Are Your Kids Just “Doing School?”

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my 8 year old daughter and watching school play out for her in my role as a parent.  School has a different impact on my son.  Hayden is 11 years old and will start 6th grade tomorrow – his first day of middle school.  Like my daughter, he is very bright and has recently been identified as Gifted and Talented.

Hayden “does school” (a phrase I picked up several years ago during a workshop presented by Robert Marzano and Deborah Pickering).  Unlike my daughter he does not dislike school.  He finds it tolerable.  Mostly he looks at class time as something he has to endure to get to recess, lunch,  and P.E. where he can hang out with friends and play sports.

Hayden knows we expect him to do well in school, so he does.  He is well-behaved in class, he completes his classwork, and he turns in his homework. He does not want to get in trouble, he does not want to struggle, and he does not want to fail.  He is always a recipient of the report card comment “Hayden is a pleasure to have in class.”

Hayden always does what his teacher expects of him – he does no less … and he also does no more.

Despite the fact that Hayden has always scored advanced on his standardized tests, he mostly submits “proficient” work and receives “proficient” marks on his report card.  That is the standard that we as educators often set– strive to be proficient.  I have watched this play out in my household in a number of ways, but here a few examples:

I have witnessed Hayden study for several spelling  and vocabulary tests;  once he knows 16 of the 20 words (enough to score proficient), he no longer cares if he learns the rest.

I have marveled over watching him write his spelling words five times each (my thoughts about the assignment aside)… He works vertically – writing the first letter five times down the page, then the second letter five times , the third etc. until he’s finished.  I am certain that the way he completes this assignment has done nothing to improve his spelling – but the assignment is complete and turned into his teacher.

He has been asked to read books of his choice for homework and then write summaries of what he has read.  During one school year, I watched him frequently “make-up” three sentence summaries about something he had not actually read.  When I first challenged him on it, his response to me was “My teacher doesn’t even read them, so it doesn’t matter.”  Despite my best efforts, the teacher’s lower expectations won out over my higher ones of him, and he wrote very poor summaries of things he had read (and things he hadn’t) all year long.   It just was not worth the weekly battle in my home to get him to write better summaries when his teacher accepted the lesser ones and always marked them with a little red star.

If Hayden is asked to write an essay and the teacher says it needs to be 250 words, he will write 250 words – not 251… seriously – I have watched him count, and even if he has another great idea, he is finished because he has met the expectation.

When Hayden’s teachers have high expectations and raise the bar for him – he perseveres through the challenge and produces amazing work – advanced work.  He has had many teachers do this for him.  Unfortunately, he has also experienced instances of low expectations, and much to my horror as a parent and an educator, he has always met those too.

As an educational leader in a district that entered Program Improvement a few years ago, I have spent a lot of time working with my colleagues figuring out new and better ways to help more of our students attain proficiency in language arts and mathematics.  We have had several  great, and necessary conversations about helping more students reach proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics – and they have resulted in far more students attaining that proficiency.

Now, however, I find myself spending a lot of time thinking about how we push beyond “striving for proficiency”.  As I watch my son “do school”, I know there is so much more I want for him.  I want him to excel as a reader, as a writer, and as a mathematician, but I also want him to engage in challenging work that requires critical thinking, and creative and collaborative problem-solving.  I want someone to push him to take an educational risk and let him know that it is ok to do so and that it is ok to fail.

I want the same for the students in the schools in my District.  It will require us to take some risks that may push ourselves out of our comfort zones.  It will require continuous learning and collaboration. It will require us to have different types of conversations and to think about evaluating learning in new and different ways.   I am excited about the possibilities.

14 thoughts on “Are Your Kids Just “Doing School?”

  1. It is too bad that your son has the message that it is acceptable to meet the minimum. I always pushed my daughters to do their best, regardless of what the classroom teacher accepted. We had higher standards at home. Not quite the tiger mom, but I wanted them to push themselves to excellence. It seems that this conversation about standards needs to take place….I often made my girls fix things at home that the teacher had accepted but that I would not, knowing of their abilities….I am also an educator and have taught in 4 states…

    • Thank you for your comment! I agree that it is so important for us to push our kids to excellence. I have found that more and more I pick and choose the things where I insist and push. I am always evaluating – “Is the push on this one worth it?”… “Will my child benefit, learn, grow from this eperience?” “Will it push their thinking, their creativity, their imagination?” When they have these types of assignments and learning opportunities, I push hard!

