What Your Toddler’s Teacher Will Never Say to Your Face

After an ashamed parent flouts school sickness rules, she sets out to discover what daycare teachers really think about parents

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Dejan Ristovski / Getty Images

As these autumnal days wrap us in their cold, germy arms, what parent doesn’t dread that hacking sound coming from the crib? It’s your kid with a chesty cough and a fever and yes, it’s the day that you’re also hopelessly busy at work. What to do? Once, when my daughter woke up on the clammy side of cranky, I confess that I took the coward’s way out. Under the pressure of an absentee spouse and a deadline, I gave her a hopeful dose of Tylenol, dropped her off at toddler school and then raced off to work.

Inevitably, her teacher phoned me a few hours later to announce that my daughter was ill. Of course on the drive home, with my sick tot wilting into her car seat, I felt the wracking guilt that’s the special preserve of mothers. Yet something else bothered me too. Not only had I behaved with a selfishness that I love to condemn in others, but something about the teacher’s look twisted a stake through my cowardly heart. Had the teacher known that I’d been semi-bluffing?

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“Of course she did,” said my friend who teaches preschool,  “Even when parents give their child meds before drop-off, I can tell from the kid’s eyes that they’re ill.” Oops! (As a teacher and because of the sensitive nature of this topic, my friend did not want her name published.)

Curious now about what these long-suffering teachers think about parents like me, I decided to do a bit of digging. Under journalistic cover, I asked personal questions of some early childhood educators (none of whom were connected to my daughter’s school in Austin, Texas).

What drives you mad about parents? I asked. What do you gossip about on your break? How do we get under your skin, and what do you wish you could say but can’t because it’s, you know, rude.

These teachers, professionally trained to deal with cheeky people, tolerated my impertinent frisking. As long I could grant anonymity, they dished a few breakroom truths.

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We know when you’re lying: Teachers confirmed that they always know when parents conceal an illness. They don’t buy the “his diarrhea is caused by teething” excuse, and the “oh, it’s just allergies” line is even feebler when other kids get the sniffles too. One teacher said to me: “There are cases when my entire room has been wiped out by a bug and I know exactly which kid started it. But by the time the Tylenol wore off and I could exclude him, it was too late for the rest of the class.” Did my toes curl with shame when she said this? Yes, they most certainly did.

We speak to you in teacherese: When talking about our precious darlings (all of whom are brilliant and well-behaved, of course) teachers have to tread very, very carefully. Though they might want to say what they really think, they take care to express themselves in terms that are professional, constructive and kind. So, when a preschool teacher says: “Little Walter is still developing his ability to relate to other children”, he or she really means: “Little Walter is mean.”  But you freaked out when you heard that, didn’t you? Hence the need for teacherese.

Lady, open your eyes: The problem with gentle euphemisms is that it’s easy to miss the point. Teachers are at such pains to avoid negative labels that parents who really don’t want to address bad behavior simply close their eyes. When we blinkered parents ignore subtle hints, or claim fiercely that our child doesn’t “do that”, then Teacher rolls his or her eyes behind our backs. Said one long-suffering professional: “It’s at times like this you really want to yell: ‘Your kid’s a stinker!’”  But they don’t, because early childhood educators seem to be at least ten percent nicer than the general population.  

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Please! Enjoy your child: It’s normal for children to develop at different rates, yet teachers recognize the anxious eye-flick of a parent comparing their child to another. Similarly, it breaks their hearts to see us filling kids’ time with tutors and piano lessons before they’ve even started kindergarten. “Children are over-programmed and exhausted,” many teachers told me. “Don’t take it all so seriously, “ said another. Sadly, given the hyperventilating culture of modern motherhood, I may need a tutor to help me follow teacher’s advice.
Crocs? Ugh: And on a trivial level, those slip-on shoes called crocs, beloved by lazy parents like me, are dirty, clumpy and unsafe. Oh dear.

So what did I learn from my investigations? Well, other than awe at the number of times teacher must be holding her tongue, frankly I was disappointed. I’d hoped to coax much more gossip and slander from my interviewees but these teachers, all so darned reasonable, kept expressing compassion for parents instead of complaints. This leads me to conclude that these early childhood educators were still dishing out a little teacherese, or they’re all freakishly nice. Actually, I suspect the latter, for how else can they claim to love both my brilliant, well-behaved child and that stinker kid too?