Help! I Got in Trouble for Making My High School Students Learn the 50 States

Dear We Are Teachers,

I’ve been teaching AP U.S. History for the last 12 years. Last semester, after my students repeatedly expressed surprise that certain states existed, I handed out a diagnostic quiz and asked them to label the map. Out of 130 students, FIVE could label all 50 states. So, a few weeks ago, I had students learn the 50 states on top of their regular curriculum. A group of parents emailed calling me “sadistic,” “demeaning,” and “petty.” I am floored. My administrator supports me, but this might be my breaking point. Are other teachers seeing this kind of thing? No one at my school seems surprised.

—seriously illinois-ed

Dear S.I.,

As they say around my neck of the woods, “Whew, buddy.”

This is going to sound like I’m swerving off-topic, but stay with me: I think we’re approaching a serious reckoning about having phones in schools. Phones have made all of us—parents, kids, teachers—way too accessible. Instant communication has removed the time we used to have to cool down, collect ourselves, and react like humans instead of lizard people.

In 2003, if an APUSH student got 50 states homework at 10 a.m., they might stew on it for half an hour and then be over it by lunchtime.

In 2024, if they get 50 states homework at 10 a.m., they text Mommy that their teacher made them feel sad. Mommy looks up a thesaurus online, closes her eyes, selects some imprecise and over-the-top synonyms for “slightly inconvenienced,” and is in a full-on email blame game with the teacher by 10:15.

(That was kind of mean, but honestly, “sadistic”? A teacher finding a gap in knowledge and—heaven forbid—filling it? Come on, now.)

Anyway, I say all of this to encourage you: Don’t let this be the end of the road. These impending reckonings mean we’re due for several swing-backs of the pendulum. Not just about phones, but about returning to many of the teaching practices we’ve abandoned in recent years, especially rote memorization.

I’m glad your admin is supportive, at least. Here’s what I would do:

  • Talk to the social studies coordinator in your district. Something is seriously off in the vertical alignment in your district if so many kids are lacking that kind of basic knowledge, and it’s your coordinator’s job to look into it.
  • Keep emails to these parents extremely short. The more you explain, the more room they have to debate. If you feel comfortable, cc your administrator on these communications.
  • Consider expanding your diagnostic test to other areas of fundamental knowledge at the beginning of next year. Not only can that help to inform your teaching, but it can add to your evidence that some big things need to change in the way students are taught before they get to you.

Dear We Are Teachers,

One of my students was seriously injured skiing over spring break and will be in a wheelchair for the next few months. He’s returning to class next week and I’m seriously concerned about accessibility. Our elevator hardly ever works (I know because I have knee problems), and I have no idea what to do if we have an emergency of some kind. My principal said, “Well, you’ll just have to carry him,” but my knee problems might land us both in an unsafe situation. This doesn’t feel right or safe. Who should I talk to since my principal doesn’t see a problem?

—how is this legal?

Dear H.I.T.L.,

I don’t know how your principal hasn’t sniffed out the situation for what it is: dangerous, irresponsible, and illegal. Not accounting for student accessibility—especially during a potential emergency—is a huge liability.

It’s your principal’s responsibility to make sure the building is ADA compliant. If this isn’t a high-priority item for your principal, I would do two things: 1) Notify the family of the child that you’re concerned about some accessibility issues, particularly as it relates to emergencies. Encourage them to set up a meeting with the school. 2) Find your school’s union rep and unload this onto them. They’ll know how to handle it—including how to file a grievance if it comes to that.

Dear We Are Teachers,

I’m a kindergarten teacher on FMLA to care for a family member. Several parents keep texting me. Some want to complain about the long-term sub, some have questions about events I’ve organized in the past, and some want reminders on when I’m back. They’re all well-meaning (and they’re all aware I’m on FMLA), but I just want to be completely disconnected from school. What’s the nice way of saying, “Please leave me alone until I’m back at work”?

—Freaking Leave me alone

Dear F.L.M.A.,

Someone owed you better guidance on taking FMLA. You shouldn’t be talking to anyone! Whoever coordinates leave for your school or district should have gone over that. It can be a liability if you’re working (which includes communicating about work-related issues) while on leave.

First, don’t respond to any other texts (even if they’re some of your favorite parents). Call your principal and say you’re continuing to receive communications from parents (but don’t say you’ve responded). Request that your principal send an email to all the parents in your class reminding them not to contact you while you’re on FMLA and that you’re prohibited from responding.

You are right to want complete disconnection from work while on FMLA. And you should have it! That time is for you to dedicate the energy and time that would normally go toward work to a demanding life event. Parents can definitely wait their turn.

Do you have a burning question? Email us at

Dear We Are Teachers,

Our sick policy for students changed this year. It used to say students had to be fever-free for 24 hours in order to return, but this year it says students can come back whenever symptoms have improved. A shock to no one, my colleagues and I (elementary teachers) have been sick the majority of this school year. It’s normal for half or more of our classes to be out. AND our admin has the gall to complain about teachers being out too often! Is there anything we can do to fix this short of just leaving? 

—Sick of being sick

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