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.
My heart breaks for the families in Uvalde. I am the parent of a fourth grader. I sent my daughter to school today without saying anything to her about the horrific shooting, because honestly, I just didn’t know what to say. I’m regretting that because I am sure she’ll come home today having heard about it. Do you have any tips for how to talk to children about this senseless violence without filling them with fear? And similarly, because I’m sure she will be scared, do you have any tips for what to say to calm her fears, when I feel like I can offer no reassurances?
Dear No Words,
First, no guilt. My wife and I told our 13-year-old daughter about the shooting, knowing she would hear about it on her own, but we sent our fourth grade son to school without any knowledge of the events in Texas, hoping that he might not find out. If it can be avoided at his age, we’d prefer it that way.
We also sent him to school knowing that if he heard about the tragedy from a classmate, he would be in the company of teachers, a social worker, a school psychologist, and a host of other professionals who have all been trained for these situations and were undoubtedly well-prepared for today.
What I tell my own children—and my students when I must—is this:
These tragedies are horrible and frightening and should never happen in our country or any country, but they are also very, very rare. Our country has more than 125,000 schools. Only a small handful of them have ever been affected by tragedies like this over the years. Almost every student in every school in America will graduate from high school without ever experiencing violence like this.
When a tragedy like this happens, we hear about it because it’s so awful and because something needs to be done to stop it. But for every school that suffers this kind of tragedy, there are more than 125,000 schools and tens of millions of kids who experienced a perfectly normal, happy day at school.
Also, you’re surrounded at school by adults who love you and will always do everything in their power to keep you safe. You’re loved by so many people—teachers, principals, paraprofessionals—every single person who works in your school. Their first and most important job is to keep you safe and happy. That’s what they will do today and every day.
That’s my advice for parents and teachers today. Let your kids know how rare these shootings are and remind them of how many people love them dearly.
But—and I can’t emphasize this “but” enough—while I assure my students and my own children that the likelihood of this kind of violence happening in their school is exceptionally small, I understand your anguish, your anger, and your helplessness. Because I feel the same way. Exceptionally small is still far too often. Something needs to be done. I don’t want my assurances of the rarity of events like these to be an excuse for continued inaction. I have taught through Columbine, Parkland, and hundreds of other school shootings. I teach in a school less than 30 minutes down the road from Sandy Hook. In my nearly quarter-century of teaching, I’ve watched security increase, lockdown drills become a regular part of the school year, and the anxiety and fear in both students and teachers increase exponentially. As rare as these shootings are in relation to the number of schools and students in America today, their effects on all schools have been profoundly detrimental.
How many children must we lose before anything changes? How many children need to be buried before we decide to stop being the only nation on the planet experiencing school shootings and mass murder on this level and with this frequency? My hope, as both a parent and a teacher, is that the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, will finally result in the reform our country needs. Unfortunately, it’s far more likely that this will happen again and again before we can finally move past politics and find the wisdom and decency to make it happen.
It both angers and saddens me beyond measure.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
Slate needs your support right now. Sign up for Slate Plus to keep reading the advice you crave every week.
Can you talk to me about grades? My child is finishing up their freshman year. All last year, I’d been preparing them for high school, saying things will be much harder, the workload will increase, etc., to prepare them for what I thought would really be a step up work-wise. While there’s a bit more work, it seems like every student brings home straight A’s. Is there a lot of grade inflation in this day and age? Is this due to the pandemic, and teachers not wanting to be too hard on students who’ve been through a lot? Or is freshman year much easier than the rest of high school?
Dear Straight A’s,
Grade inflation is not new—it’s persisted for quite some time across the U.S. The pandemic has probably exacerbated it, although I am basing that solely on my own experience: My students’ grades this year have tended to be really, really low or really, really high. I did not enter into the pandemic with the intention of making things “easier” on my students, but I suppose I have leaned toward rewarding those who are keeping up with their assignments and showing compassion to those who are struggling with problems beyond their control. I know I’m not alone.
I will also say that freshman year is often easier, academically speaking, than the upper grades. This is especially true for ninth graders who enter high school with strong organizational skills and who adjust well to their new environment. As your child rises through the ranks, they will probably find their advanced courses to be more rigorous.
