Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Parent teacher meetings

Yesterday I attended parent meetings with some of my sons' teachers at their school, and the following are my observations of what transpired. Please note that I do not agree with the current system of assessment, but it's what we have, so I feel that it is important for my children to do as well as they possibly can under this system in order to be considered by the universities of their choice. Perhaps some people might see that as a sell-out of my principles, but I am not prepared to risk my children's future because the system fails to meet my expectations.

These curriculum progress meetings are designed to afford an opportunity to check progress. An afternoon is set aside during which 10 minute appointments can be made with any teachers a parent might feel that it would be of benefit to see. In my case, the meetings were all held at the request of the teachers. No fewer than 7 teachers asked to see me. No parent wants to know that no fewer than 7 teachers are unhappy with the performance of their children. I only managed to squeeze in 5 and will have to make other plans for the other two. One of the things I respect about the school is that these meetings are not only conducted with the child present, but the child is expected to be an active participant. My older son has always had the ability to speak up for himself, and he adapted very quickly to this concept. My younger son is still battling a little, but seems gradually to be finding his voice.

Nevertheless, when my older son's English humanities teacher made an assertion about the amount of work he was putting in and his lack of adherence to assessment requirements, he agreed with her. This in spite of the fact that I had seen him sitting and working his way through the requirements and ensuring that he had met them all, and in spite of the fact that the low marks he had scored had generated howls of "What does she want from me? I did everything she asked and it's still not good enough!" This says a great deal about how the traditionally authoritative role of the teacher is still in place in this supposedly non-traditional school. I pulled him up short. "Hang on a minute! This is a discussion, not a lecture - you don't have to agree." I prompted him to remember the things he had said to me about the work and the discussion took a more fruitful turn. We established that there was a disconnect between what he thought was expected of him and what actually was expected of him. He realised that some of the ideas he had had and rejected as being out of scope would, in fact, have secured him a higher grade on the coursework. It frustrated me that the teacher had not had this conversation with him much earlier, that my intervention had been required before his voice was finally heard on this matter. A plan of action was duly set in place and we hope to see some more positive consequences going forward.

Most of the other meetings consisted of this is where things are good, this is where things are bad (both my boys talk too much and lose focus in lessons - shades of their mother!), this is what is needed. I did not miss the opportunity to voice my concerns about the gradual decline of my younger son, reminding them that they were talking about a student, while I was talking about a whole person, and that pressurising an already anxious, possibly depressed child for improved academic performance was not going to bear results.

However, and this is the doozie, I learnt something in the last meeting of the day that rocked me back on my heels and is, if I am totally honest, the main reason for this post. My younger son had indicated something that was happening in one of his science classes and I was sure that he must have misunderstood the situation. This meeting revealed that he was absolutely on the money. It seems the children take regular tests, and are then seated in order of their scores until the next test is taken. So the kids with the highest scores sit on the front row, while the kids with the lowest languish at the back of the class. On one occasion, more children had higher scores than my son than had been the case on the previous test, and he was made to move a few desks down the pecking order, with a sad, "Slipping a bit, there" from the teacher. I was incensed. I thought that kind of teaching had gone out when I was a child (we had the same deal in my Grade 6 class over 30 years ago) or was restricted to fiction of the order of Malcolm in the Middle. Sadly (or perhaps fortunately, because I can't guarantee I would ahve held my temper) the teacher I spoke to was a different member of the team and not the one responsible for this atrocity. Not only was I angry for my own son, who is a fairly high-level achiever, but I was furious on behalf of all those kids at the back of the class for whom the results they got might have represented a major achievement in the light of their own capacity and potential. How dare she make them feel that their gutbusting effort to get 10/20 was less worthy than the child who sailed to an easy 20/20 without breaking a sweat? Can you tell that I am working myself into a lather all over again, just thinking about it?

I would be interested to hear from readers - particularly those who teach high school - how they respond to both the incident of my elder son and his experience of disconnected expectations and my younger son's science teacher's methods of motivation.

2 comments:

Doug Belshaw said...

Karyn, is your son setted in Science? If so, the situation isn't perhaps as bad as you think. Boys (usually) respond well to competition and it's usually girls who don't like it.

I know of a couple of people who teach in boys-only schools who put the most recent test results on their website! Whilst I'm not saying it would work for everyone, and I certainly wouldn't do it in a mixed-ability situation, it's not necessarily a bad thing.

However, when put into context about how your son doesn't seem to be enjoying school, perhaps this teacher is in fact stuck in the 1950s...

Karyn Romeis said...

This school doesn't do setting, Doug - so the groups are very mixed ability... and mixed gender since it's a coed school.

Like most South Africans - both male and female - I am by nature very competitive. My son is not... at all. If he thinks he's being put under pressure to compete, he will simply opt not to participate.

In my view, there are some circumstances under which it's inappropriate to foster competition, and this is one of them. With kids in the group for whom it is a major achievement to score a level 4, having the bar set at level 6 and 7 by the kids in the front row just puts the whole thing out of their reach. While my son is one of those scoring regular level 6's, when he has to move down a seat or two, instead of getting his dander up (as I'm sure the teacher intends) he just feels demotivated and less inclined to try next time. I can't help wonder what the impact is on the kid who bust his/her butt to get a level 4 and still languishes in bottom spot...