Friday, March 14, 2008

Spring Conferences - Ouch!

Last night Mr. Chick and I had our spring conference with Nicholas' 1st grade teacher, Mrs. V. Nicholas got off to a rough start in 1st grade, being emotionally young and sensitive as he is, but he has made really great progress as the year has gone on and I've been really happy with how he's been doing. We've always known he's a bright kid, but struggled with his "emotional thin skin", so to speak. Hence the special treatment/program for his spelling test every Friday (he demonstrated some test anxiety going into the spelling tests and would freak the fuck out, which I think surprised the teachers A LOT, so they scaled it back for him from 10 words to just 5 to take the pressure off him a bit. It's working and he's been pulling perfect test scores ever since.) But since we've dealt with that issue and he's doing well (even choosing - himself - to tackle all 10 words for the past 2 weeks and getting them all correct), he's rockin' at school. I anticipated a good report from his teacher at the conference.

And that's what she gave us - about Nicholas. About us, not so much.

Mr. Chick and I are pretty involved parents. We're hands-on. We make sure homework is done, check the work, ensure things that need to go back to school are, in fact, going back, etc. I think the majority of parents do this - in my experience - so it's not unusual. When Mrs. V gave us the report card for Nicholas last night, we were reviewing it and noting that he showed improvement in a few areas that we had specifically focused on (i.e. spelling and handwriting). I was pleased and said so. Mr. Chick was pleased, too. But this grading system is new for the school and new for us, as parents with a 1st grader. There are two ways to assign a "grade" on this report card. Numerically (1-4) and with symbols (O,-,+,*) We've loosely associated them against the A,B,C,D scale since that's how the explanations of the grading system seems to lend itself. Nicholas pulled nearly all 3's and +'s, with a few 2's and -'s scattered about. We're thinking he's doing well and getting mostly B's. So we ask some questions. Mr. Chick wants to know how he's doing compared to the other kids in his class. Oh boy - that did it. I think it's a valid question - how is my kid doing relative to the others? Is he tracking normally? Falling behind? Essentially, it's hard to know what these grades mean in a vacuum - how do his grades stack up? Are there places he needs additional support from us at home? Are a bunch of kids getting 4's and *'s while our kid is struggling with 3's? THAT'S what we meant with the question.

Mrs. V thought otherwise.

She called us to the mat and expressed her concern that we're putting too much undo pressure on Nicholas. That we need to back off a bit. That given his sensitive nature, and his desire to please, we need to give him more space and just be happy with how he's performed.

We felt slapped.

She cited an example that happened in the fall before the first grades came out - months ago - when Mr. Chick had told Nicholas on the morning of a spelling test that if he got all of them correct (and based on all the drills and practicing we'd done all week long, he knew the words cold and should have blew through the test with no sweat) we would go out for ice cream that night to celebrate. Bad move. Nicholas freaked out during the test, got confused, couldn't remember how to spell a word, and started bawling and carrying on. It ruined the rest of his day because now it meant he wouldn't get to go out for ice cream that night. Yeah, bad call on our part and we haven't repeated it, but it wasn't meant to put pressure on Nicholas but to inspire him. We didn't know he'd react that way - maybe we should have. But we've learned not to do that again, and we haven't. I think you try different things as a parent in your quest to help your kid and do what works. So it WAS a mistake on our part, but an honest one. Anyway, she brought it up to us again as an example of how we maybe put too much pressure on Nicholas. She said that he's doing VERY well and we should be happy with it. That most parents would kill for a report card like this. That it's nearly impossible to get 4's and *'s, so really, he's at the top of his game. WHY couldn't you just say that in the first place? The part about hardly ANYONE scoring a 4 or a *, so we'd have an idea of just HOW WELL he really is doing? Without the blame and accusations.

I actually was impressed that Mrs. V had the balls to say something to us if she really was concerned. She comes across as very quiet when dealing with parents. So from that standpoint, I respect her for it. Mr. Chick does, too, but her comments were directed more at him than at me so he feels more stung by them. He KNOWS he intense sometimes, but he's been trying so hard so deal more sensitively with Nicholas - something we both struggle with sometimes because Nicholas' nature is just so different from our own. I think that Mr. Chick and I are doing a great job with him, actually. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. His report card is stellar. He's one of the top readers in 1st grade and pulling top marks in math, too. His writing is improving. He's happy. He's well-liked. He's involved in a couple of fun extra-curricular activities (ballet, Mad Science, soccer). He's showing signs of improved emotional maturity - he's coping better, freaking out a LOT less, and "recovering" quicker when he does. I think we're in a very good place with Nicholas and I'm very proud of him and all his hard work. And I tell him that FREQUENTLY. Mostly, I'm thrilled to hear him say he's proud of HIMSELF. That's where it should ultimately come from - himself. Mr. Chick and I do have high expectations of our kids where school is concerned. I think it's OK to set the bar high - most kids will rise to the level. We're trying to instill the knowledge that school is important and we expect the kid to try their best. That they need to work hard at school. The social stuff is critical, too, of course, as is the emotional side of a child. We're addressing all of that. Knowing how bright Nicholas is, we expect him to be a solid student. I don't think that's unreasonable. It's how we motivate him that matters, and we've learned a lot this year as parents on the best way to do that for Nicholas.