Grade inflation is a controversial topic and many assume that it is a sign of lowering academic standards or a problem with detrimental impacts on students; however, I have read some interesting counterarguments. Personally, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Hopefully, your child’s good grades will give them confidence to tackle sophomore year believing they will be successful.
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
I need some help figuring out how we will survive the rest of this school year. My 9-year-old has had a rough year. He has sensory processing challenges that make it hard for him to sit quietly in class. (He has a 504 but it has only been implemented sporadically, which is another post for another day.) He is also quite bright and finds much of the work too easy but doesn’t always like to do the advanced work given by his teachers because he would rather be part of the group. He sometimes struggles to relate to his peers and doesn’t have any strong friendships at school. At this point in the year, he feels like almost no one at school, staff or students, likes him. He’s stuck in the “it doesn’t matter what I do, I’m going to get in trouble anyway” mindset.
His dad and I are working hard to offset these feelings at home, but we can’t be with him during the day. We also both feel like neither of his teachers like him very much and are struggling with how to talk to him about it.
This will be his last year at this school (he will be moving to the district’s HiCap program for fourth and fifth grade), so we are not invested in the long term but need to get through the next month with minimal heartbreak and frustration. Any ideas?
—Let’s Get Through It
I would ask for a meeting with the principal of the school and express exactly what you’ve written here—absent blame or judgment. Tell the principal that your son doesn’t have any friends and that he doesn’t feel like teachers or anyone else in school likes him either.
Don’t accuse the teachers of not liking him, both because it would be counterproductive but also because it’s probably not true. In my 24 years of teaching, I can count just two students out of more than 500 whom I had difficulty liking, but even then, I think those students felt love, even if it wasn’t entirely authentic.
But if a child isn’t feeling liked or loved by their teacher, that is something that needs to be corrected if possible. Perception is reality for kids, and that reality can make for an exceptionally challenging school experience.
This news may be hard for his teachers to hear. I had to deliver this news to one of my own children’s teachers years ago, and it was admittedly a difficult conversation. But if I had a student who was unhappy and didn’t think I liked them, I would want to know immediately, and I think most teachers would feel the same.
The only way to improve your school day is to inform and enable the adults who work with him so that they can make the changes necessary to ensure a positive school year.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
I need some polite and friendly language, preferably backed up with rigorous science, to use with my kindergartner’s teacher to explain my opposition to homework. Earlier in the year, homework was reading and practicing sight words, which was fine! But this spring it’s been a lot of worksheets. I don’t see the value, and when I’ve asked her to articulate her philosophy around homework, she says it’s to “start building good habits.” Well, I’m not an education scholar, but from what I’ve read, there isn’t good evidence that homework for kindergartners improves kids’ academic performance later on. More important, I know my kid, and after a full day at school I think he benefits more from time wrestling with his little brother or playing in the backyard. Thoughts on how to approach his teacher?
—Do We Really Need This?
I totally agree. I’ve written at length for this column on the inefficacy of homework, especially worksheets. I think you should start by seeking some district-specific information because every district’s homework policy is different. In some districts, homework is mandatory; in others, it is viewed as additional practice or a means of “building good habits.” If your district is one that requires homework, then the teacher’s hands are tied. If not, there may be an opportunity to find a solution that works for everyone.
If you find that the district does not require homework, I would simply ask the teacher how the homework aligns to the curriculum, and whether it factors into your child’s final grade. You could share your concerns about the homework and the potentially negative impact it’s having on your child’s development. That said, I wouldn’t approach the situation with a stack of research papers or scholarly articles in hand. Chances are his teacher is already familiar with the science and has structured their syllabus with that in mind. Ultimately, you should support the educator as the professional and final decision-maker on the issue. While I don’t agree with the concept of homework, your child will not be worse off by completing it. Especially if failing to do so has consequences that would affect their grade.
I would, however, prioritize doing a bit of research about your school’s first grade teachers’ approaches to homework. If there’s one teacher you hear about from other parents or teachers whose philosophy aligns more closely with your own, don’t hesitate to make a request to have your child placed in their classroom next year.
—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)
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?