problem. I have had students who weep when their parents—or one specific parent—drops them off, and then recover quickly after. The tears only last about 5-10 minutes after we pry them away from the parents. That specific parent is almost always the parent who lingers for one more hug and prolongs the goodbye. The logic there is that they are helping ease their child’s anxiety by comforting them, but that logic is actually creating a feedback loop. If you give your kid a quick, clean goodbye—ripping the band-aid off, so to speak—then she will get in the routine of going to school with one quick goodbye. With time, your child will bound into school with the briefest goodbye, and you won’t even believe it was the same kid who refused to walk in. Think of it like sleep-training. In almost every sleep-training method, parents are advised to decrease the amount of going-in-and-checking they do so the child can build independence.
My first piece of advice (after “have you tried the schoolbus?” which I assume is not an option here) is to always make goodbye quick. Do “one more hug” at the door or drop-off spot, wave goodbye, and let the teacher take it from there. If your child is physically clinging, you can work with the teachers to come up with a way of making that initial separation. If that’s not working, my next suggestion is to ask your husband how he does it, or even try to do one joint drop-off so you can watch and see what happens. It’s possible dad’s approach is different and just more effective in this case. It’s also possible that what you’re describing as “half the time,” dad considers “rarely,” and so it doesn’t register to him that she is clinging so often. Neither of you are wrong; it’s a “glass half-full” vs “half-empty” situation.
The last piece of advice is to give it time. I don’t know how long she’s been going to daycare, but it can take months for kids to acclimate to leaving their parents, especially a child so young, and especially after the two years we’ve had. She may just have worse separation anxiety. You can always try strategies to alleviate that anxiety (such as having a picture of you and the rest of the family for her to look at in the classroom, or a sensory bag, or a cool-down spot in the classroom for when she arrives), but if the only time she has issues is at drop-off, not the whole day, my gut tells me you just need to say goodbye, move on, and let her work it out on her own. Oh, and to stop beating yourself up over something perfectly common!
—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?