Friday, November 07, 2008

Finding that fine line

Apologies to those who have had their fill of this on Twitter - the 140 character limit was becoming an impediment!

My husband and I are in uncharted territory as parents. Our elder son is in post-compulsory education, but still attending a school, and we have yet to figure out the shift in balance.

Lately, there has been a flurry of communications from the school regarding his performance in Maths. It's not about his ability - that's not in doubt. It's about his work ethic. It started when he missed a lesson due to illness and didn't make enough effort to get caught up. But it has escalated to a feeding frenzy. Emails from teachers are CCed to all his maths teachers, who then seem to feel the need to leap aboard with their own input.

None of the other subject teachers have indicated any concerns, but it seems every move the child makes is now seen as further evidence of a poor work ethic and we get the impression that they are gunning for the school equivalent of a constructive dismissal.

He is 17 years old and trying to face down the wrath of 5 mutually supportive adults. He has been at the school for 2 months. He is becoming increasingly discouraged and rapidly reaching the point where is likely to say, in that time honoured, teenage way, "Sod it, then" and give up altogether. We are trying very hard to support him, and struggling to find the appropriate level for that support. Of course, we want him to put in the work that is expected of him, and where he has failed to do so, we expect him to man up. However, we have concerns that the teachers are armed with a collective hammer and, suddenly, everything looks remarkably like a nail.

Yesterday, there was a timetable conflict between a PE (sports theory) exam and the Maths Challenge. Teachers had unilaterally entered the class into the Maths Challenge, while the PE exam was a performance evaluation situation. He opted to take the PE exam. Immediately, the maths teacher emailed us to say that all the other students affected by the conflict had opted to attend the Maths Challenge and the PE teachers had been very understanding. She saw this as further evidence of his lack of commitment to the subject.

My response, then and now, is: SO WHAT? What is the relevance of what the other kids chose to do, and how the teachers reacted to it? He had a decision to make and he made it. There seems to be the view that any child who decides to take maths must regard it as their highest priority, with every other subject paling into insignificance. I reject this notion with every fibre of my being. Yes, maths is important. I would even go as far as to say for a child like my son, it is vital. But since he is showing an increasing interest in physiotherapy/sports science as a career option, surely PE is of equal, if not greater importance?

Sir Ken Robinson touched on this issue of over-emphasis on the traditional sciences in our education system (I have linked to this video before... more than once).

The challenge is trying to find a way to fight the system, without exonerating my child from his rightful blame, without emasculating him and without putting him in an untenable position. Those who have gotten to know me will appreciate how hard it is for me not to storm down to the school with all guns blazing.

Tightrope, anyone?

Image: Tight rope by homme de chevre (aka odetothebigsea)


Frances said...

It's tough being a parent Karyn ;-) but not perhaps as tough as being 17 (remember Janis Ian song)
I can't comment in detail but I wonder if the issue is as much about communication as the importance (or otherwise) of Maths. If your son can come through this having learned more about negotiation, then he will have learned something more valuable than Maths or PE. It's up to the teachers whether or not they learn.
What's really hard is for you to support him whilst letting him become the hero of the story.

Karyn Romeis said...

@Frances Thanks so much for your input. Yes, being a parent is hard... if you do it right. Yes, being 17 is hard (but nowhere near as hard for my son as for the person in Janis Ian's song - one of my favourites, by the way!). Yes, being a teacher is hard.

But somehow we all have to get past all this difficulty and ensure that my son has the best possible shot at doing whatever it is he wants to do with his life.

If that means accepting (shock, horror) that maths is not the be all and end all of a good education, so be it.

If that means standing back and allowing your son to bump his precious young head (gulp, sniff) so be it.

If that means being man enough to see your girlfriend only on weekends and reducing the amount of time you spend playing Gunz (perish the thought!), so be it.

But I think the point I was tyring to make is that somewhere along the lines, the teachers appear to ahve adopted a pack mentality and have forgotten to keep the long term view affecting the child's best interests in the centre.

Dave Stacey said...

For me this is the side that too often we forget when we reduce students to predicted grades, and are pushed to look to value added scores rather than value the human, which no-one has yet managed to do*

My younger brother went through a similar position to your son when he first started suffering with ME during his A Levels. To paraphase Ian Dawson - In ten years time, all they'll remember is if you treated them like a human being. Something it's way too easy to forget.

I hope the whole thing works out ok :0)

* I originally put 'sadly' before no-one, but that's wrong. Perhaps the sentence should read 'Thank God(s)' at the end instead!”

Clark said...

Karyn, what a dilemma. Seems like an opportunity to teach him communication, and principled escalation. Not sure of the exact balance, but first he communicates clearly to the teachers (love the book "Crucial Conversations", and Meryl Runion's Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, but Don't Be Mean). Then, if that doesn't work, there's systematic escalation to school (next level up), to you, etc. That is, he tries first, if he can't solve it, then he communicates clearly that he's getting help, goes to you, etc. Love that you care about balancing those competing concerns! Not easy, but try to question him into finding the right solution (treat it as an abstract problem, and how would he recommend handling it if it were someone else?).
I guess this is a longer version of Frances' cogent point. Good luck!