Help me help my teacher help my kid!
October 10, 2009 12:02 PM   Subscribe

My 4th grader is in her first year of a program for gifted children. It is a competitive program, at a school outside our district, and acceptance was based on advanced language, reading, writing, and "liberal arts" ability. I thought my daughter's gifts -- all of which match the description above -- would be nurtured here. But I have been dismayed to realize that all her teacher cares about is that her desk is messy and her handwriting isn't neat enough. My child has sensory issues that do in fact make it harder for her to keep her things organized. But how can I talk to the teacher about focusing more on her gifts -- which is supposed to be the mission of this program? (Sorry, this is long.)

Early in the year, I had a special meeting with the teacher, who had been complaining about my kid's messy desk and general problems with organization (forgetting things, writing things in the wrong notebook, etc.) I explained about "Janey's" sensory integration issues and how these do make it harder to be organized BUT I stressed my support for the teacher -- I know it's hard to deal with messiness in the classroom with 25 kids, AND I know it's important for Janey to improve her basic organizing skills. I said I would do anything to help Janey get organized. I also requested that the school send in the Occupational Therapist to observe my daughter and see if she qualifies for services (an IEP). So far that hasn't yet happened, though I've twice reminded the principal.

On the application for this program, we were asked about the child's creativity, originality, intellectual drive, etc. No one asked if she had a messy desk or messy handwriting. But literally, that is ALL Janey is hearing about from the teacher. When she writes for school, the papers come back only with the handwriting criticized -- even though her handwriting has improved a lot and I see her working so hard at being legible. (For example, on a spelling test, all the "fs" were circled in red because the horizontal line did not *completely* bisect the vertical line; the teacher graded the whole paper down because it looked like a capital F in the wrong place. I have also seen very little actual writing being assigned, and none commented on -- mostly just spelling and handwriting -- even though it is supposed to be a program that specializes in advanced liberal arts.) On open house night, I saw a poem Janey had written on the wall of the classroom (along with all the kids' poems). It had sophisticated humor, a sustained narrative and the most complex meter in the class. But the only praise I heard was that that the janitor was happy that Janey's desk had been cleaned up last week. When I pointed out how good the poem was, the teacher said the class liked the fact that Janey had set it to a tune, and then the teacher just said all the kids' poems were good. This is the closest to praise that I have heard for any actual content of her work (and I feel I dragged it out of her). My daughter feels the teacher is making her seem "different" to the other kids, saying things like "Jane's desk is messy, she has to stay behind but the rest of you can go," etc.

I am really upset, because at least in the past, she's had teachers who delighted in her unique way of seeing and her huge enthusiasm for ideas. It is ironic that here, in a special ed for the gifted, her very real gifts are totally being ignored and she is just being made to feel like she gives the teacher extra work (because, for example, she put her backpack in the place of the closet where lunch boxes go, or has trouble being slow gathering up her books to move to math class in another part of the building). Really, *nothing* about Janey's true abilities seem encouraged or appreciated. The teacher has been a beloved teacher for 25 years, but this is only her second year teaching in the gifted program. She calls herself a "domestic goddess" to the class, so I get that messiness drives her nuts. When I talked to her early in the semester, she seemed to really want to work with my daughter to help her succeed, but she doesn't seem get this kind of gifted, quirky kid (who is the daughter of a domestic un-goddess). She just called my kid a "handful" and then raved to me about my Janey's friend in the class, who is methodical and neat as well as quite conventionally smart. I do understand that it feels like a handful to have a disorganized kid slowing things down (she is certainly not in any other way a behavior problem.) But I see my child's self-esteem about her real abilities plummeting, and this is precisely what I did NOT expect when we applied to the gifted program. It's frankly breaking my heart.

Here is the question. Please help me think of a way to talk to this teacher so that my daughter's strengths might be brought to the fore -- not just her weaknesses. Again, I am not trying to get the teacher to overlook a messy desk or an improperly crossed F, and I agree that my kid should work on these things, but I want the teacher at least to FOCUS on the gifts, which are ostensibly the raison d'etre of the program to begin with. How can I approach her so that she does not feel attacked and take it out more on Janey?

Any advice, especially from teachers, is very, very appreciated. This is in a large university town in the midwest, which doesn't have a regular gifted and talented program -- just this special program, which is hard to be accepted to, and where many professors (like me) send their children.
posted by anonymous to Education (36 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Haha, a teacher for the gifted can't handle messiness or bad handwriting? When I was in a gifted program, teachers had to worry about some of the kids putting their fingers in the (non-electric) pencil sharpener or trying to set fires. She is in the wrong field if a sloppy "f" causes her to grade down. I guess since this is a school for the gifted, there's only one teacher per grade, but you should really be talking more to the administrators about these issues. There's no way your kid is the only one having issues with the teacher if that's how she is.
posted by ishotjr at 12:10 PM on October 10, 2009

