Communicating misery and success with parents

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.

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Narratives tell the story

The private school where I began my teaching career had an unusual grade-reporting system. From time to time, when progress reports needed to go home, teachers would write a narrative – a paragraph or two – describing the student’s progress in school. Teachers were instructed to relate the student’s successes and identify areas that needed improvement, but were specifically asked not produce any kind of number that would represent the student’s status in the class. The idea was that a person’s learning experience was complex, ongoing, and incapable of being reduced to a single number – such as a percentage, or for that matter a letter grade.

For a novice teacher who had plenty of experience receiving letter and percentage grades, but no experience of any kind with reporting grades, this system presented me with some challenges and some learning opportunities.

For one thing, it gave me an early lesson in the kind of tact and insight that I would need to use in the years to come when talking with parents about their children.

I was teaching 7th and 8th graders – middle school grades – the age at which kids begin to develop a sense of their own identity as independent of the rules and guidelines that had always set expectations for their behavior. In other words, they were engaged in a healthy and developmentally appropriate campaign of challenging authorities – including me. To tell the truth, I thought some of them were little monsters, and it didn’t help that I did not have a lot of experience or resources to manage such behavior at that point in my career. I learned that it is useful to be aware of my own frustration in dealing with a student, but it is absolutely not helpful at all to tell a kid’s parents that he acts like a monster.

Rookies do make more mistakes than veterans, and I could elaborate on my own fumbles as a rookie teacher – at length, I’m afraid … but I will conclude this anecdote by simply saying thank goodness my principal reviewed my narratives and gave me some pointers on diplomacy before the reports for the first grading period actually went out.

The purpose and the true benefit of narrative reports is to communicate to parents a real-world sense of their child’s progress – information they can use at home to support the student’s work at school.

So the responsibility for teachers in constructing such narratives is to identify the factors that will really help in facilitating the student’s progress. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, everyone matures – including intellectual maturity – at different rates, everyone has their own unique approach to problem-solving. A teacher must be an astute observer of human behavior and an expert in learning strategies in order to identify what is going on within a student’s learning process and devise plans to help that student progress in school.

I am grateful that my first teaching job required me not to grade my students, but to rather to understand them and articulate that understanding in positive and practical terms. As a result of this experience I have never been content to see students strictly in terms of their performance on assigned tasks. But whether or not a teacher is ever required to produce narrative progress reports, it is essential that all teachers have the insight into human behavior, the expertise in instructional strategies that can help students in a variety of learning situations, and yes, the patience to see past the “monster” to the young person struggling to succeed on his or her own terms.

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Children in someone else’s world

A mother walks through a store with her child in tow. She is telling him about something she thinks is important, but he isn’t listening. He is paying attention to his phone.

A student is in class – maybe engaged with the lesson, maybe bored and eager for a distraction. It doesn’t matter. When his phone signals the arrival of a text message, the message gets his attention and the classroom environment is put on hold.

Kids on the subway train, kids on the sidewalk, kids riding around in cars, all living in the real world, the tangible world, but with living in a fog of detachment. Their loyalty and true affiliation is to the cyber world. The call comes and they retreat to the community of online friends and files, games and apps. If the call doesn’t come often enough, the kid reflexively reaches for the phone and enters the world online. The anxiety over the possibility that something may have happened while the kid was away is assuaged. The connection to the online world is reestablished. Order is restored.

Life for young people is chaotic enough. A decade or so of learning the rules and being held by the hand, five years of searching for individual identity and questioning authority, then dumped out onto the ground floor of adult responsibilities. Young adults have good reason to be confused and to feel alienated. Teenagers who see the world of adulthood looming have good reason to believe that world does not have a place for them.

It is not like this by deliberate design. Americans revere childhood and we cling to our nostalgic fantasies of its importance. But our style of nurturing our next generation leaves a lot to be desired. We crowd our kids into institutions – schools, summer camps, special programs, sports – that we hope will foster in them individuality and personal growth. But the institutional quality of these environments teaches the lesson that conformity is more important than individuality, compliance is more important than growth.

Human nature cannot be so easily contained. Kids know that they don’t really belong in an environment that suppresses their individuality. So they look for a place where they can feel that they do belong. They find it online – a vibrant community of peers and interactive games. Because they choose to be there, they feel that it is their own and that they are in control. But therein lies the danger.

A child who seems to the people around him to be in his own little world – eyes down, engrossed in a little screen held in his hand – is actually exposed to a world of strangers who have no interest in him except what they can get from him. His every movement in the cyber world is documented, his interests and purchasing habits catalogued, his physical location tracked at all times. At the very least, this data is available for commercial exploitation. But more significantly, a child’s entry into the cyber world opens him to other forms of exploitation as well.

We all want to belong. We all want to feel a part of a community that welcomes us and accepts us and allows us to feel safe. We want to keep our children safe. But do we?

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Thanks for giving

It’s Thanksgiving week and many schools are closed until next Monday. It is good to take a break from the rhythm of work, and Thanksgiving offers the opportunity to be immersed in the love of a supportive family.