  2. Outstanding and very personal blog post! Thank you for sharing your experience balancing being an educator and parent while working to create the best learning environment for your students and children. So many of us can relate to this post.

    • Thanks, Scott! I find the role of being an educator and also being a parent of young children an interesting one. I learn so much from what I observe happening with my children. They have had some AMAZING experiences in school and some not so amazing. Each one of those experiences teaches us all something!

  3. Your post reminded me of a young girl in elementary school who followed the actions of her classmates as they went out to recess, a young girl who made sense of what was expected of her through the actions of the teacher, a young girl who struggled while learning English and had a bilingual mom who supported the young girl at home. A teacher made a difference in that child’s life as she began 4th grade when the teacher opened up the world of literature for her. She encouraged that child to excel while supporting her to live up to her true potential. The child will always be grateful for having such a teacher in her life. This child has also been told that she was a pleasure to have in class and when she could, she slid by with the minimum requirements. Yet, the child will always remember the teachers who pushed her to think, read, dialogue, debate and extend her potential. If they had not, she may not be who she is now…the one and only Marla Fernandez:)

  4. Marla, thank you for sharing your personal journey – it brought tears to my eyes. It helps me remember how much power we have as educators over the children we interact with each day. We must choose to use that wisely every minute of every day!

  5. I told my kids that they needed to do well in school, and to excel in one thing. I didn’t care if it was school, sports, or some other activity. They had to pick something that they wanted to be really good in, that I’d support them but not push. I felt that once they learned both the satisfaction and work in excelling, they could then translate that into some other area.

    It’s not necessarily a universal formula, but it seemed to work well for my kids, and it’s something that they still talk about happily (at 23 and 26).

  6. Wow. If this isn’t a waving red flag at the absurdity of many homework assignments I don’t know what is! As educators, I think we need to rethink what we are asking students to do when we see them approaching assignments with no passion and just completing something to get it done! The onus is on us to find ways to bring excited participation and real connection to learning activities. “Doing school” isn’t okay just like “doing life” isn’t. Another teacher I know announced the other day “I just love busy work.” I cringed. Sigh. What do I love in my classroom? Noise. Arguments. Questions. Ideas. Fun. Laughter. Busy with learning, not busy with work! Thanks for this fantastic post!

    • Thank you Carrie for your comments! I have found some of the homework alarming. Thank you for encouraging noise, arguments, questions, ideas, fun and laughter in your classroom. I am happy to report that my son has entered middle school this year and has a couple of teachers pushing him to do amazing and thought-provoking things, and it is making all the difference! In fact, I do believe that the push from his English teacher for his students to find their voice and express it through writing has inspired him to share his voice in his own blog…

  7. As someone who both lives with and teaches middle school children, this really resonated! With so much focus on making sure all students reach prescribed benchmarks it is often easy to focus on a sector of a class that is struggling while the “proficient” and “pleasure to teach” students are left unchallenged. What a great post reminding us how important it is to set expectations high for all students!

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Knowing what both my children are capable of, it is disheartening when I see that they are able to get away with not living up to their full potential in school. I just replied to a previous comment as well that now my son has started middle school and he has two teachers in particular who have high expectations of him and are asking him to push himself beyond what he thought he was capable of, and the results have been amazing! The complex reading, writing, and math that he is being asked to do is amazing. Even more incredible is his enthusiasm for his English and math classes – I know it is because they are engaging him, challenging him, and believing in him. Just the other night he shared with me a complex reading he had to tackle, the reflection he wrote and a poem they analyzed in class. I love interacting with him in such a positive way around school and learning. Teachers make SUCH a difference!

  8. I think you hit the nail on the head – children live up to your expectations. As a teacher and a parent, I’ve almost always found this to be true, and gotten some spectacular results! Thank you.

  9. I appreciate your perspective, as a teacher and as a parent. I used to think that being a teacher before I was a parent would make me a great parent. What I found out later on was that having children of my own provided an avenue to understand the parents of my students and what they come to expect of me, which in turn, I think, makes me a better teacher. Paying attention to the fact that I’m teaching other people’s children keeps me on my toes and raises expectations for me as a teacher.

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