Go over the teacher's head. She doesn't get it or doesn't care to. Take those test/writing assignments which only comment on silly things like the "f" to the principal. Tell him that you fear your daughter is getting nothing out of the gifted and talented program because of the teacher's pedantry and her actual abilities are being minimized. Calling a child a "handful" because of a little sloppiness is too much and indicates a "grudge" against your kid because she happens to activate the teacher's pet peeves; which is not being professional. If possible, ask if there is another teacher she can transfer to. But make sure you bring documentation-- notes from the teacher, notes of her interactions with you that seem over the top.
posted by spaltavian at 12:13 PM on October 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Trying to talk to the teacher isn't going to get you anywhere. She sounds like she has a serious case of tunnel-vision and won't change. She's not only not helping your daughter, but could be setting her back, changing her feelings and motivation towards school for life. (I know the teachers I had at that age did that for me.)
I think you need to start escalating. Talk to the principal and anyone else who will listen. Isn't there another classroom they can transfer her to? If they really won't solve this problem for you, maybe you need to find a better school. I would not leave her with that teacher, though.
posted by amethysts at 12:16 PM on October 10, 2009

You're a prof? Can you afford (or pull strings in the way that people with somewhat strong social capital usually can) to send your daughter to private school?
posted by thisjax at 12:20 PM on October 10, 2009

I agree you need to talk to the administrators. It's possible this teacher got a plum gig because of years of service rather than actual aptitude for being a teacher of the gifted. All the gifted ed specialists I've met in my research in education are obsessed with the idea of twice-exceptional students and would bend over backwards for a smart kid with sensory issues.

Hopefully there is something the administrators can do besides "be aware" of the situation. They may be able to help the teacher get more professional development for her new role or perhaps they can arrange for your student to spend extra time in the class of a more supportive teacher. If a special program can't be flexible with the needs of exceptional students, maybe it's not such a great program overall.
posted by parkerjackson at 12:22 PM on October 10, 2009

This is, no doubt about it, a crappy teacher for this sort of program, who will kill your daughter's love of learning and really do her harm. I was that kid, and I had that sort of teacher. I loved language and reading and learning and still do. But I had teacher after teacher who were just like the one you describe. I was a "messy" kid. You'd be shocked if you saw the chaos of my desk even today. (Otherwise, I'm very fanatically clean, and my organizational style is one which functions well in chaos. I know where everything is, more so than people who stick everything in a neat manila file.) My academic life was interrupted by war, which, when I relocated to America and picked up on school again, gave me a certain cache that helped professors ignore a rather chaotic personal style, odd handwriting and all that. I'm not embarrassed to admit that this was a big relief, and if only my elementary education was as free, I'd be a very, very different person today, and I would have avoided a lot of stress, self-doubt and trauma.

Your daughter's situation is breaking my heart too.

Many people will say, try talking to the teacher. I won't. My two approaches would be:

1) Get your daughter out of the class; stick her anywhere. Too often, classes for "gifted" children are more restrictive, confining and strict than those for "regular" kids. There are plenty of books about it. Your daughter sounds special; she doesn't need to deal with lack of space for her mind. I remember having a language class where we wrote long term papers on esoteric subjects; it was competitive and stressful. The "regular" kids were writing reports on football (soccer) players, animals they liked and other things. The subject matter wasn't nearly as impressive as ours - but they had fun with it. The assignment gave them the space to "play" with ideas in a way that of our class did not. Your daughter's teacher sounds unqualified to work with gifted kids; it'll do damage to her. Don't let it happen.


2) Tell the teacher, in no uncertain terms, that you do not give a fuck about whether your daughter is messy, has bad handwriting or a desk that looks like a minefield. You demand that her education be what was represented - one that will allow her special qualities to burst forth, in a setting and manner that are *positive* for her. And mention that you will make her life a nightmare if she, in any way, singles out your daughter for what you feel are trivial matters. Set forth YOUR expectations, and let her know that nothing else will be tolerated for long at al. I know you don't want to "attack" her; but this teacher hasn't learned basic pedagogical techniques after twenty years. It's too late for her to "get it" intuitively.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:24 PM on October 10, 2009 [12 favorites]

Nthing a talk with the principle involved. The teacher obviously has issues with your kid and someone above the teacher will need to step in if anything is going to change.

Not only is what she's saying to you about your kid unprofessional, but talking about someone else's kid is as well.

Since you're not in the district for this school, don't forget that you can use transferring your kid to a different school as a weapon. Even without a formal gifted program I know plenty of teachers who would be willing to have someone like that in the class. If nothing else, you have the private school angle and can threaten to send her there. Yes, I know threaten isn't the right word, but it's the first word that comes to mind.

And Dee Xtrovert's idea #2 is probably the best course of action to couple with the threat of taking her out.

Give the teacher a time limit to show that she's meeting your expectations and stick to it. If the teacher still sucks then the kid needs to get out.

ishotjr: "I guess since this is a school for the gifted, there's only one teacher per grade..."

