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How the pandemic has affected learning: Advice from teachers.

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 kid is a great student and a junior in high school. Despite everything that has happened during her high school career, she has maintained top marks in every class, and is hoping to attend a competitive college. In preparation for it, I enrolled her in an SAT prep course, and while she enjoys the class and is improving, there is a clear gap in her math scores. I trace this back (and so does she) to her second semester freshman year when she was taking geometry (spring 2020). Her school at that time did semester-based classes and her teacher just kind of disappeared once they went online because of COVID. They went pass-fail, with it pretty much based on attendance. So she “passed” geometry, but I can’t say she ever took it. And guess what the SAT is full of!

It feels weird to get a kid with a 4.3 GPA a tutor, and I definitely don’t want her to feel bad about how her sample test scores this SAT class are going because she’s such a great student. But there is a real disconnect between how she does in school and how she’s performing on the sample tests they are doing in her SAT prep class. To be clear, I’m not saying she’s not getting an 800 math and I’m worried—I’m saying she’s getting in the 400s, low 500s in math, when she’s getting straight As and is supposed to be taking AP math next year (and high 600s in verbal). I’m really not sure how to help her, and I’m also frustrated and annoyed that this happened because of COVID.

What can I do to help her? It’s not her fault. But it could really hurt her.

—Worried Parent

Dear Worried Parent,

There’s no shame in getting a tutor, ever. Like many teachers, I’ve tutored in my spare time and my pupils really ran the gamut from failing students to those already at the top of their class. Please impress upon your daughter that tutoring is not a punishment. Here are a few talking points you can use: nearly a third of high school students receive tutoring (think about how many more would get it if their families had the means!); everyone needs help from time to time (that one doesn’t just apply to tutoring!); The academic gap caused by a sudden jump to e-learning is a unique situation that was completely out of her control. But mostly, I’d like to reiterate: there’s no shame in getting a tutor, ever.

In case all that doesn’t land, here’s a slightly out-of-the-box idea: ask her SAT Prep teacher if there’s anyone in the course with the opposite problem (high math scores, low verbal scores) and see if it would be a possibility for them to work together, either in class or out. Though there are a lot of factors that could impede this plan (the existence of such a student, whether or not your daughter would get along with them), it would give your daughter a chance to get the help she needs while still feeling like the awesome kid she is by giving help to someone else.

Another quick note: if math isn’t her thing, there’s a little point in her enrolling in an AP course in that area. Besides the fact that she may find herself struggling and in real need of a tutor to maintain her GPA, she could probably fulfill that math requirement by taking something that will help her brush up on her geometry (it depends on what her school offers, consult a guidance counselor). Colleges will be just as impressed if she squeezes in an extra AP elective course in something she enjoys and excels in, and it will give her a much better experience her senior year.

—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

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My 13-year-old daughter attends a progressive, private middle school in New England. Recently, she came home from school extremely excited about the “crazy” English class they’d had that day. Instead of what she finds as the usual, dry curriculum, the teacher had decided that day to play a “fun game”. The teacher handed out index cards and he asked the children to anonymously rank the top three most likely and the three least likely students in the class to “lose it.” I had certainly hoped she meant like “lose your backpack or your binder.” I pressed her because I was just so incredulous, and she said it was actually to go “loco,” or lose it, or freak out. Then the teacher told everybody the findings of the top three and the bottom three.

I am still speechless. How could any educator, and perhaps especially in a progressive school—one with a strong focus on mental health—ever think that this sort of subjective labeling would be a fun idea for a class? What should I do? I have not had any interaction with this teacher, and I want our first interaction to be constructive.

My daughter, incidentally, was totally happy with it. She has a very thick skin and relishes attention—she was only disappointed that she didn’t get the top billing for most likely to go crazy! Another classmate’s parent said that her child was a bit quiet after being voted the least likely to go crazy. He’s very academic, and she is now wondering if that label is getting to him.

