By: Brenda Robinson
There it is again. The dreaded phone call on my answering machine. “Please call the principal at Chris’ school”. The tone was objective and professional – no hint of the message. Held in suspense, I waited for Chris to come home. When he arrived I queried the reason for the call.
“I can’t think of anything I’ve done, Mom”, he replied in a mystified voice. “I even passed a science test this week – not by much – but I passed. Maybe they have the wrong Chris – there are three in my class – sometimes they get us mixed up. His voice was hopeful.
I made the call
“Mr. Hunter? This is Chris’ Mom. You asked me to call”. I wanted to say something like “what the heck do you want”? but my manners are too fine tuned for that kind of behavior.
He was so pleasant, I started to think I may have misjudged the situation. He went on in a voice filled with the confidence of an administrator and decision maker.
“My staff and I had a meeting about Chris, yesterday. And we’ve made a decision about Chris’ learning goals and plans for the rest of the year”. I was a little taken aback by the idea that they were planning for Chris without including Chris and/or his parents. Before I could say so, he added, “I tried to call you yesterday morning, but there was no one home”. Of course there was no one home, I thought. We were at work. The corporate entity for parenting doesn’t pay enough to support our five children. Although, I have to admit, I’ve always thought that parents are deserving of executive salaries. Regardless, obviously we had missed an important meeting.
“What did you decide”? I asked, trying hard to keep the defensiveness out of my voice.
“Well”, he replied, “it’s about hockey”. This didn’t surprise me. Most of what Chris was about these days was hockey. “He loves hockey – doesn’t he”? I asked hoping to establish a common point of discussion about Chris.
“That’s the problem”, the principal said. “His mind is so focused on hockey, he isn’t paying attention in school. So we’ve decided you should pull him out of hockey for awhile and make him concentrate on his school work”. I was reminded once again of one of my Dad’s old sayings.
“You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”.
Somehow I didn’t think this would be an appropriate saying to bring up at this time. However, sometimes I’m not just a mother. I’m a mother bear. And in the name of protection of one of my cubs, I gave up trying to not be defensive. My reply was succinct.
“I don’t believe we’ll pull him out of hockey. He needs to play hockey for his own self esteem. When he plays hockey, he can go out on the ice for a minute or a minute and a half. As long as he tries and does his best, when he comes back to the players’ bench he’ll be given two or three pats on the back and told he’s a good kid. “How long”, I implored, “would he have to sit in a classroom to get that same attention”?
Mr. Hunter did not reply for what seemed like a very long time. Then he said, in a very defensive tone as well, “School is different”.
What is it about school that makes it so different? Why would we in an environment of learning be reluctant to use all the tools we have to encourage improved performance and enhanced self esteem? Why would we enforce a rule or restriction to try to “make” a student learn better? Maybe we should invest time in trying to understand what it would take to encourage students to want to learn.
In his book “Ken Dryden in School”, Ken Dryden (1995) talks about the responsibility that teachers have to get to know their students. He says:
“Good teachers don’t teach subjects, they teach people. But to teach people, they must know them, spend time with them, care about them and believe in them”. (p.4)
Only then, he says, can they provide learners with the ground in which to grow. He discusses the importance of understanding all of the “whys” of education:
Why they learn
Why they don’t learn
Why they want to learn
Why they don’t want to learn
He goes on to say:
“The education debate has abandoned the whys. It has abandoned the story, retreating to the easier, nastier, unthinking, unfeeling, black and white ground of issues and policies. A fruitless ground. As always, the problem, the solution, is people”. (Dryden, 1995, p.4)
Chris had one teacher who had a better way to capitalize on Chris’ and some of his classmates’ focus on hockey. He started to redesign math problems using hockey terms. For example:
If a hockey team needs ten goals to win the points tournament, how many goals do they need to score in each of the last three games they have to play?
If a player has 56 total minutes in penalties and he/she has played in seven games this season, what are his/her average penalty minutes per game?
I have always been fascinated with the attention we pay to practical applicability of learning and understanding of each individual in adult education and the limited attention these concepts get in the education system for young people. Oh – we try, with a few pictures and a general smattering of childhood examples. However, we spend more time and energy trying to mold individuals to fit the general concepts than we invest trying to mold the concepts to fit individuals. Let’s get their attention by bringing the classrooms and materials alive – relating to students instead of trying to force or make students relate to the material.
Instead of pulling Chris out of hockey – the thing he loved most to do – I wanted to bring hockey and Chris to the classroom and use it to help him learn more effectively.
