Learning is a process – one that goes on our entire lives. If we are fortunate, we find learning to be a joy, one of life’s pleasures. When we embrace learning, we allow ourselves to be improved by it; we empower ourselves not just to know more, but also to understand better and to do things we could not do before.
When I taught an advanced placement class as a high school teacher, I had a little speech I gave to parents who visited my classroom on open house nights. I must admit I enjoyed watching the reactions to what I had to say.
I started out by telling them that I was the one who was making their children’s lives miserable. I was giving them reading assignments that were too long and too full of information for them to fully comprehend on one reading. I was giving them tests that were too difficult, and long writing assignments that required them to use skills they had not fully developed. I was making it nearly impossible for them to succeed at the level to which they were accustomed … and by this point in my speech there were many scowls visible on the faces of the parents in the room.
I went on to say that it was my goal to force my students to confront the limits of their ability to learn – and to expand those limits.
“At some point in everyone’s lives – and for me it didn’t occur until I got to college – we confront some new challenge that seems unconquerable. Whatever we had been doing that made us successful in the past simply doesn’t work on this new problem. If we are accustomed to success, this can be an uncomfortable, even panic-inducing experience. We are forced to examine what it is that we do to succeed and come up with new strategies. In the end we discover how to overcome the challenge, but more importantly, we learn something about ourselves.
“Everyone has this uncomfortable feeling at one time or another,” I told the parents – and by this time the scowls had mostly disappeared and heads were beginning to nod. “The students who signed up for my class almost uniformly have good track records in school. Many of them have been so good at school for so long that they have never had occasion to stop and think about why they are good at school. I want to throw them out of their comfort zone, and I want to do it now, when they have your support at home,” I told the parents, “not when they are alone in some dorm room away at college. Whatever they learn about the subject matter in this class will probably be less important to them in the long run than what they learn about themselves and about how to change directions and move forward when they get stuck.
“And even though I do make their lives a bit miserable for a while, I never tell them that this should be easy. I tell them that struggle is necessary for growth. What I just told you, their parents, the students heard the first day of class and will hear throughout the course. I keep the bar high, but I am also here to help them clear it.”
As the parents filed out of the room, several would give me words of encouragement and approval. Some urged me to keep the pressure on. The parents of these very capable students knew that their children are talented, but that their true potential had not nearly been reached.
This kind of tough approach does not work with every student, or with every parent. I had the luxury of teaching a population of kids who had a great deal of self-confidence they could fall back on when they got frustrated. It was never a question of whether or not they were up to the task, it was simply a matter of figuring out how they were going to do it.
I also had the luxury of explaining my methods and my purpose to parents who overwhelmingly were college graduates and successful professionals who valued academic achievement and understood the concept of life-long learning. I manipulated their emotions in the way I gave my presentation because I wanted them to feel a hint of the frustration their children were feeling before I reminded them of their own experiences in pushing through that kind of frustration and ending up stronger.
The key to the success of these or any other families in supporting their students in school is an understanding that learning is a process. Communicating this positive value to parents, and sharing information between school and home may be accomplished in different ways in different settings. But the measure of a good education can never be fully captured in a simple test score or a letter grade. Whatever successes or stumbles may occur along the way, the ultimate goal of education must be more than the accumulation of knowledge, it must be the acquisition of the tools for leading a successful life.