For many students, school is not just a place for work, it is the center of their social universe. It is the place where they learn how effort and diligence translates into rewards and satisfaction. Everyone complains about school (just as everyone complains about the weekends being too short, or the weather being too wet) but the truth is that for many students school is a place of promise and opportunity. Behind the complaints next Monday will be optimism and a refreshed spirit ready to return to school.

But for others, school is a place of frustration and discomfort. Instead of imparting the message of empowerment through learning, the institution seems to throw up walls that a child cannot cross. Rather than being a place for positive reinforcement, school is a daily reminder that the student does not measure up. For these children, Thanksgiving break is a desperately needed escape from an oppressive and debilitating environment.

Why the difference? There are differences between schools, to be sure. But why do some students thrive in a particular environment while others in the same school flounder? School environment is not the only factor.

Part of the answer is the vast difference in talent that exists within the human race. Some people are simply better at the tasks that schools require. Other individuals who may be capable of brilliance in other spheres are stymied by the narrow constraints of formal education. Schools should do a better job of cultivating human potential, and adapting the curriculum to meet the needs of the young people they serve.

But a large part of the answer lies at home. The biggest determinant of a child’s success in school is whether he or she brings an attitude of success from home. It is more than believing in oneself – it is taking joy in new experiences, seeing the connection between effort and reward, accepting setbacks as opportunities for learning and not as defeats. A child’s attitude towards life is largely determined by the attitudes of the people he or she looks to for inspiration and support.

This Thanksgiving week, I want to thank the many people – especially my parents – who gave me the support and inspired in me the confidence I have felt throughout my life in meeting the challenges and embracing the opportunities I have known. Thanks for giving me the love and support that have sustained me and allowed me to believe in myself. Every child deserves such love.

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The consumers’ choice in education

When I was young, I worked at a restaurant that served carbonated soft drinks. In those days, customers ordered their drinks from a waitress or over a counter. Full service, but few choices. Employees at this restaurant, however, were entitled to help themselves to soft drinks at no charge. I thought it was a real treat to be able to mix different flavors together from the six that were available from that soda fountain.

Yesterday I was in a restaurant that had a self-service soda fountain. Customers could choose from several dozen options of flavors, and of course could mix flavors to their heart’s content. Many of the flavors were already mixes of the standard beverage with cherry, vanilla, or lime. Marketing departments of food and beverage producers have discovered that they can sell variety – including some flavors that would never have occurred to that young man at the soda fountain years ago. Consumers are swimming in choices. Not long ago, I heard of a new line of flavors of potato chips, including cappuccino.

Today, choices are not limited to food items, or even to consumer products. We have come a long way from the kind of economy we had for thousands of years in which 90% or more of the population worked in agriculture. The vast potential of human talent can be matched far more closely to gainful employment than was ever possible before.

So in this environment of marketplace choices, why are we paying for schools that attempt to produce one kind of product – a young person who can pass a standardized test on a standardized curriculum? Why don’t American citizen-consumers demand more individualized outcomes from 12+ years of public education? We see that our children, like ourselves, have talents and potential that go far beyond the common denominator education they are getting. We as a society understand that in order for progress to occur, we need creative thinkers, innovators, risk-takers. Why are we investing in an educational enterprise that accepts incremental improvements in mediocre performance as progress?

The marketplace analogy may tempt some to think that I am arguing for privatization of education, and the virtues of capitalism in producing innovation as well as better goods at lower costs. I am not. The free market, for all its virtues, operates by punishing as well as rewarding risk-taking. We are talking about children here. We need to nurture talent, not just throw it in the river and see if it can swim.

But we as the purchasers of public education do need to demand a better product for our tax dollars. We should demand that our schools give us graduates with a wider range of skills, greater confidence in their individual abilities, and proficiency in creating new ideas. It is those new ideas that will drive progress, bring us more choices and efficiency, and fuel economic growth.

Think about it. Take a moment with the cool carbonated beverage of your choice if it helps you to gather your thoughts. Then get ready to make some noise. Change doesn’t happen by itself.

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The end of accountability

The student thought she had her teacher on the ropes. She said, “If we don’t pass the End-of-Course Test, you are going to be in serious trouble!”

What are we teaching kids in school these days?

I happen to think holding people accountable for their own work is a great idea. But all too often the message kids get is that their goal is to achieve conformity to some state-mandated standard. And since they have no say in shaping their own education, their effort is understandably lackadaisical. Why should they feel personal ownership of their test results? If they fail to perform up to someone else’s standard, surely it is someone else’s fault.

After 20 years of working in education, the most troubling development I have seen is the shift in responsibility for learning away from those who have the greatest self-interest – the students – and onto the backs of those who are still poorly compensated for their outstanding work as teachers, and under the threat of punishment if their numbers don’t add up. This change is not just an alteration in the terms of employment for teachers, it is a change in the nature of the job itself – one that I take very personally.

I guess conventional wisdom would hold that I got into education for the wrong reasons. The right reason is the altruistic desire to educate and set a good example for the young – and I had that too. But the real attraction for me was something different, something in the dynamics of the workplace itself.

