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What to do when teachers act inappropriately.

Photo illustration of a downcast looking girl while a male teacher laughs.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by 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 [email protected] or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington

My 8-year-old daughter is in third grade. She recently shared with me that during lunch last week, a male first grade teacher approached her and two other girls and asked if they wanted to see something “funny.” When they said they did, he held up his cellphone with the camera in selfie mode and said, “That!” as he showed them their own faces.

My daughter told me she laughed because she felt she had to, but she was deeply uncomfortable and confused by his behavior. Since she was very young, we have had a rule that “other people’s bodies are not our business.” She would be in trouble with me for engaging in this behavior.

This teacher is probably in his late 40s (as am I) and has never had my child as a student. I’ve already sent him a scathing email, but I am curious about your thoughts on the incident and whether you view it as inappropriate. My concern is a male teacher is gaslighting young girls into thinking something mean is funny and that they are also required to ignore their own discomfort to protect the feelings of a man—a man in a position of authority, no less. I did tell my daughter if something like this ever happens again she should feel absolutely free to let the person know how she really feels (i.e., “That’s not funny” and “I don’t like your ‘joke’ ”), no matter who the person is.

—I’m Not Laughing

Dear I’m Not Laughing,

I’m glad you went directly to the teacher to let him know how his joke impacted your daughter. He should know how and why he made her uncomfortable.

I don’t think this incident goes to the level of “gaslighting,” but I do think he was thoughtless and insensitive. This type of humor can easily be confusing and uncomfortable for students, as it was for your daughter. Humor in schools can be powerful—laughter can engage students’ interest or defuse tension—but kids can easily misunderstand jokes. I am definitely not a “funny” teacher, though I certainly attempt humor from time to time. One “rule” I try to abide by: If the “butt” of the joke is the student, it’s not appropriate in the classroom (or the cafeteria), even if I meant no harm. Teachers are authority figures, and so our words carry extra weight. We ought to use them thoughtfully.

“Teachers are authority figures, and so our words carry extra weight. We ought to use them thoughtfully.”

— Katie Holbrook

At the same time, teachers have so many interactions with students that sometimes we fail to recognize the impact even a lame, throwaway joke might have on an unsuspecting third grader. Likewise, a joke that makes one student laugh hysterically might deeply hurt another. In fact, the student who laughed hysterically one day might be wounded by the exact same joke another day. I know, because unfortunately I’ve done this to a student in the past.

I hope the teacher apologizes and learns from the experience. I’m glad you’re teaching your daughter to stand up for herself and that, in the interim, you’re standing up for her.

—Ms. Holbrook

My first grade daughter is currently in a multi-age class of first and second graders. She is a bright girl, currently reading at a fourth grade level and doing second grade math. Socially, she is comfortable with both the first and second graders in her class. I would like to have a conversation with her teachers about potentially skipping second grade.

I am concerned that, if she is already performing on-par or above the second graders in her class, keeping her in the same class next year will hinder her academic growth. Our school district incorporates personalized learning into their curriculum, but I’m not sure what that realistically means. How will they make time to challenge her next year if she’s already at a higher level than her first grade peers, especially if next year she’s also with a younger incoming class? Right now, she is partnering with the second graders. Since she knows some of the second graders already, I feel that would help ease the transition. That said, it doesn’t seem like skipping grades is common anymore, and I do wonder about the social milestone ramifications down the road. How should I approach this topic with her teachers? Is skipping a grade the right move?

—Skip or Stay?

Dear Skip or Stay,

Stay. Just because your daughter is excelling now doesn’t mean that this will always be the case. I have seen many children excel throughout the primary years of elementary skill and then stumble badly in subsequent years as expectations change, learning methods evolve, and social pressures steal away from a child’s focus and effort. Skipping a grade may challenge your child next year, but it might not be good for her in the long run. She may need this time to better prepare for the challenges ahead. Plus, the added social and emotional development that can be made next year will surely pay dividends down the road.

Also, what’s the rush? As I’ve said here before, your child only gets to be a little kid for so long, and she only gets to be a student for so long. Childhood is fleeting. Skipping a grade makes it all the more fleeting. Enjoy this precious time with her. As the parent of a newly minted middle school student, I would give almost anything for an extra year in elementary school with my daughter. She would, too.

Ask your daughter’s teachers to challenge your daughter. Follow up on their efforts. And do whatever you can to challenge her, too. There are plenty of outside activities that can challenge your daughter while allowing her to enjoy the full scope of her precious and short elementary school years.

—Mr. Dicks

My 15-year-old daughter started high school last year at a really great charter school. Due to extreme social anxiety and selective mutism, she has struggled in school since first grade, but I hoped that the smaller classes and really great teachers would motivate her to do better in high school. She has always barely passed her classes, even with tons of help and tutoring. Unfortunately, this school only offers As, Bs, or Fs. If you get a 79 or below in a class, it’s an F and you have to retake the class. Out of 40 credits possible during freshman year, she only got 22. And now she is at 7 out of 10 credits so far this year, and this is with daily tutoring from the teachers!

