Yesterday, we had our parent teacher conferences. And while like most teachers I find the exercise exhausting, yes sometimes even commiserating with other teachers in the spirit of camaraderie, I actually like the process. For the most part I enjoy meeting parents and telling them how great their kids are. I like to see my students with their parents to get a sense of what kinds of relationships they have with each other. Are they nervous, or timid, or funny, or courageous around their parents? A teacher can learn a lot about a kid by how they act around their parents. I like to watch moms and dads and the banter and tensions they bring to the table.
After every marathon stretch, eight hours yesterday, I am always left thinking about learning. And school. And grades. And a whole slew of other thoughts I can’t seem to capture at the moment. After last night, I haven’t been able to get over a certain phrase.
Yes, I know she is doing fine, but there is always room for improvement. Right? What else can she do? How can she do better?
I must have heard these words from the mouths of every parent I met. Irregardless of their grades or their skills. Didn’t matter if they were high pressure parents or easy going ones, they all wanted to know how their child could do better. This got me thinking.
Our students, for the most part, work hard. Really hard! I am often in awe that these twelve to fourteen year olds sit in class all day, do homework, participate in services an activities, and hang-out with their friends. They are engaged with the school material, they ask about rubrics and articulate their learning. They reflect, make portfolios, and ask for help. They are simply amazing young people. They do all of this all whilst dealing with hormones, growing up, balancing countless relationships with their friends, teachers and yes parents. They are online and offline and everywhere in between.
So what must it feel like, to work this hard, to do the best you can for twelve years and to constantly be told, no matter how or what you do that there is always room for improvement! It must be devastating. By the end of the night, I was no longer hearing how can my child do better, but I was hearing how can my child be better. I could read it on the face of every kid while they listen to their parents praise their work and talk about how proud they were, only to hear that big but at the end of the conference. I could see them smile and sit up straight and beam with pride and confidence only to watch them deflate, when after the praise every parent ended with, “But how can she do better? How can she improve?”
Is this what we want? A learning environment where feedback and growth and improvement have trumped simply saying, “Job well done! I am proud of you. Now take a break! Enjoy your learning.” Are we so fixated on our kids “succeeding” and remaining competitive, that we cannot simply let them bask in the glow of their accomplishments with out constantly raising the bar? How can kids feel successful if every time they do, we tell them to do better?
I want to formally challenge the notion of constant improvement as a motivator for learning. So many parents also told me that their kid is working under potential. “He is actually really talented, but he just needs a push. He won’t do much unless you force him to do it.” Am I wrong in thinking that this doesn’t sound like learning?
I would hope that when a child is self-motivated and passionate and self-aware of their needs and strengths and weakness, that they can and will push themselves to improve. And if they don’t perhaps they are not ready to commit to their learning. This same kid, also should know that sometimes they just need a time-out. A break. Constant growth and improvement is not sustainable and should not be the perpetual expectation.
Parents, if you are reading this– I get it. I am a parent too. Every time I see my daughter slacking off or not working to her potential, or not achieving some unrealistic expectation of mine, I too want to remind her that she should work harder, slower, smarter. Even when she does well, I too catch myself saying, “How can this be better?” It must be natural to want our kids to be their (the) best. I too want to tell her teacher not to let her lose focus, but I think I could honor her independence more and feed her confidence more, if I were to sometimes just let what she does be enough.
I want to say to her, “I am proud of you honey. I cannot believe how hard you worked and how much you have grown. I am so impressed by how much you have learned. You really seem be aware of what you are doing. I trust you and know that you are doing your best. Take some time to relax and enjoy what you have done and all that you have learned. Thank you for being such a great learner.”
Nothing more! I keep the, “There is always room for improvement,” and the “What could you do better,” to myself this time. I am curious how this would affect our kids. I am willing to bet that kids would leave parent teacher night a bit more confident. A bit more proud. They would nod their heads knowingly and smile, because they know that their parents do not expect any more from them. At least for now?
What do you think? How can we find ways to talk to kids in way that motivates them to want to improve, while honoring the work they have done? How do we move away from this trap of demanding never-ending improvement?”