Care and Feeding

I Think My Husband Just Crossed a Major Line With a Student

A teacher on a laptop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Annie Spratt on Unsplash and Ljupco/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 husband is a high school STEM teacher. He mentors BIPOC and LGBT students from working class families to help them find and apply for colleges they can attend on full ride scholarships, and the students often keep in touch during their undergraduate programs. Most of the students do well in college, but one, “Emma,” is really struggling. She misses assignment deadlines, drops classes at the very last minute, and skips scheduled check-ins with my husband with no notice or explanation.

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Sometimes weeks go by with no word from her, and she’ll only get in touch when she’s in a crisis. I recently discovered that he wrote—not edited, but 100 percent composed—at least 2 of her English assignments when she fell behind in a class. I confronted him about this and was shocked that he would help a student cheat, but he said he’d invested too much time in her to let her fail. (Their family and economic backgrounds are almost identical, which I’m sure is exacerbating the situation. And I’m confident that there’s no romantic component because I can overhear their tutoring sessions and I’ve seen their text exchanges pop up on our shared laptop.)

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If Emma can’t cut it at a highly competitive school, that’s disappointing, but there are many other colleges she could attend and still get a good education. Being a mentor to these students is a key component of my husband’s identity, but he of all people should draw the line at cheating. This situation is also causing me to reevaluate our personal relationship, since he was initially evasive about writing Emma’s essays and says he doesn’t think it’s wrong. How can I encourage my husband to (re)establish proper boundaries with Emma? I really need another teacher’s perspective here. Notifying the college seems like a nuclear option. I’m proud of my husband’s work with disadvantaged students, but this has to stop.

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—Where is the Line?

Dear Where Is the Line?,

He crossed it. The line. He should look behind him—it’s back there. Nope, nope, nope. His moral compass has gone wonky.

Have another conversation with your husband. Ask him how he would feel if a middle school teacher were doing assignments for one of his high school students. Would he think that was appropriate support? Would that be in the best interest of the student?

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If he reiterates that he’s invested too much time in Emma to let her fail, first, that’s a him problem. That’s his ego. Second, Emma needs to fail. That’s how she’s going to learn—the material, her limitations, time management, self-reliance, how and when to ask for help from her professor. If your husband does her assignments, she learns… helplessness. Yikes.

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Your husband needs to take responsibility for his actions. What does that mean? At the very least, he must communicate clearly with Emma that he made a huge mistake and refrain from doing assignments for students in the future.

Beyond that, he could tell the college, which would certainly cause problems for himself and for Emma. That’s an ethical decision he’s going to have to make for himself.

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You could tell the college, yes. Do you want to? It would probably blow up your marriage. Would that be bad? You mentioned reevaluating your relationship, and this debacle does say something about him as a person—less that he messed up, more that he’s doubling down. But it’s not your responsibility to make this “right.” Your husband is the one who erred; your husband is the one who remains willfully ignorant of his mistake; your husband is the one who needs to act.

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If you’re committed to making your marriage work, you could seek couples counseling, or you could insist your husband see a therapist on his own. Any professional worth their salt will tell him flat out he’s in the wrong on this one.

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

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My seventh-grade daughter currently has an F in Social Studies. At parent-teacher conferences, the teacher said that she was not doing her work. I requested that the teacher email me about upcoming assignments and when my daughter is missing them. To my surprise, the teacher said no! She said that assignments are posted on the online grade book and in weekly posts on the school app, and missing grades can be seen in the grade book. I have 3 kids and a full-time job, and keeping parents informed is part of HER job. I objected, but she wasn’t budging, so I dropped it. I still think it’s ridiculous that she refuses to do this little thing to help a student succeed. Should I continue to try to convince this teacher? If so, how? Or should I escalate to the principal?

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—Busy Parent

Dear Busy,

I feel you. As a parent myself, I know how hard it is to keep up with all the different assignments and projects and field trips and clubs. It’s almost impossible when you have multiple kids and you know… a life! The juggling act of my children’s school-day afternoons is sometimes the most stressful part of my day.

