For the past four years, our Ask a Teacher columnists have answered your questions about school. We’ve shepherded you through the unthinkable: a pandemic, remote learning, a mental health crisis, severe learning loss, gun violence, and how to educate students about systemic racism. We’ve also been there to answer your seemingly individual but surprisingly universal questions, as they’ve popped up again and again (and again): how to help your child stay organized, approach homework, get good grades, or be motivated; whether they should be redshirted, participate in a gifted program, or attend a certain school. We’ve tackled emotional questions about coming out, friendlessness, separation anxiety, and depression. We’ve also been there for your quirky dilemmas around nicknames, rewards, and bizarre school assignments. We’ve enjoyed every moment of it. In the new year, Ask a Teacher will no longer publish each week. (Don’t worry: You’ll still hear from our columnists on special occasions in the future.) Instead, you’ll be getting an extra edition of our parenting advice column Care and Feeding on Thursdays—and yes, our Care and Feeding columnists will still tackle school issues, so keep the questions coming. To give our teachers a proper send-off, we’ve asked them to write about what they’ve learned from sharing their advice over the years.
Of all the pieces of advice I’ve given to parents the last four years, here are my top six:
Talk to the teacher first. Nearly always. There are times when administration needs to get involved, but in 99 percent of the cases, the teachers can, and deserve, to address the issue.
Believe teachers. In general, believe teachers. There are liars amongst us, for sure, but on balance, your kid is more likely to lie to you than teachers are.
Believe teachers want the best for your kid. Yes, we’re exhausted. Yes, we’re overworked and underpaid. Yes, some are burnt out, and a few are phoning it in. But we all started with the same goal, and the vast majority of us still subscribe to it: To make a difference in the lives of children. Keep that in mind when something your kid says raises your hackles. The teacher probably had a reason for whatever they said or did—find out what that reason is before you jump to conclusions.
Let your kid fail. Obviously, you’ll want to provide or arrange for appropriate supports for your kid’s particular academic and social needs, but once you’ve done that, the best thing you can do is let your child experience natural consequences. They don’t take notes, do class work, listen to teachers, review lessons, seek out resources, ask for help? Well, don’t coddle them when their report cards reflect that. You shouldn’t and can’t do everything. The lessons your kid learns now will last a lifetime. Do you want those lessons to be accountability and self-sufficiency?
Middle school sucks for everyone. Your kid will lose it; you will lose it; the teachers will lose it. Do some deep breathing and know that it’s not forever.
—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)
Over the last five years of writing for Ask a Teacher, I have found that one of the most common pieces of advice I’ve given to parents is that they should listen to their children more than they should talk. This strikes me as a little funny, because as a teacher, I do a lot of talking, obviously. But in my 18 years as a high school teacher, I have discovered that one of the most profound ways I can support a student who is struggling is to listen to what they have to say. So often, adults want to advise kids, to instruct them, to guide them. Our vision of helping a teenager is telling them what they need to do and how to do it and when and where and why and on and on. Of course, there are times that is necessary. But often we forget to even consider the student’s perspective, experience, and feelings. While I would never suggest that kids should run the show (they definitely don’t in my classroom), students should have a voice in their own education. This is particularly true for adolescents, who naturally desire more autonomy over their lives. When our students are having a hard time, we must resist the urge to try to solve the problem for them. Instead, let’s begin by hearing what they have to say.
— Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
I’ve been teaching in the same school for all 24 years of my teaching career, and for the last 14 years, I’ve been teaching fifth grade. Needless to say, I recognize that my view of the teaching landscape is limited.
But as I’ve read and answered your questions over the past four years, one theme has run through them: the teacher-parent dynamic is incredibly complex, and it doesn’t take much to erode a parent’s trust in a teacher, administrator, or school.
Open, honest lines of communication are critical among students, teachers, parents, and administrators to maintain that trust. So many of the questions that I’ve answered came down to this:
Talk to the principal.
Ask the teacher what happened.
Ensure that you have the full story.
Make no assumptions until all the information has been gathered.
Send an email to the administrator asking for more information.
But if parents and teachers maintain an open mind and heart when communicating with one another, we will serve children better. We’re all on the same side, working like hell to help these kids. Let’s stick together as best we can while doing so.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
When I would sit down to write, my wife would often ask me if the letter was a “read to your kids” question, a “talk to their teacher” question, or a “this probably won’t be a big deal” question, which are my three most frequently given pieces of advice.
In all of those I saw one common issue: It’s very easy to get lost in your own worries. When answering your letters, I would often read the question to myself, and then I’d read it aloud to my wife and find myself saying, “They need to take a step back and breathe.” Now, this is advice absolutely no one wants to hear in the moment. But if I take that step back and view the sum of your questions and concerns as a whole, what I find is that most parents, most of the time, are trying their best in situations where no one is telling them that they’re doing okay. It’s really hard to raise kids, and we are so quick to assume what we’re doing is wrong. If you’re wondering and worrying, you are probably doing right—or at the very least, you are trying to.
So my parting advice is a version of the advice I’ve given most over the past four years: read to your kids, keep up communication with their teachers, and remember that you’re probably doing fine. Offer yourself some grace whenever and wherever you can.
—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, Colorado)
Since taking on this column, I’ve seized every opportunity to address issues facing teachers. From ballooning class sizes to censorship to limited support, these things are monumental challenges in contemporary education. But what this column has reminded me is that even if parents care about the don’t say gay bill or gun violence, they most often write because they want to know how to get help for their individual student —with academics, social-emotional issues, IEPs, and more.
While I watch my coworkers burn out, driven in droves from the profession I love, families are also just trying to get by. Even if I worry I’m becoming a less and less effective teacher as I struggle to manage 35 kids in a single class, my students are still stressed by the usual things: homework, grades, friendships, fitting in, finding time for extracurriculars. Parents just want their kids to do well (in whatever that looks like for their child), make friends, and graduate.
The take-away here shouldn’t be—can’t be—that we are self-centered and only worry about our own problems. The take-away must be—needs to be—that we are part of a community. While I know many parents need to be made aware of the plight some of us teachers face as we struggle to do our jobs, writing this column has taught me that it’s just as important for teachers to remember that amidst our struggle, the needs of parents and students haven’t changed all that much.
Maybe that’s obvious, but during this year writing for Ask a Teacher, “the other side” is something that I’ve come to better understand and appreciate. Communities have a lot of “other sides” and communicating your perspective is a critical skill to being a successful community member. Honest and clear communication has been the most common thread in my responses to letters. Don’t let problems go unaddressed. Tell the teacher/student/parent/child how you feel. Open a dialogue, honestly and earnestly. It’s not universal advice, but it’s almost always been at the center of these problems. So many issues (in education and in life) just require us to see things, or help another person see things, from the other side. Communication, after all, is the beginning of empathy.
—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)
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?