The school for the gifted in my district is a regular school that happens to have all of the gifted classes in it. Outside of those classes (which are only 1 class per grade) there are regular classes for each grade.
posted by theichibun at 12:29 PM on October 10, 2009

I think the options you have are either to send Janey to a new school with a teacher who overlooks your child's disability to nurture her giftedness, or to sit down and work extra hard on practicing steady handwriting (I'm not sure how someone works on organizational skills. I'm only now teaching myself that kind of stuff. I finally started putting my keys in the same place everyday so I don't have to dump everything out of my bag to find them.)
posted by anniecat at 12:30 PM on October 10, 2009

Is this program being run as a "gifted" program (which tend to deal quite specifically with the difficulty and quirkiness of gifted kids) or an "accelerated" program, which uses the kids' smarts to push them through more material faster.

If it is a gifted program, there is no excuse. You need to stop telling the teacher that you're willing to "try anything" to get Janey to shape up and just tell her that you feel focusing on peripherals is harmful and unproductive. Period. Stop, at least for now, being the teacher's partner, and take the role of your child's advocate. You can go back to being a partner once the teacher has justified herself to your satisfaction, or stopped this behavior.

If it is an accelerated program, sloppiness and poor handwriting will in fact hold back the whole class, but this might not be the best place for someone like your daughter. My son thrived in an accelerated program; my daughter, just as smart, totally bombed because she just doesn't really move from A to B, at least not without turning a few cartwheels in between.

I have really mixed feelings about going over the teacher's head. I have had parents do this me, without my feeling that they ever heard a word I said about why I interacted with their child in a certain way. I think you can take a fairly hard line with the teacher, but I'd try to resolve it at the classroom level.
posted by nax at 12:30 PM on October 10, 2009

In my own experience, the magnet program i was in for 2 years didn't nurture me as any sort of talented person that could go on to do great things. Instead it just added a whole bunch of unneccesary pressure while making me live through 14 hour days as a 14-16 year old.
posted by djduckie at 12:31 PM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

For me, it sounds like the teacher hates your kid. It isn't just "the teacher doesn't care", nobody can ignore what Janey did like that without really wanting to hurt the kid. When a teacher singles out a kid like that, there is nothing to do, besides moving the kid to somewhere else. Teachers are not saints that have no ability to hate kids. Sometimes they do. Maybe it's Janey's gifts that reminds the teacher of her own short comings, but that's the work a shrink can help with, not a child's parents. This teacher sounds like a person that can't handle kids that are smarter than herself.

I think you should take Janey's side more, and never say that you will do anything (*) to just fix her handwriting, one of the least important skills in life. Tell the teacher that you don't support harassing Janey about her handwriting, and that she should be allowed a certain amount of mess. (*) To promise to do anything is very extreme: would you sell your house, would you dress Janey in boys cloathes, would you tell Janey is failing? Introduce some limits to what you would accept!

If the teacher was a guy, we'd call him a jackass.

Maybe Janey is better without the program as long as this teacher is on it. Maybe a regular class with a nice teacher (and you) could add some extra/more advanced homework.
posted by flif at 12:42 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was placed in an advanced math program in 4th grade and had a somewhat similar problem. The teacher was less interested in teaching me math and more interested in the fact that I didn't comb my hair, a fashion allowed by my parents, and picked my nose. Between the teacher and my peers latching onto her criticism, I could not focus at all and did terribly in the class.

My parents, also academics, tried very hard to get through to the teacher. They believed in my talents and the importance of the magnet program. You asked for advice on reaching the teacher, but if she is intractable, what are your odds of going up against a "beloved teacher for 25" years within an established program with no alternatives and many satisfied students/parents? This woman was educated in what, the 60s? Does she even know about inquiry based learning? Participatory learning? Does she use PIE (planning-implementation-evaluation) to improve her lesson plans? Multiple learning styles? Stages of cognitive development and how they inform teaching approaches? Is the teacher really just a control freak (bad), or is this an expression of her fossilized pedagogy (worse)? You might want to talk to your daughter (or the teacher herself) and suss out whether she is even qualified to teach this sort of course to a diverse group of students. Quite often, wonderful ideas like a magnet program are hamstrung by available resources and district/school politics. If she isn't, what are your chances of going up against the system, of going to the mat for your child?

My parents removed me from the program after trying for a year to get through to the teacher. I was bored in the regular math section, but at least I wasn't persecuted. My mathematical/logical ability, such as it is, did not come out until undergrad, when I majored in Physics. My master's project involves writing software, and one of the many thrills is finally feeling comfortable in a mode of thinking that has appealed to me since I was very young. I wish my parents had taken me out sooner, it might not have taken as long to get back on the horse.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 12:54 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your daughter sounds just like my (now 25 year old) son was in a G&T magnet elementary school. He made his letter "f's" correctly, but for some reason wrote his "e's" backwards for several years. He also had a lot of energy and keeping a neat desk wasn't his priority.

Without exception, all of his teachers noted these things during our parent conferences, but mentioned them as footnotes in a much larger discussion of their happiness over his intelligence, work ethic, and creative abilities.

They were all great teachers and we thrilled that he was in the program.

By the time he hit middle school he was writing his "e's" just fine. He continued to be not the neatest student until he hit high school.