However, as a teacher, I would have said basically the same thing your child’s teacher did. Now, I would never give a parent a flat “no”; I hope this teacher wasn’t that rude to you. But most of us don’t have time in our day to babysit any one student’s grade. I have over 150 students. It simply isn’t possible. You’re correct that part of our job is to communicate with parents. If this teacher is truly posting all the work, assignments, and grades to the online platform and doing so in a timely manner, then that fulfills their commitment. And I would laud them for it. Keeping up with that alone can be daunting when faced with ballooning class sizes and shrinking planning time. I don’t know if this is the case where you live, but in many places around the country, we are faced with teacher shortages that are exacerbating a variety of pre-existing poor work conditions.

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As for how to proceed? I have two suggestions. First, continue to communicate with the teacher. Ask about how they post work, so that you can check on your child’s progress most efficiently. If the teacher has a habit of posting grades every Thursday, for example, or the week’s assignments every Monday, then you know when to look and don’t waste time constantly checking. You can also ask them to show you how to use the school’s app and where to find everything. I do this for parents all the time during conferences.

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Second, hold your daughter accountable. There is a bit of a gray area here, in my mind, because she is in middle school and may not be entirely self-sufficient when it comes to school. But as a high school teacher, I often counsel parents to place the burden of responsibility on their kid, rather than themselves (or me). Offer your daughter guidance on how to check her assignments and keep up with her work, rather than merely reminding or reprimanding her. Consider bringing her to the next conference so all three of you can discuss ways to improve her study habits. Also, check the school app with your daughter. I know this might be burdensome at first, but once it becomes routine you can gradually release that responsibility to her, particularly as her grades begin to improve.

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I know that’s probably not the answer you were looking for. I wish I had few enough students that I could communicate with parents more regularly and directly. But that’s just not reality. Online gradebooks and learning platforms exist in part to make up for that failing. Whether that’s a tradeoff that our students and kids are really benefitting from? That will need to be the subject of another letter.

—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

I am 13 years old, go to boarding school in Canada, and I am in tenth grade (I have a late birthday and skipped a year when I was younger. Last year, I was diagnosed as autistic and profoundly gifted (99th percentile). I was surprised at first but also not really. I had requested the evaluation, and my parents complied after some persuasion. My outlook on autism prior to my own diagnosis was very inaccurate. Since then, I have struggled with school. I have grown more aware of my challenges and that has prompted me to talk to my parents about feeling out of place.

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This year, I got an IEP. We are keeping my autism diagnosis quiet. (It was done privately. The learning support team, my academic advisor, and the staff member in charge of my house are aware and that is all.) This kind of leaves me feeling like there’s something wrong with being autistic which isn’t a fun position to be in. Additionally, I am struggling with the implementation of my IEP. While it has a few autism supports weaved in, it mostly addresses my giftedness.

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How do I ask my teachers to follow my IEP? No teacher has addressed it other than one who briefly acknowledged that it existed but didn’t ask about it. I need the extension work detailed in my IEP and also need to be able to take breaks but with teachers who haven’t even acknowledged that I have an IEP. I don’t feel comfortable asking for breaks or to use my noise-canceling headphones. I have talked to a few of my teachers about extensions so far and have had negative reactions.

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How do I approach my IEP with my teachers? I’m new to this and it’s not going well!

—IEP issues

Dear IEP issues,

First, there’s nothing wrong with being autistic! I hope you know that. I also suggest that you ask your parents to find you a therapist that can help you process this diagnosis. I’m sure it’s very hard to receive this profound information and then be limited in terms of people with whom you can talk about it. Have your parents discouraged you from sharing this diagnosis? If they are struggling with your autism diagnosis, then I hope they seek out help as well. It is not on you to help your parents, but if you think they are struggling, is there another trusted adult in your orbit who might be able to talk to them, if you don’t feel comfortable doing so? A teacher? A residential advisor or counselor at school? An aunt or uncle? Therapy might be useful for your parents.

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As for how to help you with your specific questions about your IEP, I worry that I am out of my depth—I am a public school teacher in the U.S. You live in a different country and attend a private school. I am not familiar with the laws in Canada, but in the United States, public school students who receive Special Education services have a case manager who writes the IEP and supports teachers in implementing it. If a student needs a teacher to advocate for them, the case manager is the first line of contact. You need someone to advocate for you with your teachers. That person might be your academic advisor. If it’s not, I would talk to your parents—or that trusted adult—to find out more about how IEPs work in private education in Canada, so that you can get the help you need.

