Thea ignores me.
“Here it says that you don’t know your letters, numbers, or shapes.”
Thea continues to ignore me.
“What letter is this? (As I point to a big D).
Thea glances up. “A?” My heart drops. “It’s not A, it’s D. D for daddy. We have to practice this!”
Thea walks away then yells, “I don’t want to learn my letters!” and leaves the room. She told me.
Welcome to my biggest parenting fail to date.
You wouldn’t think that I cared about report cards. You wouldn’t think that I would skip right over the “3’s” and “4’s.” Hurriedly read the positive comments her teacher meticulously typed. Skim down until my eyes found what my heart knew would be on there, the “2’s” – the ones that means that she is not where she should be, the ones that means she is not as good as the other kids. Yet that is exactly what happened on Friday afternoon. Never mind the great things Thea has accomplished, never mind all that she can do. My parenting eyes went straight for what she doesn’t know and then got stuck on a tangent until my darling 5 year old left the room. End of conversation, mom.
So why do I share this story? Because this is exactly what happens in most homes when we send home a report card. Parents eagerly skim until they see the negative, the mark that isn’t as good as the others. We skim over the great remarks, we notice the good, but we really focus on the “needs to improve,” the area of supposed deficit. We hone in on that, it appears to be instinctual, and that becomes the topic of conversation, that becomes the point of contention. Then we harp on our kids until they wither leave in protest or defeat, Mission accomplished, we have parented them well. But it shouldn’t be this way. The numbers or letters that tell us what our child still needs to work on should be the biggest point, bring the other stuff into the conversation but don’t make it the main event.
I know this and yet I fell right into the pattern. I know that a 2 does not define Thea. I know that a 2 just means she has to work on something. And yet that afternoon I couldn’t help but feel that she was not doing enough, that she was not good enough as compared to the other kids. That I haven’t pushed her enough to learn something so simple. That I shouldn’t give up when she refuses to learn, that I haven’t set high enough expectations. That I have failed my 5 year old already as a parent. That she will never learn her letters, that she is now forever doomed. Yes, all this from a progress report from 4K.
And then the teacher in me that hates grades kicks in. The teacher that sees what grades do to warp learning conversations in the home. The teacher that sees the damage that happens when we try to quantify and compare our students. My rational side catches up to me and reminds me that a “2” means something to work on. That Thea is quite capable, yet stubborn as a mule. That Thea is a quick learner when she is ready for it. That a report card from 4K is not setting the path for her future. That this is not the whole story of my little girl and it should not be allowed to be. And I breathe and I go back and I notice the “3s” and then the “4s” and then finally the comment that says that she cares about others and is a great friend. And I smile and I know she will be ok. That I will be ok. That there are bigger things to focus on than numbers. That there is more to my little girl than a report card. Even if I forgot about it for a moment. She is ok, I am ok, and the piece of paper is just a snapshot, not her whole story, not her future path determined.
Why do we forget that? Why do we give grades so much power? Why do we think a grade can define our child? I know better, we know better, yet how do we change grades and what they mean? How do we shift the focus from the number to the learning? From the deficit to the potential? Or do we all need a 5 year old to leave the room and refuse to learn until we see the harm report cards can do?
I am a passionate (female) 5th grade teacher in Wisconsin, USA, proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classroom Back to Our Students Starting Today” will be released this March from Powerful Learning Press. Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.