He's now in the second year of a doctoral program after achieving two masters' degrees, and hasn't received a final grade in any subject lower than an A- since the sixth grade He's as well adjusted as most other 25 year olds.

I apologize if this sounds like bragging, but my point is that neither you nor your daughter should sweat this teacher's obsession with certain procedural matters. Let your daughter know you're proud of her, and that's she doing great.

Next year she'll have another teacher and can move on. She'll have to survive a few less than stellar instructors throughout the years of her education. You both may need to get used to it since you probably won't be successful in getting this one to change her tune.
posted by imjustsaying at 12:57 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been a secondary school teacher for twenty-one years, many of those years in gifted programs. My son, now grown, sounds a little like your daughter. Very high IQ, creative, and the messiest person I've ever met; looses everything...

I hear many things in your post but especially how important is for you that your child be praised; and praised by this particular teacher. Many parents of gifted children are highly invested in the prestige, status, achievements, reputation of their children. I think it's important first that you do a little internal investigation into the other reasons there may be for your distress over this matter other than what we all know about children needing to be appreciated for their strengths and not nagged about their weaknesses.

I am dismayed by the advice you've been given above about "going over the teachers head". It is absolutely the wrong thing to do and the tone of voice in those posts suggests a vindictiveness that is unhealthy and unhelpful. There is such a thing as emotional IQ and that kind of approach is immature and aggressive. It's just an adults way of tattling . It is very ineffective if you really want to help your daughter and not because the teacher will become vindictive. Believe it or not, teachers are professionals and if they had to take some petty revenge for all of things students and parents say and do against them they would never get anything done. Not to say that it can't happen but it really is largely a fiction that looms large in the mind of many people who just do not understand what it is to be a teacher.

If you are a professor, how would you handle a similar conflict with one of your students? Would you become vindictive if a student challenged your marks or feedback? How would you like to be approached if you had made a mistake in the way you handled a student?

You don't mention what your child has said about this situation, you've only mentioned your reaction. Find out how your child feels and try not to project your own anxiety into the conversation. If it does truly trouble her then you will have to approach the teacher again but do so with concerns beyond just this one issue. That is, her progress as a whole in all other aspects of the program and about her interactions with peers.

You may have a superficial teacher here; someone who has a pet peeve and who doesn't protect her students from it but over the years when I've heard of this kind of conflict it often turns out to be about something else. You know, you get mad at your husband because he squeezes the toothpaste tube in the middle but really you are mad because last week he made a cutting remark that hurt your feelings (for example). I suspect there is more here than meets the eye.

I really don't want to be insulting in any way so please hear this in the spirit of helpfulness. Many gifted children absorb the competitiveness and anxiety of their parents' need for their achievement. The child reflects that in their behaviour in class. You mention that the teacher said that all of the other children's poems where good but you wanted special praise for your child's work because you judged it as better than the others. Perhaps that is what is being projected by your child in the class.

That can become a nightmare for a classroom teacher. The constant need for special recognition by a student or their parents. Your daughter might very well be a gifted poet. This one teacher will not change that. Go above the teacher's head in this way - find your daughter somewhere she can publish that poetry. In the school newspaper, or in a student poetry book or website. Our board publishes one annually and there are countless contests to enter on line or sponsored by school boards or community groups. Go outside the school for the praise you crave.

If you want to approach the teacher again you might want to ask for the department head, a vice principle or principle to be part of that meeting. Just don't go behind the teacher's back. You wouldn't want her to go behind your back. You and your teacher are a team, you know. Don't treat her with disdain and don't assume she is an incompetent pedant. You don't have enough information yet and neither does she. She's only worked with your daughter for a very short time. Give them time to get to know each other more.

Good Luck and I hope your daughter has a marvelous year.
posted by ofelia at 1:27 PM on October 10, 2009 [12 favorites]

Sorry, you do mention that your daughter feels singled out. So, skip that paragraph.
posted by ofelia at 1:32 PM on October 10, 2009

Quick note: you need to put a request IN WRITING for an IEP evaluation; the school then has a wek to send you a "consent to test" form; you sign and return that, then the school has 45 days to test her and hold an eligibility meeting. If they don't, go directly to your state's DOE because the district is out of compliance with the law.

Asking anyone at the school for an evaluation is a request they don't have to listen to.

You can get the ball rolling by writing the letter; getting her evaluated and see where that goes.

As far as the teacher goes, talk to her again about your basic concern: not that she doesn't recognize that your daughter is wonderful but that she's making your kid feel bad. Be specific with examples. Don't dance around with "I know how hard it is to be a teacher," etc.

She has a job to respect a kid; feel free to remind her that your daughter is not feeling particularly respected. And ask for administration to come to the meeting.
posted by dzaz at 1:50 PM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Your daughter might very well be a gifted poet. This one teacher will not change that.

No, but it doesn't take much more for her to start hating school. I mean hating it, as in dreading going every morning. You don't have to worried about her smarts; that can't be taken away. But she can become a bad student, and hating school, feeling it's not worth it, feeling her time is being wasted, feeling she'll never do anything interesting, can lead to that.