There was something else from hockey that I wanted to bring too – peer support and teamwork. Not only do the coaches/leaders in that environment offer pats on the back. So, too do the peers. Why is it that in most other activities that our children become involved in, their peers cheer their efforts, celebrate their successes and generally enjoy the idea of working together. Many adults today bemoan the concept of competitive sports and such other activities. I get a sense that the negativity of competition may well be more prevalent in school than it is in extra curricular activities. I’m not promoting one or the other. I am, however, suggesting that we could learn from the strengths of both. Our learning environments have become end results oriented. We don’t cheer progress nearly enough. Perhaps we leave too much responsibility for evaluation in the hands of teachers and administrators. Maybe they are forced to view evaluation too much in connection to final marks, essays and papers. I’ve always questioned the effectiveness of report cards. To me, they are too much like performance appraisals in the workplace.
Have you ever listened to what employees say after their performance appraisal interviews? You may hear some of these comments:
“I knew what she was going to say before she said it”.
“It wouldn’t matter what you do around here, you couldn’t please her”.
“If I was doing all those things wrong, why didn’t somebody tell me before now”?
“It’s a waste of time – it’s too late to change it now”.
“I knew I was doing okay or id have heard about it before today”.
“She never gives 5’s anyhow. She doesn’t believe in them. The most you’ll ever get from her is a 4”.
You know, it’s somewhat similar to the comments you hear from students after report cards are handed out.
“She never notices the good things I do – she only records bad stuff”.
“So what if I was late five times in September. This is December and I haven’t been late since”.
“What does he mean I’m not working up to my potential? How does he know what my potential is”?
“Nobody ever gets an A from Mrs. Robb. She doesn’t give A’s”.
What is our purpose with report cards and/or performance appraisals? If they are truly meant to be the basis for growth and improvement, should we re-evaluate the way they are administered.
I still remember Lonnie when he brought home his first Grade 5 report card. I waited for him to tell me about it and share it with me. After school snacks were over, hockey practice came and went, music lessons were complete, dinner was cleaned up, and bed time was imminent. Finally, I asked gently, “Lonnie, did you want to show me you report card”? “Do I have to”? He asked with the faintest last sound of hope in his voice.
“Yes, dear”, I replied and held my hand out expectantly. Out of his school bag, he pulled a crumpled piece of heavy paper with a chocolate milk stain on it. He tried to straighten the wrinkles out as he handed it to me. “You’re not going to be happy”, he said. “Mrs. Roma said you might kill me”.
“Well”, I replied with a smile and an attempt to lighten things up. “I’m glad we got your music lesson in before you die”. Even that didn’t bring a smile.
I opened the report card and scrutinized it carefully. Lonnie was right – it was not the stuff to make a mother glow with pride and happiness. In fact, it was awful. I tried hard to practice what I preach.
“Well, Lonnie”, I said. “Let’s try to figure out ways to work on this new semester”.
Lonnie was stunned. He looked at me with doubtful eyes. “Aren’t you going to yell at me first”, he asked. What a negative learning environment we’ve created. Instead of investing his energy in setting new goals and inventing ways to improve, he was busy preparing to be yelled at or maybe even to die. A fairly serious reaction to a report card – don’t you think? How can we get young people to focus on positive improvement when they feel overwhelmed with the negative consequences? This may be one of the greatest challenges for parents and educators.
This challenge always brings to mind another of my Dad’s old sayings. “Don’t cry over spilled milk”. One of the things I’ve learned about children over the years is that they can’t undo what has already been done. But, interestingly, they are always very interested in what’s next? It never seems difficult to get a child to think about the future. They aren’t nearly as interested in nostalgia as their grown-up counterparts.
Could we possibly design a report card system that places more emphasis on what’s next that it does on what’s past? We can certainly use marks and credits as springboards for the future effort. At the same time, could we celebrate progress and success fully? Could we give A’s to A students when they deserve it? Could we, while we’re at it, encourage cheering on the sidelines. One teacher told me that the quietest time in her classroom is when she is handing out the marks. Isn’t it fascinating that in so many of the other activities, the time when results are given is a time for great cheering, clapping and general celebration. Should this be a somber, serious event or have we the need to lighten up?
One of my children recounted a story about “time tests” in Grade 3. The children were asked to complete 25 math questions in a given time limit. Each time they completed a test in the time given, they moved up a level in degree of difficulty. Each day, Leigh came home and reported that a different child had moved up to a higher level.
“Robert moved to Level III today”, she’d say. Or “Wow, mom, Cathy moved to Level VI today”. She would describe how all the kids cheered as Cathy put a red star on the chart at the front. Knowing that Leigh struggled with math and especially with timed tests, I grew increasingly concerned as time tests went on. One day she rushed into the house, filled with excitement and shouted as she came.
“They cheered for me, today”, she said. “The whole class cheered. They even gave me high fives all around”. Conditioned as I was to the vocabulary of levels, I asked the question.
“What level did you get to deserve all of that cheering”?
“Oh”, she replied, “I’m not at levels yet, but I finished half of a time test. Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll get there – I’m on my way”.
I realized at that moment, (and remembered to write it in a note to the teacher later), that Leigh’s teacher was fortunate enough to recognize the importance of cheering and especially of cheering on progress. We need more teachers like her.