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.
Dear Ask a Teacher,
My fourth grader has a “couple” in their class, and the couple planned an elaborate recess wedding. Everyone dressed up, everyone has jobs/roles. At first, I figured, “Yikes, the teachers won’t like this,” but then I heard the teachers took pictures, and the principal was there. Am I just a total killjoy to think this is inappropriate and a bit icky for fourth graders? Should I raise my disapproval with the teachers or administration?
—Saying No to Child Brides (and Grooms)
It’s weird, I think. In my 24 years of teaching elementary school, I have become aware of a handful of recess weddings, always after the fact, and always innocent affairs—kids pretending to be adults.
They’re not something I would have encouraged or supported, but they’re also something that I know would have probably happened even if I had expressed my disapproval.
But a recess wedding attended by the principal and teachers, including photographs, strikes me as a poor decision on their part. I think. I say, “I think” because context is critical. I would want to know the specifics behind this recess wedding before expressing my disapproval, both because I have no way of knowing if this wedding was sincere or satiric or a play written by a student or a purposeful farce, and I always want to know the facts before expressing my opinion. Stories replayed by children are often missing crucial pieces, so gathering all the information first is critical.
Instead of expressing my disapproval, I might simply contact the teacher and ask if they were aware of the wedding, and if they could explain what was going on.
Alternatively, you could also let this one go, given that it’s likely a one-off situation and not the kind of thing that matters very much. Children play-act all the time. If adults chose to participate in their play-acting for reasons that were less than advisable, the consequences of their decision are still nil.
In the words of my principal, this one feels like a small potato.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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Dear Ask a Teacher,
I’m wondering if I overstepped a boundary with a student and would like some feedback. I coach debate at a large high school. “Luke” has been on my team since last year and has come to see me as a trusted adult. Luke has an unhappy home life. He was adopted from China at age 3, and his parents divorced soon afterward. His mother decided to remove all elements of his Chinese heritage from his life at that time, including changing his name. He is not allowed to use chopsticks because his mother says it is “showing off” and a sign of “low self-esteem,” and he is forbidden to learn to speak or read Chinese. He has disclosed incidents with his mother that sounded like emotional abuse to me and as a mandatory reporter, I contacted CPS about them. His mother admitted to the incidents Luke had reported to me and said she would get counseling.
Last week we were chatting before practice, and he mentioned that he wished he could still use his Chinese name. He told me what it was, and I asked if he knew what it meant. He said he didn’t, so I suggested we look it up. We found his birth name online and found that its meaning was very sweet and something fitting to Luke’s personality. He seemed really happy about it, but he must have told his mother because I received an angry message from her stating that I don’t get to dictate how she parents and that Luke is quitting debate in light of the incident.
Since that time Luke has continued to come by my classroom to chat and is clearly upset. I desperately want to help him. He’s such a sad kid and says he feels unloved at home. The moment Luke read his name meaning was the only time in two years that I’ve ever seen him smile. I didn’t feel like I was crossing boundaries in letting him know the meaning of his Chinese name, but if so, how do I show support without going against his mother’s wishes? I don’t want to abandon him because he has so few people he can rely on, but I also don’t know how I can continue supporting him when his mother doesn’t even want me speaking to him.
—Where’s the Line?
Dear Where’s the Line,
No, I don’t think you crossed any boundaries at all. Had you begun to call your student by his Chinese name, that may have been overstepping, but providing a student with information about the meaning of his Chinese name amounted to little more than assisting in a Google search on a topic that your student expressed interest in.
The mother is obviously concerned that you (and others) may assist her son in the pursuit of his Chinese heritage. It’s likely to be a fool’s errand on her part since she’s probably delaying the inevitable (and doing damage in the process). Luke will soon be old enough to explore his heritage in any way he wants, and her refusal to allow him to do so only makes it more likely that he will pursue this information as soon as its possible.
I would contact his mother and explain that you were only providing him with information about the meaning of his Chinese name and no more. Apologize if necessary. Make it clear that you respect her boundaries. As much as we may see her boundaries as detrimental to your student’s well-being, your ongoing, supportive presence in his life is worth placating her, apologizing for actions that were not wrong, even if you are being disingenuous while doing so.
Luke needs you. Do whatever it takes to convince his mother that you can be trusted, so he can have another caring, trusted adult in his life.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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Dear Ask a Teacher,
I am a middle school teacher at a small K-8 school. There is only one class per grade and most of the students have been together since kindergarten, which can make the social dynamic in middle school particularly challenging. I have a student who is often alone at recess and lunch and doesn’t seem to have any close friends in the class.
I have spoken with her, her parents, and her previous teachers to try to get to the bottom of the situation. From what I’ve gathered, she does not have a lot of interests in common with the other students, and a cycle has developed over the years: she doesn’t engage with other students and is alone, they invite her to join them in a recess activity or at lunch (sometimes prompted by a teacher, sometimes not), she declines (parents think she feels they ‘don’t mean it’), then feels lonely and excluded.