If she tunes out because of this teacher, it will be so much harder to get her to tune back in during high school and college when she'll have the additional distractions of the proverbial sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Not to be alarmist, but this is the sort of thing that makes kids go "fuck this".
posted by spaltavian at 1:51 PM on October 10, 2009 [10 favorites]

I'm a special ed teacher, and what bugs me most about this is that there are a lot of things that can be done to help a kid like Janey to be more organized and be neater besides just nagging and criticizing her. In the grand scheme of things, a messy desk and messy handwriting really ARE just trivial things that are often easily improved upon. I'm thinking of things like color coding the right notebook with the right folder with the right textbook. Having some kind of baskets in her desk for specific things, labeling (with pictures if helpful) where she should put her backpack and lunchbox, Having a little laminated list of what supplies she needs for which class every day, taking 5 minutes at the end of the day to do a quick clean-up of her desk and five minutes in the morning to get things ready for the day...things like that. Just telling a kid to be more organized is futile. Someone (um, a teacher!) needs to guide her and teach her these things.

As for handwriting, I would split it up and separate it out from other assignments for the time being. For example, she does her spelling tests and written work with the understanding that she will try her best but will not be marked down for handwriting, but then she does specific handwriting assignments. (She could even type out some assignments on the computer?). OR I would pick one assignment (a day? a week? whatever makes sense) where she knows that handwriting is going to count and that she can write it or type it and then re-write it in her best handwriting. In this way, she is working on it and trying to improve, but it is its own reward and it doesn't interfere with her learning with other writing assignments.

This is basic special ed stuff. Well, its just basic stuff. Janey's problems need to be worked with in a positive and very functional way that doesn't interfere with her otherwise very high ability to learn. The problem I see is that this teacher is a nag who doesn't want to teach. She seems to think that teaching gifted kids means she shouldn't have to deal with any common kid issues, and that's being totally lazy.

Could you get special ed involved by talking to the administrator or directly to special ed staff? You are right in that she is ignoring your child's gifts and nagging on her weaknesses. But the bigger problem to me is that she is also IGNORING your child's weaknesses (by not doing anything practical to help her except harping on them) so your daughter is not getting much of any advantage at all being in this setting.

I'm actually reminded of something from my childhood. In first grade, I did all my subtraction wrong. All of my answers were one off. Something like when I thought of subtraction, I would count up to five, subtract three by not counting the number five, and then get one instead of two if that makes sense. Anyway, this teacher would just make a big read checkmark on all my subtraction problems day after day and say things like, "Bueller needs to work on her subtraction!" I would work and work and I would still get all of them wrong. It made me SICK after a few weeks of this. I had a crying fit and went to the nurse and then got in trouble for going to the nurse for not wanting to work on my subtraction. Finally, my sister's teacher (two grades ahead of me) passed me by when I had to stay after school for the nurse thing and was crying in my subtraction problems. She sat down with me and in about 15 minutes, figured out what I was doing wrong, explained it to me using a number line and from then on I never had trouble with subtraction again. My point being, it may take longer than 15 minutes to improve Janey's handwriting and organization...but doing nothing but just nagging at her will never fix it and will cause more harm than anything else.
posted by Bueller at 1:55 PM on October 10, 2009 [13 favorites]

Sorry; one last thing. Sometimes kids get sh*tty teachers. Almost every parent has a similar story (I know that I have). I've also had parent conferences where after many months of my own kid saying this teacher was mean, etc., I left and realized that the teacher WAS mean and clearly didn't like my kid. It happens.

Your daughter is lucky to have you and she's probably a pretty smart cookie. Talk to your daughter openly and honestly about this. Acknowledge her concerns. Some teachers suck. But you still have to get up, go to school, and be your best. You can't change the crappy teacher.
posted by dzaz at 2:02 PM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

This is basic special ed stuff. Well, its just basic stuff. Janey's problems need to be worked with in a positive and very functional way that doesn't interfere with her otherwise very high ability to learn. The problem I see is that this teacher is a nag who doesn't want to teach. She seems to think that teaching gifted kids means she shouldn't have to deal with any common kid issues, and that's being totally lazy.

QFT. The problem as you have described it, anonymous, is that not only does this teacher not seem to be a good teacher for gifted kids, she doesn't seem to be a good teacher for any kid. From your description of how she interacts with and provides feedback to your child, the teacher seems to be more interested in having her classroom under control than helping kids learn. This is not what teaching is about.

When you are a teacher, giving feedback doesn't mean just telling kids what they're doing wrong. It means praising what they do well, pointing out areas that could use improvement, and providing concrete suggestions on how to do that. This teacher is not giving your child useful feedback. Therefore, she's not helping your child develop her skills. And that is the point of school, or should be.

I'd recommend you meet with the teacher and frame your concerns about the teacher providing more constructive feedback to Janey as I described above. Be polite and calm, sure, but at the same time, I would recommend you don't soft-pedal your discussions with this teacher by saying you know how hard it is to deal with a disorganized child, and it's a tough job, etc. Yes, it is, and it might drive her crazy, but she's doing nothing to help your child with her organizational issues. She is just nagging and criticizing, as others above have said. That's not teaching. If this goes nowhere with the teacher herself, that's when you could ask for a meeting with the teacher and the principal.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:09 PM on October 10, 2009

This is, no doubt about it, a crappy teacher for this sort of program, who will kill your daughter's love of learning and really do her harm.