For what it’s worth, she demonstrates she knows the material during tutoring. The classes she struggles in each year are always different subjects, so I don’t feel like her problem is, for example, that she just doesn’t understand math and needs more help there.

My issue is: Do I keep her in this school? Even though she has no friends, she does like the school and the teachers and says she is fine with staying there, partly because I think she knows she would be eaten alive in public school. (Her public middle school was awful, with lots of overall violence and bullying, and we do not live in a good high school district.) But watching her struggle is killing me, and at the rate she is going, she will be in high school for seven years.

I get regular emails from her teachers when she does an awful job on presentations, and I always explain that yes, she has always been like this. Yes, she has a psychiatrist (we’ve tried numerous psychologists, and even hypnotherapy, to no avail). Yes, we have tried many anxiety medications. And no, there aren’t any problems at home. She is actually a delight at home—she is so funny, talkative, creative, witty, and well-behaved and, outside of grades, I have never had any problems with her.

Obviously, I constantly worry that she will never graduate and never get into college and never be able to hold a job because of her level of social anxiety, but right now I’m just trying to look at the small picture: How do we get through this next term? How do I get her to take school seriously? She has no learning disabilities—she will be the first one to say that she is lazy, and it’s hard to stay focused because she finds school boring. I just don’t know if I’m doing more harm than good by keeping her in this school. I feel like if I allow her to go to a regular school with a normal grading system, it’s basically telling her that it is acceptable to get Cs and Ds, and she isn’t smart enough to get good grades. Suggestions?

—Stick It Out or Move On?

Dear SIOoMO,

It sounds like your daughter needs a 504 plan. You say she has no learning disabilities, so I assume you had her tested and she doesn’t qualify for an Individualized Education Plan. If she hasn’t been tested, please request it. An IEP would guarantee her specialized instruction, including push-in or pull-out services.

But let’s say you’ve already done that. Social anxiety and selective mutism, if they are diagnosed by a professional, are qualifying disabilities and grounds for a 504 plan. Students with a 504 plan don’t receive specialized instruction, but do receive accommodations to ensure that they have access to a Free and Appropriate Public Education. They are served in a regular education program in a regular classroom setting, but they can qualify for a variety of accommodations such as:

• Preferential seating
• Extended time on tests and assignments
• Oral tests in lieu of written ones
• Reduced class work and/or homework
• Adjusted class schedules and/or grading
• Verbal, visual, and/or technological aids
• Modified textbooks and/or AV materials
• Behavior management support (including things like organization and goal-setting)

And those are just some of them!

Without working with her, it’s hard to say, but I’m willing to bet she’s not lazy or bored—she’s overwhelmed! And who wouldn’t be? Many of us check out mentally when things get hard or we feel we have little chance of success. She needs support, and she needs to experience some success. A 504 could provide both.

While I understand the charter school’s grading policy (outcome-based education, mastery of concepts, etc.), it sure does make things difficult for kids like your daughter. But I think moving her to another school would be too disruptive. If she’s already having executive function issues, changing her school in the middle of the year would likely exacerbate the problem.

Get her a 504 and see if that changes things. If it doesn’t help, maybe think about a different school for next year.

—Ms. Scott

My son is in third grade at our local public school. This is his first year in his current school and since I work a lot, I haven’t had much interaction with his teachers or school administration, but I generally have had no complaints. My son loves reading about history, and he recently brought home a book from the school library about Andrew Jackson. My problem is that the book is a very one-sided biography glorifying Jackson’s early life and legacy as president. The book expresses the view that Jackson was a president for all the people of the United States. Yet it makes no mention of the fact that Jackson owned hundreds of slaves and was primarily responsible for the genocide of many Native Americans.

I know that my son is 8, and he is probably not yet ready to learn about genocide. But this book is full of lies and opinion loosely disguised as fact. Jackson was a populist, but he was also a white supremacist, and some of the things he did were beyond cruel. I want to write a letter to the librarian letting her know that I think this book should be thrown in the trash, but I’m not sure if I am overreacting. My husband also read the book, and he agrees that it is not accurate and full of opinions. But he thinks I should let it go. I think that we have a responsibility to acknowledge our history, however flawed, otherwise we will never change. I also don’t want my kid or other kids learning this nonsense.

—Wanting to Right This Wrong

Dear Wanting to Right,

Thanks for your question. Dealing with revisionist history is an incredibly difficult topic, especially given the fact that your son is only in the third grade. As a black teacher I often find myself limited in finding truly factual instructional materials on some of our nation’s founding fathers, so I appreciate your struggle. But I don’t think your son, or any child frankly, is too young to learn about the truth of our history and the racist and violent constructs on which our society is built. To me, it’s a given that I need to teach kids about these truths; the challenge is how to do it in a developmentally appropriate way. Henry’s Freedom Box or Moses are two of my favorites.

Write your librarian with your opinion. Librarians are often not intimately familiar with every text in the school’s library, and many of the school’s books could be decades old. Your letter could bring the book to her attention and at least prompt a review. Then it’s up to the school to decide whether to pull the book or not, but at least you will have said something, which in many cases is all it takes to make change.

—Mr. Hersey

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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