I have been working with a few of the girls in the class to try to make sure she is included during lunch/recess; however, I’m getting consistent feedback that they invite her to join them, and she declines. I have seen this happen and these girls seem to genuinely want to help, so I do think they are trying. (I have also gotten similar reports from previous teachers). From what I can tell, this has happened enough over the years that students are getting tired of reaching out because “she doesn’t want to hang out with us” or “she always says no”.
I have tried working with this student directly to support and encourage her to join the other students, but I understand how daunting that is to someone who struggles socially. It also seems like she feels that their overtures aren’t genuine; from my perspective, the interactions appear well-meaning but awkward, feeding into the cycle above.
We have a few lunchtime clubs to offer some alternatives, which she is doing, but it doesn’t seem to be helping her integrate with her peers. I have also spoken with her parents about exploring counseling options and facilitating some get-togethers with peers outside of school to help build friendships. They are open to this, but progress is slow.
I would love some advice for trying to help this student. She is doing well academically and seems to do fine in class and with group work (we generally assign groups), but she is clearly lonely. I haven’t found much advice for teachers on helping older middle school students navigate challenges like this; most suggestions are geared towards younger kids or parents (in which case the advice is often to talk to the school). I want to help her without making things worse; having taught junior high for years, I know that adult intervention needs to be finessed to avoid worsening the situation.
I love how much you care about your students. The extra work you are putting in is admirable and altruistic. Now stop. Seriously, you’ve done all you can do. This student does not sound like they are ostracized or mistreated. You say yourself that they are doing fine academically and are capable of social interactions (group work and clubs). Your matchmaking is well-meaning but not everything can be fixed. Teacher-to-teacher, we both know that there is so much pressure on us to be everything for these kids. We can’t be. You tried. It will be okay if this one kid heads off to high school friendless.
That may sound harsh, but let’s consider a few things: the friend-pool is very small at your school. Yes, you could recommend that the student try to make friends outside their grade level or maybe that they try to connect with peers beyond the boundaries of their school by finding communities online. But both of those solutions hinge on the assumption that this person wants friends. Not everyone does. Not every kid is ready for friendships. And even more likely, this middle schooler is going through a phase. You can’t solve a phase.
I know your teacher heart wants to make things better by stepping-in and providing mentorship. Those are the moments that can make our very taxing profession worthwhile. But sometimes, there’s just not a whole lot to do.
—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)
Dear Ask a Teacher,
My 5-year-old currently attends a private school that’s considered one of the best in the area where we live. The campus is gorgeous and surrounded by nature, the buildings are modern, and the school is obviously well-funded, so the kids have a lot of resources most schools don’t (new computers every year, 3D printers, an organic orchard, a pond, etc). We moved our child to this school from the Waldorf system during the pandemic primarily because, Waldorf being Waldorf, they failed to adapt when things were going digital and because this new school allowed for kids to be outdoors all day which greatly reduced the risk of getting sick.
Two years later, I am now conflicted about keeping our child at this school or taking him back to the Waldorf system. The current school does not align with our values in that they offer no form of scholarships, the student population is homogeneous (extremely wealthy, 99.9 percent white), the teachers are inexperienced and not well paid, and there is no sense of community. We’ve also noticed a huge change in our child who now is interested in specific brands, toys, and money in a way that we know is not coming from us.
I already informed the school we will not be returning next year, but I am extremely conflicted about this choice. Are these changes we’re seeing natural and age appropriate? Is going back to a system we like but don’t love worth the logistical nightmare (school start and end times are completely different and mismatched with our other child who is in daycare)? Will being surrounded by a lack of diversity at school significantly affect our child as a person even if we make efforts to surround him with diversity elsewhere?
This feels like a choice that will have a significant impact, and while I normally trust my instincts, my gut has been no help at all.
— Mother’s Broken Intuition
Dear Mother’s Broken Intuition,
I have to admit, I’m not sure how much of a difference this is actually going to make. In my experience (and I recognize it’s just my experience), Waldorf schools are primarily white and upper class. Unless your Waldorf is doing some really exceptional outreach, I’m not sure the demographics will be terribly different. Depending on your state, your Waldorf school may not be beholden to Department of Education (DoE) pay scales or union contracts, so there’s no guarantee that the teachers are paid better or are required to have any experience or background in education. And the interest in consumerism is likely a result of the culture of your child’s peers, which (again) may not be different if the demographics are the same.
I know that my opinion is biased—being a public school teacher myself—but it really sounds like what you want is public school. Public schools are diverse by nature; there are experience requirements that teachers need to meet to hold licenses; it’s free so scholarships are not needed. I admit, too, that I am also personally biased against Waldorf schools. While there are some aspects of Waldorf schools’ curricula that I like, the philosophy that initially undergirded Waldorf schooling really doesn’t sit well with me, and today’s schools have a range of relationships with that philosophy. I’d encourage you to do some research about how this particular program applies Waldorf principles to their approach to learning.
If it were me, I would choose either the private school or the public school over the Waldorf. And if your values are focused on diversity, equity, decreasing focus on consumerism, and consistency, it may be worthwhile to question why not the public school? At the end of the day, the point of education is to give your kid learning opportunities in a place where he can thrive and be happy. Really consider what he needs for that to happen, and then use those criteria to guide your decision-making process.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, Colorado)
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