These labels can be so dangerous and so lasting. My daughter has even used one of the “vote results” to describe someone else like it is written in stone as an attribute for a classmate. And as much as it might’ve been greeted as fun on the surface, who knows what each child was or is going through?

What about the next time—if a child is having a really bad day or going through a mental health crisis (that we know so many children are going through) and then they have one of these so-called fun activities?

What would be the best tact here in terms of approaching the teacher and/or school with my concerns? Even my 15-year-old, who usually tells me that I have overreacted to things said that he felt it was “really messed up.”

—Definitely Not Crazy About Crazy

Dear DNCAC,

Your 15-year-old is right. This was really messed up.

I would worry less about tact and more about being specific about what exactly was troubling about this “lesson.” Yes, labels are problematic, but I would add that trivializing mental health issues is especially egregious—particularly now, when record numbers of teens are experiencing mental health struggles and even crises.

I advise you to request a phone or in-person meeting with the teacher and directly explain the above concerns. She may respond that students “enjoyed” the lesson or were “engaged” by it; You can concede that, indeed, your daughter was excited to tell you all about it when she got home from school. However, that doesn’t mean it was appropriate or that it did no harm. I would tell her that last fall, leading national pediatric organizations declared children’s poor mental health a national crisis. Mental health struggles are not funny; They are not a subject to be taken lightly, nor is it appropriate to single out students as being particularly likely or unlikely to experience a mental health crisis (as we know, just because someone doesn’t wear their heart on their sleeve doesn’t mean they don’t experience emotional distress).

I hope the teacher listens to you and realizes her error. Personally, I think she should apologize to the entire class and offer mental health resources specifically for teens (counselors at my school recommend NAMI). Then, she should apologize individually to the students who were singled out as being in the “top” or “bottom” three.

If the teacher does not appear appropriately contrite, you should speak with the school principal. They can take action to ensure she does not repeat this mistake.

I know it’s awkward and difficult to challenge a teacher, but you are in the right here DNCAC. Thank you for advocating on behalf of students.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My 10.5-year-old started having panic attacks several evenings per week. She started talking to the school counselor, which has helped, and she has asked for a journal, which I think is a good step. Do you have ideas for how her teacher might support her (and how I should approach this with her teacher), in addition to the support we’re offering at home?

—Seeking Calm

Dear Seeking Calm,

I’m sorry your child is going through this. It sounds like you are already taking steps to support her at home, which is great. In many ways, the steps you’re taking at home will be similar to those you’ll want to take at school. Hopefully you have already done so, but opening up a dialogue between your child and the teacher about these panic attacks may help. The goal should be to create an environment at school (and at home, obviously) wherein your child feels safe. You can work to do so by establishing with her teacher a clear protocol to follow if your child experiences a panic attack at school. Knowing there’s a specific plan in place may reduce your daughter’s anxiety.

Have you talked to the school counselor, too? You might request a meeting with the counselor, if not. They often have a number of resources—books, articles, strategies—to help children cope with these situations. In fact, it might help to have a meeting with the counselor and your child’s teacher together. That way, your child’s teacher can hear the suggestions as well, and as a team you can put some strategies into practice that may help your daughter.

You may also explore the possibility of educating your child’s peers about panic attacks, (depending upon how your child feels about it, of course). I’ve seen situations where talking about the nature of panic attacks, epilepsy, and alopecia has greatly reduced anxiety in the student significantly, though admittedly most children prefer to keep these situations more private.

Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

More Advice From Slate

My 5-year-old daughter does dance lessons with a teacher she adores, Miss Emma. Her Christmas concert was this week, and Emma asked each parent to pay $50 for the concert costume. I’ve just picked up the costume, and it has a price tag for $25 still attached. Emma is a very kind teacher, and my daughter very much wants to continue classes with her, but I feel a bit annoyed. I was led to believe she wasn’t making a profit on costumes, and if I’d known she was going to charge us twice the price, I would have gone to the store and purchased it myself. Should I say something to her?

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