Care and Feeding

My Child’s Teacher Is Very Sick. What Should I Tell My Kid?

A teacher with a student.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Elena Merkulova/iStock/Getty Images Plus and lithiumcloud/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 child is in elementary school. Just a few days after school started, their teacher was out for a week. I wasn’t very concerned at the time as I thought they might have COVID or something else contagious. However, we were just informed by a sealed letter sent home in the backpack that the teacher was diagnosed with cancer and intends to keep teaching while fighting this disease. The note asked us to treat the teacher normally and to inform our child of the diagnosis. This is a lot to deal with personally as my mother died of cancer last year, and I’m not sure of the best way to inform and support my child. Also, although we were asked to treat the teacher normally, would it be inappropriate to send a care package with some gift cards or other items they might find useful during this difficult time?

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—Bearer of Bad News

Dear Bearer of Bad News,

That age of your child is going to play a significant role here. The difference between the information that a kindergartener and a fifth grader can process is enormous, but in general, I would explain to your child that cancer is a disease that is not contagious and comes in many different types. Some cancers are easily treated, and some are much harder to treat. You don’t know what kind of cancer the teacher has but, I’d tell your child that their teacher is going to be working hard to get better, and she cares so much about her students that she’s decided to keep teaching while she tries to get better.

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I’d also add that the teacher doesn’t want to make a big deal about her illness, so your child should do their best to treat the teacher in the same way they would treat any other teacher.

As for the care package, I would send a note of support to the teacher and offer to send a care package but allow the teacher to be the arbiter as to what she wants and doesn’t want.

I hope it all works out well for your child’s teacher.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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I’m curious if you’re noticing the academic effects of the pandemic play out at school this year more than last year? I’m quickly realizing that our district was very easy on kids last year, since they were returning to school after spending almost all of the 2020-2021 school year in remote learning. Last year saw endless retakes on tests, lenience on forgotten assignments, and practically no homework, such that it was a breeze to get through the year. This year seems back to business as usual, and I’m realizing my high schooler has very little foundation in some of the classes (foreign language, math, in particular) required to be able to master the subject. It’s been a really rough adjustment (bad grades, high stress). I’m curious what you’re seeing on your end—have you been given the mandate “business as usual” from administration? Are you seeing effects of the pandemic play out in the classroom even more this year than perhaps last?

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—Pandemic Woes

Dear PW,

I’m not seeing the impacts of the pandemic more this year than last. Rather, I think the effects are continuing to pose challenges for students and teachers. Those challenges include the gaps in learning and organizational skills you mentioned, as well as students’ mental health and social skills.

It’s true that, last year, many teachers (myself included) were much more lenient than usual with things like deadlines or missing assignments. I have not received a “business as usual” mandate from my school administration, but there is an expectation coming from the state that we “accelerate instruction” in order to help close gaps created by the pandemic. In my state, this is code for increasing scores on state-mandated standardized tests. The situation is stressful for both students and teachers.

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Personally, I am trying to find a middle ground in my classroom. Endless retakes and meaningless deadlines make my job harder. At the same, many of my students still struggle to meet grade-level academic expectations, and so they do need additional support to be successful. I don’t want to drag my seniors across the finish line, but I’ll run next to them.

I wish that instead of focusing on test scores, our state leaders would leave teachers alone so we can focus on authentic learning. Instead of pressure to “accelerate instruction” so that students can pass lame tests, I wish we provided kids with the mental health resources they so desperately need.

I know it’s tough right now. I hope things get better for your high schooler (and their teachers).

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—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My newly 7-year-old does not want to go to school. Every morning is turning into a battle, with her crying about not wanting to go to school and us trying to comfort her but also get her ready because…it’s not a choice. She insists nobody is being mean to her, and she comes home every day happy from aftercare. I’ve emailed the teacher to confirm this is true, but it seems to be more of a separation issue triggered by the transition back to school (she was at camp all summer, and we’ve never had this issue previously). Any ideas how to best support her?

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—Battle Worn

Dear Battle Worn,

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Sadly, the most likely solution to this problem is time. Separation is hard for some kids. My daughter wept for weeks when my wife dropped her off at preschool but was perfectly fine ten minutes later. Not easy on my wife, as you might imagine.

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But eventually, the crying went away. My kindergarten colleagues—who include my wife—tell me that it takes a while for some kids to enter school with a smile on a daily basis, but every child transitions without tears in the end. This will pass for you and your child, too.

I’d also recommend that you establish a routine each morning and stick to it in order to build in as much predictability into your morning as possible. Kids love routines. Knowing what to expect and avoiding any deviation from the established routine might make the transition a little easier and a little quicker for your child.

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I know it’s not easy when you’re going through it, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Good luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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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