But still - being reprimanded on our parenting by the teacher took me back to being a kid again and feeling like I got in trouble. Something that almost never happened - I was a "pleaser", too, like Nicholas. I felt ashamed.

Mr. Chick and I talked about it when we got home. It was uncomfortable for both of us and we felt defensive. Still do. But it made us both reflect on our own progress this year as parents and we both feel really good about our own report card. We like that his teacher is an advocate for him, too, and is looking out for him as a "whole child", not just from a school/academic side. So all in all, it was an enlightening, educational conference. Nicholas is kicking ass and taking names. I couldn't be more proud of him.

And us as parents? There is always room for improvement, but I think we're kicking ass, too. I would totally give us 3's and +'s on our report card.

Has anyone else had their parenting called into question from a teacher? Is it just us? What about expectations and academic achievement? How do you handle that and where do you set the bar? I'd love to hear from you on this!

Wow Mary Beth, I have to commend you on handling your conference so well. I think if such a thing happened to me I would be so defensive I would explode and I fear DH would be even more so. I appreciate your maturity in letting the teacher advocate for Nicholas so effectively. I think that, sadly, most teachers would probably just clam up rather then 'go there'. You ARE doing a fab job with your sensitive boy and accepting critism is part of it (possibly the hardest part).
You are both incredibly impressive! It is hard to have your parenting called into questions. I think the "ice cream incident" (for lack of a better term) was a really honest mistake. We have often used rewards as motivators. It may not have worked but I really don't think it was unreasonable to try.

I commend the teacher for addressing the issue with you - my guess is she tackled it head-on not so much because of your parenting but because of what she has seen with other children who have had too much pressure placed on them by their parents. Nothing you describe smacks to me of heavy-handed pressure. THe fact that you are willing to look at her feedback and honestly assess what is valuable rather than take it all and toss it out just because you are hurt or a little wounded says a lot for both of you as parents. It will serve your children well.

Didn't mean too be so long-winded!

I would be completely defensive and so would DH if that happened to us. I always ask how my child is doing compared to other children - I think it is a valid question. Of course we all pressure our children to do well - we want what is best for our kids and I think that a little pressure is good. Life isn't easy and I think it is good practice for kids to learn this at a young age, with age appropriate pressure.

Julia's teacher said something a little similar to Dh and I last fall, about motivating her and giving her down-time. I chalk most of this up to the individual child's personality and then what can we as parents do to motivate them to do well, but within the guidelines that their personality can handle. I think Julia would have done well with the ice-cream motivation, but others might not. I don't think it is anything that you or your Dh have done, rather it is Nicholas's inner personality (sounds like he was born a perfectionist). His personality type will serve him well in life - he will probably always be in the top of his class, successful, and an achiever. There probably isn't a whole lot that you or DH need to do to motivate him, as he already has it in him.

Someone mentioned to me once and I think it speaks to this situation.

Parent the child you have not the one you wanted.

I think at grade 1 looking to compare N to other students and putting pressure on him to succeed (again he's only in grade 1) is not the way to go. How do *I* know? Well I'm an engineer and very competitive and intense who has a very sensitive Grade 4 student. In grade 1 I did put pressure on regarding marks, once I actually backed off a bit and concentrated on good habits and skills and let her lead the way the house was more peaceful, marks were better and she thankfully has not felt the need to freak out or felt the pressure.

She loves to take tests and enjoys the school day. We concentrate on areas of improvement with little pressure, and actually had a tutor come into the house once a week so it wasn't US who was guiding her but a third party.

I really think you folks need to look hard at what you expect as an outcome for a grade 1 student and kudos to his teacher, she must feel very strongly to comment on this.

Think about whats more important grade 1 marks or N's feelings. I know you'll see as school unfolds that too much pressure can be as bad as no guidance.
I would be very defensive as to the way the teacher presented this to you.

DH would be very very defensive. We do the best we can, we have three children, 5,6 and 7 so things are a little crazy in our house. Our 7 year old has OT issues and some learning issues, our 5 year old has sensory intergation dsyfunction, she gets OT to deal with this. When you are trying as a parent and the teacher makes you feel like you are not trying it makes it harder I think for everyone, in my case, I would work harder with the kids, thus putting undo pressure on myself thus putting undo pressure on the kids.

I have learned to speak up to the teachers myself, I have told them that I do the best I can and I try just like my 3 children.

You are not putting undo pressure on the kids, there are too many parents today that put NO "pressure" on their kids and they have no idea what responsibility is, or consequences are. These are two areas that I really think parents are lacking on, yes I want my children to like me but I also want them to be responsible, considerate adults, so in conclusion I think you are doing a wonderful job with your parenting style and you are teaching your children about responsibility/consideration/consequences.

You rock!!
Wow, that would be a hard pill to swallow being told to back off by my kid's teacher, but at the same time I think it's great that she even notices stuff like that. A lot of teachers focus so much on the academics they forget the rest of it. Kudos to you for taking it well.

As far as how we do with expectations for school. Our kids know that we expect them to do their best. They are smart kids and so they do well in school. My dd has had some social problems with kids picking on her etc and that's tough to deal with, but academically they do well. I don't think there's anything wrong with giving kids high, but reasonable expectations. Sounds like you are doing great in that area and learning as you go to deal with you child's temperament. Good job and way to go!
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