QFT. I was a happy little kid, eager to learn, eager to please. I used to ask my dad to "tell me something I didn't know" every night at bedtime. He told me about squared numbers, the twelve cranial nerves, factoids like that. He gave me my own copy of Strunk and White, and if I couldn't sleep, the Scientific American.

Then I met my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Jenneford.

Looking back on it, I guess she must have found me an insufferable little know-it-all show-off. I'm sure I was. Hell, I still am. But my teachers had liked me, the other kids liked me, and school had been a happy place. In fourth grade, all that changed. I'd always gotten As on my papers, now I got Cs and Ds for handwriting or something subjective but inarguable. If I raised my hand, she'd mock me. She singled me out and ridiculed me in class to such a degree that the whole class turned against me. My friends from third grade (trying to be kind) told me that they still liked me and we could play on the weekends or after school, but only if I didn't talk to them at school, because they didn't want Mrs. Jenneford and her pets on them, too. I stopped doing schoolwork, and kind of stopped bathing too (which didn't help).

One office lady saw what happening and was kind to me. She would actually pull me out of class to run the mimeograph machine or file papers in the office so she could chat with me, give me books, and just give me a respite. I don't know how she was able to pull a ten-year-old out of class to do secretarial work but oh God was I grateful.

My parents? They clearly didn't like my teacher and we toured a private school they talked about putting me in -- but nothing ever happened with that, so I was on my own. I stopped being smart at school and sought the funny/weird under-achiever role, which started to work for me by sixth grade. I found Dungeons & Dragons, then music, then drugs. Not that that's the necessary progression, but it was mine. I dropped out of high school.

Is all this Mrs. Jenneford's fault? No, but she changed my life, as extraordinary teachers do -- just that she was extraordinarily cruel and changed my life not for the better. I felt betrayed by my parents for a long time, but now realize that they didn't know everything that went on, and ideologically they felt they shouldn't intervene, and that public schooling was important.

People here often come down against parents acting like the world should be remade to suit their special snowflake offspring, that it is a bad message to rush in and fight your child's battles... and I guess that's not wrong, but people also forget how powerless children are, and how much it can suck to be a child at the mercy of mean adults.

Please move your daughter to another class, or another school.
posted by Methylviolet at 3:22 PM on October 10, 2009 [14 favorites]

So we just moved our children from a private preschool to a public one. One of our children is thriving there; the teacher is interested in the students and highly motivated, and she and my daughter get along well. It's clear that she's getting more from the new school than the old one; almost immediately she was coming home doing math, she's thrilled to be dropped off in the morning, and her behavioral problems have come to a dead stop.

However, my son has had the opposite experience. Previously the nice one, the polite one, the focused and motivated one, at the new school he's evidentally trouble (or so the teacher says) and he doesn't want to go. In speaking with the teacher (first step) we've tried to work with her to some success, but not all that much, and her standard state of being is overwhelmed and unrespected by the children. Basically the kind of teacher who takes it as a personal affront when your child won't take a nap, even if he just (according to the teacher) lays there being quiet.

So after trying that for a few weeks, we spoke to the principal. The principal said to give her three weeks, and we have; in that time, it is very obvious the teacher is trying much harder, but the class still seems to overwhelm her, and she still seems to take offense when our son is less than perfect (and what kid is perfect?)

Well, on Friday the three weeks ended, a child left our daughter's class, and the principal is moving our son to our daughter's class. She made it clear she felt the mistake was hers, because she gave the other teacher too many boys, making it hard for her to keep control of the classroom. Our son is thrilled to be going to the other teacher, our daughter is thrilled he's coming to her class, and my daughter's teacher gave us a heads up a few days early to tell us it was going to happen and that she's thrilled to have him. Everybody wins.

Which means that you should be talking to the administrator if the teacher isn't working with you, but you must also give the administrator sufficient time to work out a solution that keeps the staff happy, follows the rules, and makes a better long-term situation for your child.

Obviously if this can't get straightened out in a reasonable period of time, another school might be the best course of action. In the meantime, you might consider it a chance to work with your daughter to help her understand and learn to deal with the situation she's in; if you can't change the teacher, help your daughter understand how to cope with difficult people and/or unreasonable demands. It's commendable that she can and will articulate her feelings about being made to feel different, and that indicates she's smart and self-aware enough to work with you on figuring out a course of action to improve her situation in the short term. My father gave me advice when I was at a similar age, about figuring out what your teachers want and learning how to give it to them, as part of the scholastic experience -- it sets a kid up well for dealing with similar issues throughout their lives.
posted by davejay at 3:44 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and hey, I should give more details about how my parents coped with my similar issue. In fifth grade I had a teacher that HATED me, for reasons I still don't understand. In classes prior, I got good grades and was well-behaved, but that same behavior got me read the riot act (and confused the hell out of me) and my parents couldn't figure out what was going on, whether it was the teacher or I was just changing.

