Monday, September 10, 2012

Raising a Uni-Ready Kid

For my day job, I teach at a university. Some of my classes are first year, some second year, and some third year, so I get a front row view of how students progress from beginning to end. Needless to say, I have also gone through the progression, myself, so I observe these changes with no small amount of nostalgia/annoyance/amusement.

I have often set my mind to lessons I learn about parenting from watching my students. Today, I thought to write them down. Take them for what they are worth, as being from a parent to a young child and a teacher, but not a child development expert by any means. But recent public discussions about education has fired my thoughts on this matter, so I thought I might share my observations and opinions.

Recently, the issue of "zero zeros" policies in public schools have made it into the news. It seems a high school teacher in Alberta was suspended at the end of the last school year for defying the principal's orders that no student ever receive a zero. In fact, today that teacher, Lynden Dorval, will attend a hearing to learn if he will ever teach again.

The basic theory behind this is that the failure to hand in assignments is a behaviour issue, and not an academic one, so teachers cannot dole out absolute fails for a student's refusal to do the work. They also say it's a way for each student to learn at their own pace, and not be penalized for falling behind, as well as reduce stress for students. (The idea being that punishing a student for poor behaviour or late work will reduce their overall learning, prejudice their permanent record against them, and discourage them from even trying.) The teachers are obligated, within these systems, to convince the student to eventually do the work, to offer extra time for them, to allow them re-write times, to set extra-credit work, to consult with parents about the behaviour, and/or to mark whatever was handed in, and to make the final mark out of that by dropping the non-assessable assignments. In some districts, teachers are obligated to offer re-dos/re-writes if the homework is plagiarized or the tests are cheated on!

You can probably imagine my misgivings about this policy. I can see that the theorists have their hearts in the right place, and I admit they know more about educational theory than I, but I can't help but think that deadlines (i.e. time management, attentiveness, and dedication) are part and parcel with education. I also question the practicality and long term effects of such policies.

How can you mark a student based solely on academics, when you require them to display the "behaviour" of handing something in at some point? What if the student hands in nothing? What does "unable to assess" mean in the long run?

How much work would I have done in school if I knew there were no consequences to doing nothing, and that other students were getting the same (or even better) marks for doing less than me? I know how I'd feel - like a sucker for doing any more than I had to.

On top of all that, how will parents know their 9th grader isn't doing any work unless the grades start falling?

I was rather shocked when these stories started hitting the papers, since this was certainly not the policy when I was in school. I was in high school in the 90s, so I did benefit from the early-onset of the "no child left behind" policies of extra help, peer tutors, extra support for students with special needs, etc, but we had many deadlines, and we certainly got zeroes when we earned them. Likewise, in university, classes run the same way - accommodation for special needs is plentiful, tutors abound, profs offer extra help, and medical and sympathetic re-writes and extensions are certainly not rare. Most professors are open to discussing time crunch grounds for extensions if they are needed to allow students to do their best, if they are approached correctly and maturely, and the decisions can be fairly and uniformly enforced. But, we do give out Fs and zeroes as warranted. I find this reasonable, and I am baffled by the public school policy of no-zeroes, even when the student fails to show for tests without excuse.

One of the main concerns I have is how on earth these policies are expected to mesh with university policies, into which many of these highschoolers are expected to file after graduation from public school. I can tell you, from what I've seen so far, they do not mesh at all.

In recent years, the number of students who complain about failing courses, despite their failure to complete the work, has risen. The number of students expecting re-writes, extra-credit assignments, re-weighting, etc, without any medical/sympathetic cause is astounding. The expectation on the part of students that all grades are negotiable is, well, infuriating. Until I learned of the public schools implementing this zero-zero policy, these trends didn't quite make sense.

Now, they do.

On an official level, many universities are also noticing a major increase in the percentages of first year students who "wash out" (get such a low GPA that they are asked to leave) or get placed on academic probation. I would not be surprised if this, too, was related to the no-zero trend. After all, if you managed to cruise through four years of public high school without doing the work, how much cumulative knowledge will you miss? Could you handle university calc if you never did any high school math homework in your life?

Finally, the amount of remedial assistance required for first and second year students is increasing. University profs are doing more grammar, basic research skills, citation introduction, composition crash courses, etc, than we ever did before. We simply can no longer assume students have written research papers before attending university. When I started at university, it was assumed we had these basics from high school, and that we knew how to write an essay. That way, profs could focus on their subject, rather than on the nuts and bolts. Not so today.

This is not to say I blame the high school teachers, whatsoever. If policies like this disallow strict grading and force public school teachers to give up their own time to track down assignments, etc, I don't know how much more we can expect teachers to do, and I suspect that many are just as frustrated with this as some college/uni instructors are.

So, where does this leave us? I suppose it is now, perhaps more than ever, in the hands of parents to aim towards a university-ready child. Now that I have a child of my own, I watch public school theory much more closely, and I have become convinced that it is up to me to do what the teachers are not allowed to do - which is have high expectations of my child, for his own sake.

From my experience, both as a student and a teacher, there are a number of things that seem to hold true:

Too Much Money = Too Much Booze.

(If not booze, then some other distraction, perhaps, but most likely booze. Booze flows like water on campuses, and students do tend to go a bit nuts on it the first few months, at least.) While it is certainly true that students who must work more than 10-20 hours per week at a job during term can suffer a resulting decline in their GPA, I must say the opposite can also be true. Students who have unlimited funds often fall prey to their privilege. My advice - pay the tuition if you can, buy them a meal ticket if you wish, maybe help with the rent if you have extra, but never hand over the Gold Card and tell them to have fun. Consider making all spending money their own responsibility, no matter what your finances are like. Summer jobs, at the very least, never killed anyone, and a steadily dwindling bank account has served as a good reminder of the costs of binging to many a student. (On a personal note, paying my own way through school from the ground up made me value it more, for what it's worth.)