I was always attracted to positions where I could do my work with no interference from others – where my goals were clear, but the way I achieved them was up to me. Working this way not only appealed to my independent streak, but also unleashed my creative side. I always seemed to do my best work when I did it my way.

Teaching used to be like that. Administrators were too busy to pay much attention to what went on in classrooms. Actually, they still are, but new mandates from the state, driven by the desire for federal funding, has forced enormous investment in time and paperwork to make sure that teachers are compliant with an elaborate protocol of standard practices.

Working with kids, I was always very much aware of the fact that any success that was going to happen in school needed to belong to the students. I got my satisfaction from setting things up for their efforts, and then giving them the guidance they needed to reach their objectives. I tried not to rein them in any more than necessary. They needed creative freedom as much as I did, and I wanted my students to feel the responsibility for their own learning and to enjoy all the credit they could get for their results (no matter how much heavy lifting on my part went into the mix). It was their education. My credo was there is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.[1]

After working this way for a number of years, it was difficult to shift gears to make sure that the school administrators who visited my classroom knew I was checking off everything on the to-do list they had for me. Not impossible, but certainly more difficult. Of far greater concern, it felt like the focus of attention was shifting in the wrong direction. I was the old dog who had to show off some new tricks. Meanwhile, the kids were being asked to refine their ability to perform one old and very simple trick – pass a multiple choice test so that their school could be ranked.

I left teaching a few years ago, just before Teacher Keys Effectiveness System (TKES) was brought on line to replace the older, more subjective checklist. I returned to teaching in 2013-2014 in a school system that had fully implemented it. I like the new checklist. At the very least, here is nothing it requires teachers to do that I would judge to be contrary to the best interests of students. In fact it is a great inventory of strategies and ideals – a reminder of many of the things good teachers already know.

But there is no objective measure of good teaching that applies to all teachers in all situations. As valuable as the objectives in TKES may be, neglect of one or two items on the list does not mean that a teacher is not doing outstanding work. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t require teachers to conform to the list.   And I wouldn’t ask them to take a minute away from the time they devote to actually being good teachers in order to prove that they are doing their jobs. The proof of that can’t be reduced to a list.

It was my own student who told me that if she failed the End-of-Course Test I would be in trouble. What she didn’t know was that I honestly didn’t care whether or not she could perform well on a test of rote memorization. I had higher expectations for her than that.


[1] I learned some things checking into the origin of this saying. I remember reading that it was something Harry Truman said. A lot of people attribute it to Ronald Reagan. Apparently its origin is much older.

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The beginning of the end (death by standards)

I care about the results of my work. The main reason I am no longer working as a classroom teacher is that my ability to guide students towards being confident, independent, life-long learners has been severely compromised by state mandates that stress uniformity over individual achievement and reward performance at a disgracefully low level of intellectual engagement.

When I first taught in public schools in Georgia, the curriculum was the QCC, the “quality core curriculum.” I basically ignored it. Not that I didn’t teach it. I did cover most of the many topics included in the long and detailed list. But I didn’t feel married to the list.

My task was to teach a survey course in U.S. history, and the goals I had for my students included three key components: [1] a basic knowledge of the timeline of U.S. history – the general sequence of events, and a sense of cause-and-effect where applicable, [2] an understanding of the nature of American society including an appreciation for the diversity of values and the vocabulary for framing the major issues this country has faced over the course of its history, and [3] the confidence and skills necessary to develop some expertise in a particular area – learning not just a set of facts, but also how to be a scholar.

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly good at it at when I first started. I was very clear on why I wanted to teach. I had become a pretty capable scholar through my years in college and grad school, and I wanted to share this wisdom. I didn’t count on the fact that my own background, motives, and skills were not the same as every other student I would encounter. It took me years to see how I could reach and motivate students whose orientation in life was sharply different from my own.

The deeper my understanding of the diverse needs and myriad talents of my students became, the better I was at guiding them to achieving the goals I had set for them, and the less concerned I was about how they managed to achieve these goals. Their creativity, their self-discipline, their confidence in their own ability to learn became the most important things. I paid less and less attention to what was on that state-mandated list, and ever more attention to the quality of the learning experience for my students.

And then about a decade ago the list changed. With the new list – the Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) – came a new emphasis on outcomes – on the new End-of-Course Tests (EOCTs). My students would be required to demonstrate their proficiency in guessing the preferred answers on multiple choice test questions, and this test would constitute a major part of their grade for the course. The EOCT required no analysis or even understanding of the factual information addressed in the questions, merely recall of enough memorized phrases to enable students to pick out the most likely correct answer.

The new slogan was “standards-based instruction,” but it was really just teaching to the test. And because these tests were used to measure not just student performance, but also performance by their schools, and comparative performance by different school systems, the results of these assessments assumed an importance that overshadowed any other goals of the course. If I didn’t cover every one of the list items on the GPS, I risked handicapping my students. If I spent “too much time” on material that was not on the list, I opened myself up to criticism that I was not doing my job.

The idea of helping young people learn how to be scholars was now off the menu. The idea that the students themselves bore responsibility for their own learning was about to come under attack.

To be continued ….

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