So my father gave me the advice noted above, and my mother convinced the teacher to let me read books during class if I finished my work early. The teacher reluctantly agreed, and so began my love affair with books and my understanding of how to cope with difficult people. Once I reached sixth grade, things went back to normal, with supportive and effective teachers.

Postscript: that bad apple teacher ended up suspended for throwing a stapler at another child's head, and when that happened I finally understood that her dislike for me had nothing to do with me at all. Not only was I not scarred by the experience, but I'm certain I am a much better person for having had it.
posted by davejay at 3:47 PM on October 10, 2009

Not to be alarmist, but this is the sort of thing that makes kids go "fuck this".

This. 4th grade was when I figured out that I no longer needed to do homework to pass. The reason I no longer wanted to do homework was my math teacher. Even though I was in the G&T program and taking supplemental math that put me several grade levels ahead of the stuff we were doing in 4th grade, I still had to do the 4th grade materials and tests. The sticking point was that I didn't show all of my work on longer problems since I was doing many steps in my head and not writing them down. The teacher first accused me of cheating, then claimed that it would be preferential treatment if she didn't make me show my work after I proved my abilities. I stopped doing homework that day and it has been a huge problem ever since. This teacher also would take points off every day for general messiness but since I was acing tests (after taking several to the principal to get points back that had been removed vindictively) I passed the class...I never did another math homework assignment ever.

This teacher is bad for your student, bottom line, and is likely a bad teacher overall.
posted by schyler523 at 6:24 PM on October 10, 2009

Your daughter's teacher sounds like my third grade teacher. I was also in the Challenge program (our district's name for the G&T program) and I was that kid with the messy desk and awful handwriting. We had those desks where stuff was stored under the desktop and my teacher would regularly drag my desk to the front of the classroom, turn it over and dump everything out in front of the whole class - so I'd have to be up front cleaning everything up during class. I think I've blocked out a lot of the specifics of that year but I do remember my parents having many meetings with her. I didn't find out til years later that she'd said some pretty rotten things about me to them, including that she thought I had absolutely no business being in the Challenge program. I'm very glad that my parents didn't share her opinion and that they kept me shielded from a lot of that at the time!

Next year she'll have another teacher and can move on. She'll have to survive a few less than stellar instructors throughout the years of her education. You both may need to get used to it since you probably won't be successful in getting this one to change her tune.

Totally agree with this. I really liked my fourth grade teacher. I remember fourth and fifth grade being much happier years for me.

Incidentally, I also got low Cs in handwriting all through grade school. (Probably because I never heard of anyone flunking handwriting!) Believe it or not, my handwriting has gotten much neater over the years - to the point where I've actually gotten compliments on it. It wasn't anything I consciously tried to do, but I do like to write, so I'm guessing it was a side effect of all that practice!
posted by SisterHavana at 7:39 PM on October 10, 2009

You're a prof? Can you afford (or pull strings in the way that people with somewhat strong social capital usually can) to send your daughter to private school?

Dept of get a clue: Professors make average middle class salaries. They start at around 50K for junior faculty. Nor, contrary to popular belief, do professors have particularly potent "social capital," and what social capital they do have isn't easily spent on private school tuition.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:07 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

My eight year old first cousin was in almost exactly the same situation at the beginning of this school year. After speaking with the teacher twice with no change (and my cousin, in the meantime, going from a girl whose favorite Christmas present last year was a mathematics workbook to a girl whose grades were tanking and who dreaded school), my aunt went to the principal.

It was the best thing she could have possibly done. My cousin was switched to a different classroom, to a teacher who really pays attention to the individuality of her students, and the principal took personal responsibility for repairing the incredible amount of damage done in just a few short weeks to my cousin's grades and her self-confidence.

I don't care if going over a teacher's head is impolite; in this situation, it is far more important that your daughter gets into a classroom situation that isn't harming her.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:54 PM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

SisterHavana, I think we had the same third grade teacher. She also held back our TAG group, making us read old issues of Reader's Digest so the other kids could "catch up" (we'd reading 7th grade books previously).

Talk to the teacher, but start documenting everything and get the administration involved soon. She may just have to tough it out for the year; your support at home, plus any other outside, "fun" programs you can get her in to will be invaluable.

What kind of things are you hearing from other parents? Since this is a magnet school, I'd be surprised if you're the only ones having difficulty with this teacher.
posted by mimi at 5:45 AM on October 11, 2009

"Next year she'll have another teacher and can move on."
"Totally agree with this. "

I totally disagree. A year for a little kid is a long, long, long time, and if this continues in the way that it began, this teacher may reside inside of your daughter's psyche for the rest of her life.

I think you should write up (1) your observations about your daughter's work and behavior; and (2) how you feel your daughter needs to be treated regarding her organizational issues, academic issues, need for positive feedback, etc., (i.e., a "proposal"). and then arrange a meeting with the teacher where you discuss these. If the teacher is anything less than receptive to your plan, which doesn't mean going along with all your suggestions, but does mean responding to all of them and substituting other ideas where she believes hers to be better, well then it's time to talk to the principal or assistant principal.

