Willingham: When teachers speak unwelcome truths about your child
By Daniel Willingham
As the holidays begin students are going home with report cards. This week a friend vented some irritation to me over comments on his fourth-grade son’s report card.
The teacher said the boy was bossy on the playground and had become physically aggressive with some other kids when he got frustrated.
My friend kept saying that his son was a typical boy, and thought that the teacher was “out of line” in characterizing his son as aggressive. He claimed that she must have ridiculous ideas about what constituted “aggressive” behavior in fourth-grade boys.
In listening to my friend, I heard my own voice. I have also bristled when teachers said things about my kids I didn’t like hearing, especially those things that didn’t match my own impressions. And I too created reasons to explain why the teacher would say things that I was sure were exaggerations.
Here are three reasons I’m trying to change my attitude.
First, and most obvious, I’m hardly dispassionate in thinking about my kids. Their teachers are much more likely to be objective in summarizing how they relate to their peers, how their reading is coming along, and so forth.
Second, I ought to remember that kids can be very different at school and at home.
I first saw this when my oldest was in preschool. At a back-to-school night she proudly showed me various activities in the classroom, and matter-of-factly put each away when she was finished with it.
At home, putting something back where it belonged without being asked couldn’t even be called a noteworthy event because it simply never happened. But the norms of the class and the skill of the teacher made her behave quite differently at school.
Needless to say, the differences--the ability of kids to take on different personae at school and home--only get richer as kids get to middle school and older.
There’s a third reason for parents like me to take a deep breath when our child’s teacher says something that doesn’t sound right to us.
I think parents are biased to think that whatever our kids are like is “typical.” My quiet kid looks typical to me, whereas your active child looks a little frenetic. To you, your kid seems typical, and mine seems morose.
In judging whether or not my child is typical, teachers have a huge advantage over me. The teacher has seen scores or even hundreds of kids, all of them in this narrow age range.
So although I’m not usually interested in comparing my child to others, sometimes it’s important.
The teacher who told my friend that his son was “aggressive” was drawing on that experience.
She was telling him that this was not typical fourth-grade rambunctiousness, but something more.
In this context I often hear parents say “no one knows my child better than I do.”
Of course. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn important things about their lives at school from their teachers.
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| December 20, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Parents, Teachers | Tags: daniel willingham, parents, report cards, teachers
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