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This is a lot. And since you’re writing to me instead of talking to your parents, I worry that you feel like this is your challenge to figure out on your own. I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, you will need to develop self-advocacy skills. Learning to self-advocate is important for all students, but especially for teenagers with special needs. Understood has a wealth of resources for students with learning challenges, and they have excellent advice about self-advocacy.

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One thing that is unique about your situation is that you are what is often referred to as “twice exceptional.” You have a disability, autism, but you are also profoundly gifted. Perhaps if both you and your parents explore what being “twice exceptional” means, you can work together more effectively to ensure that your IEP is implemented by your teachers with fidelity.

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I’ll be thinking of you, IEP issues. Please, do not be afraid to ask for help or speak up for yourself. You’ve already done that by requesting an evaluation and also by writing to me–the next step is to ask your school (and your parents!) to meet your needs.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My 9-year-old’s fourth grade teacher called me today. She said that my daughter is really struggling with inattentiveness, and it’s affecting her learning. She is so intelligent, and on good days, she is great. But on a lot of days, it’s really hard. She has an ADHD diagnosis—the inattentive kind—and has an IEP. She attends an excellent school and has tons of accommodations, which is why I’m at a loss.

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What are some things I can do to help her? What types of doctors can we see about possible medications, other than developmental pediatricians? The ones near me are scheduling over a year away.

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I love my daughter and just want to help her be able to pay attention and stay engaged with her lessons at school. Do you have any ideas?

—Seeking Focus

Dear Seeking Focus,

It sounds to me like you’re doing all the right things. Your daughter has an IEP and you’re looking at developmental pediatrician appointments—that’s a strong foundation for supporting her.

A regular pediatrician can prescribe medication, if that’s the route you want to go, as can a psychiatrist. You can look into those possibilities if you feel as though you’ve exhausted your other options. At the very least, your pediatrician can tell you what next steps are if they won’t prescribe you meds directly. I also would continue to pursue the developmental pediatrician, even if you have to wait a year to get an appointment. Once you have that first appointment with them, it’s typically easier to get the follow-ups you need, and they can be an amazing resource for parents.

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As for what you can do in the interim, the IEP team is the place to start. I’d reach out to her case manager (whoever reached out to you for her last IEP is likely the case manager) and request a meeting. If she’s struggling with inattentiveness, then her accommodations aren’t working. The point of accommodations is to support kids so they can be successful in class. If she’s struggling, she’s not successful by definition, and the IEP needs to be adjusted.

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People with ADHD often habituate over time to the tools that are supposed to help them, and once they’ve habituated, the tools lose their effectiveness, so she may need to rotate in some new tools. For example, if you leave a Post-It on the door to remind you to check to make sure you have your keys, over time, the Post-It becomes part of the general environment, and you stop noticing it. Her IEP may also list a lot of accommodations—anything your child might need—but her team may only actually utilize some of them to their fullest extent. Maybe the team needs to reassess which accommodations are a “must do this every day” vs. “as needed” in order to best support her needs. If you call a meeting with the team, they can talk with you about what’s being done now to support your daughter and how it can be adjusted.

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The most extreme option, though it may be a viable one, is to increase the amount of support she’s getting directly. Does she have academic support with a special education teacher on her IEP? If not, she may need it. Often, in small group, it is easier for students to pay attention, and easier for teachers to ensure students are fully with them. Additionally, reteach time would allow the special education teacher to “fill in” holes where her attention drifted during the day. If her accommodations are all working as best they can and she’s still struggling, it may be time to look at increasing her human support, so to speak.

Unfortunately, fourth grade is a year where academic work amps up pretty significantly, so it’s not unusual for students to begin to struggle at that age. Fortunately, this is true for a big portion of students, so your daughter isn’t the first kid to have this problem. Between her IEP team and—when you have a chance—a developmental pediatrician, you should be able to come up with a plan to support her better so she can feel successful in class.

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

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