It is not immature or a feature of lack of "emotional intelligence" to go over someone's head when the person in question is not willing or capable of doing her job and is doing harm to your child.

Sloppiness (including in handwriting) and lack of organization are tricky issues because people become moralistic about them, and they are also a basis for children (and adults) developing feelings of shame about themselves that may never go away.

As an aside, I wonder what you mean when you say your daughter has
"sensory integration" issues. Could you clarify? Has any professional been seeing her or is this your own observation?

Because, putting together "sensory integration issues", poor small motor skills, the organizational stuff, I would think writing the letter requesting an evaluation by the committee on special education would be a must here. (and one writer above is absolutely correct that you must do this In Writing and follow up)
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:00 AM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah; next year might as well be a millon years from now to a 9 year old.
posted by spaltavian at 10:27 AM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a teacher. My take on it is that maybe the teacher is in over her head and can't challenge your daughter in the way she knows she needs to so she is focusing on stuff she knows she may be able to "fix".

What you can do is ask for the assessment policy of your school. Too much focus on the form and not the content of the work is unacceptable. Ask the teacher for an appointment to talk to about your daughter. Don't drop in after school without warning her, she may be busy and not focus on Janey. Even if she "doesn't mind" talking informally, ask for an appointment. If the Head of School can be there, too, fine.

What you want to ask in that meeting is how does this school monitor progress through assessing the students?

Every good teacher can tell how how progress is monitored in her classroom. If the teacher cannot answer this, if the school does not have an assessment policy, I think you should change schools.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 11:38 AM on October 11, 2009

I teach kindergarten to non-native English speakers in Korea. It's only my second year with little guys, but I taught high school for two years and college kids for five years before that.

I guess my impulse is to side with the teacher a bit. Assessment is a complicated thing for elementary students, but IMO by fourth grade a kid should be coping with things like managing his or her workspace. I'm a little thrown by the handwriting things. If the teacher is just being a real stickler with the crosses on the f's that does seem extreme. But handwriting in general is an important skill, and presenting neat and legible work is a critical written communication skill. Even if your child is more of a creative type (or to borrow some edu-speak, "random abstract" as opposed to "sequential concrete") I definitely agree that the teacher should be trying to mix up her teaching styles to meet the needs of her students with different learning styles. And nagging rather than presenting opportunities for positive reinforcement is also not so helpful. Still though, you can't just throw handwriting out the proverbial window. It's an important skill at this stage. As is neatness (although expecting perfection in this is pretty extreme).
posted by bardic at 6:56 AM on October 12, 2009

All through elementary school I was picked on for messy handwriting, disorganization, and a non-compliant attitude. I was told I would never amount to anything when I grew up if I didn't conform.

40 years on, I'm a tenured professor and one of the leaders in my academic field.

And people still can't read my handwriting.

Fuck you, Mrs. Ferguson, Mrs. Shanahan, and all the rest of you dimwitted ninnies. I'm sorry you hated being around kids so much but had to spend the rest of your life shouting "be neater" and those whose futures were more promising than yours.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:35 AM on October 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

"random abstract" as opposed to "sequential concrete"

I also had to respond to this "edu speak" sort of bullshit. I am random and abstract in many ways; I'm also a rigorously linear social scientific thinker known for my (work's) strong defense of empiricism and mastery of hypothetico-deductive argument. I can play music and I can program computers. I am funded by the National Science Foundation but I teach in a humanities department.

The real struggle is between tight-assed change-fearing typecasters who need to put people in categorical boxes and emotionally intelligent people who see other people as equal, whole, complex, messy individuals capable of thinking in myriad ways depending on the problem to be solved.

I identify with the kid in this question. But the upside for Janey is that the smartest, most capable, most original people I know all were made that way by having some sort of conformist and typecasting (i.e., stereotyping) bullshit to push against when they were forming their identities.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:42 AM on October 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

Well, thanks for projecting your inadequacies all over this thread. Asking a fourth-grader to write more neatly isn't an affront to pedagogy or humanity.
posted by bardic at 5:21 PM on October 13, 2009

bardic, you are missing the point. The point is, that yes, many 4th graders can and should be able to manage their own workspace and have legible handwriting. Janey, for whatever reason, isn't there yet. So the teacher can just do nothing but pick at her and refuse to work with her in a positive manner to try to remedy the situation WHILE still valuing her strengths, or she could be a TEACHER and do something about it and help her work on this.

No one, including the OP said that Janey should never have to work on her organization skills or handwriting, they have just said that it shouldn't be a barrier to her learning and it shouldn't make her life a living hell while she tries to improve them.

(And I'll admit, I, too rolled my eyes at the edu-speak. I learned all that lingo in college as well. But I saw it as more of a way to remind myself that kids learn in different ways and need to be given different opportunities to learn, not that you would ACTUALLY label students into these boxes for real.)
posted by Bueller at 6:05 PM on October 14, 2009

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