Freedom Can Be Horrible.

This is not to say that "constant vigilance" is the right answer, either. On the contrary, I've seen students with strict parents explode the moment they move into a dorm and realize mom isn't there. Others despair over being alone and making so many decisions, all of a sudden. The best course is to steadily increase freedoms/responsibilities/privacy from early childhood, so by the time they get to university they don't go wild with the heady thrill of forbidden joys, or decline due to lack of supervision. Free range is not just for granola munchers, and is not antithetical to the other opinions here, if you think about it. (On a related note, for the love of all that's holy, teach them how to do their laundry well before they go off to university! Also, how to cook, clean, grocery shop wisely, change a fuse, bank, do simple car maintenance, etc, etc. Advancing slowly and incrementally towards adulthood needs to be the focus for years prior to attaining it.)

Not Everything is Negotiable.

Some of us born to Baby Boomers and the subsequent generations have grown accustomed to parental negotiation. I'm not talking about simple ones, such as "Can I have a raw carrot instead of cooked veggies?" or other matters of preference, but of negotiated expectations, rules, regulations, even punishments. While, naturally, everything must be flexible to some extent, and every situation is unique, some things should remain non-negotiable. One example I have heard recently was a person who got a third speeding ticket in her parents' car, an event which she had been clearly warned would result in a set duration of grounding. It just so happened that the grounding period fell during the wrap up of her senior year, and she negotiated with her parents to proceed with the grounding, but still allow her to go to every single senior-year event. She even got them to let her use the car to attend them! Basically, this limit was so negotiable, it was pointless. Like the law, employers, and universities, only set limits you are willing to enforce; otherwise, they teach nothing but that every limit is negotiable - a lesson that will backfire in the "real world."

Reasonable Tough Love is a Gift. 
Reasonable Expectations are a Part of Tough Love.

The meaning here should be self-evident. Children raised with consistent, stable love, affection and attention develop the confidence required for later success. However, this doesn't require you to be your child's "best friend" instead of a parent, and placing loving, transparent, reasonable expectations (and consequences) upon them can and should be a part of this from preschool to high school, and, thus, beyond. As long as you are, indeed, reasonable (via ample communication, information, and observation), expectations can be a sign of love. Knowing your parent expects a certain level from you should be taken as a symptom of their pride and trust, and there is no feeling quite like rising to meet that expectation. People will rise, or stoop, to expectations from the people they love, and these things should not be undervalued, because, in the end, this is how they will learn how to expect things from themselves.

The Best Perspective: "Your Future = Your Responsibility."

I cannot overemphasize the importance of self-reliance, responsibility, and self-direction, since university exists on these qualities. I have seen students forced to go to university against their will, and this is a shame. I have seen many complain how hard it is to do their work without their parents riding them to do it, or without their mothers hovering over the Master Calendar to remind them of their obligations at all times. In my experience, students should understand their own agency in their lives by understanding their future is in their own hands. Thus, that's where the decisions and responsibilities should lie, as well. Associated with this is a firm suggestion to parents to back off as much as they can. (If you are paying all the bills, do what you need to do in regards to seeing the grades, but please understand the execution of university education is solely on your "child.") I had a colleague who had to deal with a student whose mom was doing his homework, which is ghastly. I myself have had calls and emails from parents "checking in," asking me for special conditions, and/or demanding explanation of grades - one, even, who decided to negotiate an F the student earned on an assignment that had been plagiarized! My response to these is, and must be (according to university policy), "Due to confidentiality, I cannot discuss grades with anyone but the student." Repeat after me: University is not grade school. There are no parent-teacher conferences here, so you best prepare your scholar for this by making sure they understand to rely on themselves and take charge of their own futures.

~*~

A lot of the above can really be summed up by a healthy work ethic development, and an awareness of self-entitlement, and how to balance an understanding of self-worth with a necessary community rationality. Everyone is entitled to basic respect and rights, but no one is de facto entitled to rewards, by definition, and believing otherwise can be harmful. That is, a kid who says, "I am valuable, loved, and I have potential and responsibilities" is wonderful; a student who says, "I'm the center of the universe, so hand me what I want" is not. One will work because she owes it to herself. The other will not, because the world owes it to her. One sees the work itself as important; the other sees only the pay off. One views his profs as his guide, and demands that their prof help them foster their own future. The other views his profs as servants, and demands the profs hand him the credits he (or his parents) have paid for. One learns from zeroes, even if they sting. The other will only complain about them.

I know most parents know this, because I still see streams and streams of hard working, engaged young people in my work. But, believe me, I also know it is not always easy to strike this balance. Tough love can sometimes spark tears, and I understand that each tear the child cries comes at an emotional price to the parent. I wonder if less parents will be willing to pay this cost, just as less schools seem to be willing to give a zero where it's needed to send home a message.

The only advice I can offer is start them young, remain aware, make the most of every "teachable moment", seek help/information, be transparent and consistent in your expectations and reactions, and keep your flexibility (and sense of humour) intact. Know that failures come and failures go, but maintain hope and trust, and those expectations. Remember the old, "Give a man a fish..." chestnut? Basically, this is what I'm driving at. Give your child the ability to fish, and they should do alright.

And, finally, ask your child's school about the no-zero policy, as many do not inform the parents it is in place, and act accordingly. If your school is not challenging your child adequately, you may have to pick up the slack, which might involve finding supplemental or alternative education. But, above all, find out directly from the school, and communicate with your child about how the policy makes him/her feel about doing the work, and react as you see fit.

Anyway, just some rambling food for thought in keeping with the "Back to School" season. Keep your eyes on the prize, folks, and best of luck!

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