Homeroom: My Daughter’s Teacher Is Making Her Hate School

I’ve told her that Ms. G is struggling with her own issues in the pandemic. But getting her out the door is still a nightmare.

Illustration of a teacher coming out of a giant iPad, pointing her finger at a tiny student at a desk
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Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at homeroom@theatlantic.com.

Dear Abby and Brian,

I’m a working-from-home mother doing my best to get my two daughters (ninth and fourth graders) through this “hybrid learning” year. Their school is on a schedule that alternates days of virtual and in-person education. My older daughter has adjusted well, but her younger sister, whom I’ll refer to as “Sarah,” fights me every morning she has to go into school. And I don’t blame her. From what I overhear when she’s Zooming, her teacher, Ms. G, really doesn’t like her.

Sarah works from a little Zoom station I’ve created for her, across the kitchen table from me. I catch glimpses of class (I pretend to be working but of course want to see for myself what’s happening), so I know that Ms. G never calls on Sarah, even when her hand is up. When Ms. G does address her, it’s almost always to ask her to pay closer attention.

I’ve talked with Sarah about strategies for the at-school days: being extra nice to Ms. G (who is probably struggling with her own issues during the pandemic), paying attention, not talking to friends during class. But even so, getting her out the door is a nightmare.

When I finally broke down and emailed Ms. G to ask why she thought Sarah was struggling, she claimed that Sarah was better able to focus on in-person days than virtual ones, so I shouldn’t worry. Not worry? I can barely get Sarah to go to school on the days she’s supposedly “better.” What can I do?

Livingston, N.J.

Dear Eve,

First, you should know that Sarah is not alone. Most kids are having an exceptionally difficult year. See their best friends at school? Nope, they go on different days. Go to their annual Halloween party? Nope, canceled. Play soccer? Nope, the season has been postponed. And on and on.

We understand that you are upset about Sarah’s experience in Ms. G’s class. But as you note, it’s important to bear in mind that Ms. G, like all of us, has found her world upended by the pandemic. Trying to understand the challenges facing teachers in this moment may help you find a way to improve the situation for Sarah—and for Sarah to improve things for herself.

Let’s start with the difficulties of COVID-era teaching. Many teachers are managing a half-full classroom and a Zoom gallery of students at the same time. And that’s on top of new responsibilities such as taking temperatures, supervising hand-washing, and monitoring lunchtime. Regardless of Ms. G’s setup, the bottom line is the same: Teachers today are under an extraordinary amount of stress. They have spent the past year trying to figure out how to translate their curriculum into an entirely new learning environment. So some of what appears to be her harshness may actually be frustration with the challenges of supporting her students.

The only way to really know what’s going on is to schedule a more in-depth conversation with Ms. G than your email exchange allowed. Share your concern from a place of care for Sarah rather than criticism of Ms. G. Instead of an antagonistic approach—“Sarah says you never call on her, and I’m always there, so I know she’s right”—try discussing how Sarah has been disappointed because she doesn’t feel that she’s doing well in class, even though she’s eager to contribute to discussions. Is the problem that Ms. G doesn’t see Sarah’s hand raised, or maybe that Sarah disrupts the class? Ask Ms. G what she thinks Sarah should do.

When you share Ms. G’s feedback with Sarah, start with the positive: “She thinks your ideas are excellent, but in online classes you sometimes get distracted.” “Ms. G says she wants to know what you’re thinking, even if she can’t call on you in the moment, so incorporate your comment into any written work you are handing in.” The most important thing—both for you and for Ms. G—is to make sure Sarah feels like she has the agency to improve her situation.

Another thing: For Sarah to be able to improve her own situation, you have to make sure she actually has her own situation. As Ms. G mentioned, in-person days seem better for Sarah. In-person days are better for most students. They feel seen by their teacher. They can joke around with friends. And, perhaps most important, they have a bit of freedom from their parents.

While seating Sarah across the kitchen table allows you to keep an eye on her and jump in if needed, this arrangement is bad for Sarah, bad for you, and bad for Ms. G. We know you want to help, but your presence is probably making Sarah self-conscious. Even if you try to be discreet, Sarah likely knows that you’re not a fan of Ms. G’s. Feeding off each other’s negative feelings will only make things harder for both of you.

As teachers, we shudder at the thought of our classes being constantly judged by our students’ parents. (Imagine trying to type with your boss watching over your shoulder!) We wouldn’t be surprised if the reason Ms. G is always asking Sarah to pay more attention is that Sarah constantly has her eye on you. Your daughter needs her own workspace to establish autonomy. If space is tight, a countertop and a tall chair will do.

Finally, let’s talk about getting Sarah out of the house in the morning. We understand that third grade was easier in this respect than fourth grade has proved so far, but it’s a rare 9- or 10-year-old who never needs a bit of coaxing. None of us wants to leave the house in the morning. Everyone wants to stay in bed a little longer. Especially when every other day Sarah does get to stay in bed a little longer.

So what to do? Try to ease the sticky moments of Sarah’s morning routine. Have her put her homework in her folders and her bag by the door after dinner each night, not all in a rush after breakfast. Have her lay out her clothes before going to bed. Ask her to set her alarm clock 10 minutes earlier. Mitigating some of these small stressors can make a world of difference.

No matter what happens with COVID-19 these next few months, the likelihood is that Ms. G will continue to be Sarah’s teacher until June. Focusing less on Ms. G’s shortcomings and more on what Sarah can do to succeed will help you both through this difficult time. Sarah may never like her teacher, but with your help, she’ll get an early lesson in how to navigate challenging situations.

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