There Is Always Room For Improvement. Right?

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?”


7 thoughts on “There Is Always Room For Improvement. Right?

  1. avataronepercentyellow
    Twitter: onepercentyello

    I don’t have kids, and I have not had the pleasure of the parent-teacher interview, but wow, do I hear these words in my own head! I know motivation and constantly striving to do your best are important for all of us, but we ALL need to take that moment to celebrate and relax. Constant improvement is unsustainable – look at what we’re doing with our natural world to see the consequences.

    I have had the pleasure of working with a class of students in a course called Spirit of the Land at Augustana. In our first class we discussed “How do you cultivate a positive spirit in your life?”

    From the blog:

    “And Jennifer’s image of cultivation. We sew the seeds of positivity in the soil of our existence. It takes time to nurture those seeds, to weed out the negative influences, protect against frost, water with compassion and forgiveness for self. And then, at last, we harvest. And we must remember to harvest, for if we only sew but never reap, the fruits of the universe lay spoiled, unused, discarded.”

    When we do not take the moment to accept our own good work, to rest and say that was great!, we are neglecting to enjoy the fruits the universe has helped us grow.

    Thanks for the thought this morning.

  2. avatarTrevor Meister


    I believe it is high time we take a good hard look at this topic. The irony is, that in time, to secure our survival on this planet barring some catastrophic event, we will need some radical innovations (technological, socio-economic everything really…). Even then, many who have had a disproportionate share of resources will not only have to make do with less, but be content to make do with less.

    The mind set of “constant improvement” makes this difficult. The constant seeking of quick return on investment has led to cycles of incremental innovation (if it can even be called innovations) making it more difficult for radical innovations to occur. It is also difficult at a personal level to say “this is good enough”. We are constantly bombarded with messaging that says otherwise. If you have spent the last decade sitting on a mountain top drinking melting ice water and absorbing energy directly from the sun, then you can get away with saying things like, “The one who finds happiness and contentment with little, always has more than enough”. Otherwise, you are just considered lazy. Only time will tell, and there does seem to be a shift occurring in the right direction. Hope it is enough.

  3. avatarAlison Armstrong
    Twitter: alisonmusicblog

    This reminds me of a student I had who got A’s, but really was capable of so much more than what the rubric asked for. I had a bit of a battle in my mind about what to do about it. He was absolutely amazing conversationally about the books we were reading, and while he did writing that got him the top grade, it was obvious that he’d done it at the last minute and that he didn’t push himself. He also was laid back enough that he was considered cool by the other kids and easily made friends. He was just really good at school. Was I just supposed to give this 12 year-old a hand shake and say “You lucky bastard. You’ve got it all figured out.” or say “I expected more from you.” ?
    I wonder if parents ask the improvement question because they’re just unsure if their child is breezing and capable of more like this boy was.

  4. avatarRoderick Vesper
    Twitter: rvesper

    This is such a complicated question. On the one hand, I agree with what you are saying. I think we need to allow students moments of contentment within the person that they are at any given moment. But I wonder. . . does this fly in the face of the concept of creating life long learners? If we feel we are good enough, then why bother with digging into new content, new philosophies, new visions?

    But conversely, when we never allow ourselves to pause for a moment and reflect on the positives of who we have become, there can become a dangerous cycle of chasing more and more, which can be debilitating. I don’t speak of this from any personal experience or anything (cough, cough).

    So how do we find a balance? How do me model to our kids how to crave more knowledge, to strive for more, while also accepting that this can happen in fits and starts, and that we need time to simmer in the juices of our new found knowledge, skills, or creativity? We need to allow it to fester in us until it finds its context in our lives and can spring forward towards a new desire for a deeper understanding.

    And, how do we do that within the context of an educational system that bases EVERYTHING on constant, steady growth?

    I honestly don’t have the answers. And I’m OK with that. My teaching shifts in fits and starts.

  5. avataronepercentyellow
    Twitter: onepercentyello

    Hey Roderick
    This thought popped in when I read your comment:

    “creating life long learners? If we feel we are good enough, then why bother with digging into new content, new philosophies, new visions?”

    I would argue that creating life long learners as a way to foster a feeling of deficit or inadequacy is the wrong way of going about it. Life long learning is not about making yourself good enough.. or at least that’s not the kind I want to be a part of. Life long learning is about pursuing the great mysterious, awe-filled, inspiring, curiosity that is the world, ourselves, and others! I love it when I am told I’m good enough, but am free to continue chasing after the rabbit holes that I find most interesting.

    1. avatarRoderick Vesper
      Twitter: rvesper

      I like the way you are thinking about this. Perhaps is my own twisted way of motivating myself that is clouding how I perceive this?

      So what is the message we give to kids? That they are great just as they are, but the world is so incredibly fascinating, so take what skills you do have and explore it?

      That might be something right there, I suppose?

      I’m posing these as questions, because this really has me rattled. I love it when something knocks me off kilter like this.

      Maybe that’s something too. Let them get good at what they do, and be proud, and apply it, until something comes along that intrigues them and knocks them off kilter?

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