The challenging language of report cards

The challenging language of report cards

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We don’t start at the top of a mountain, climb on a bicycle and coast to the bottom. That’s not how education works.

My daughter recently graduated from middle school. In a room packed with proud parents, school officials shared their observations of this “special” class.

One of the officials offered several stories. “I says,” he began, “that this is a great school.” “I says”? Really? “To fully understand the contribution this class makes to the community,” he continued. I know graduation isn’t about grammar, or is it? If school encourages students to learn, to push themselves and to work hard, it behooves these teachers and those who provide direction to provide a good example.

On our son’s previous report cards, teachers have written that he “reads a lot” and has “a lot of energy” and is “a lot of fun.” Hmm.

By the time teachers reach the end of a marking period, they have an enormous stack of papers to grade, a need to tally all the times their students were absent, and an administrative burden that takes them away from the front of the room, where they would otherwise have the opportunity to inspire and challenge.

These report cards are, perhaps, not the forum for aspiring writers to share a Dickensian turn of phrase or a Shakespearean allusion. And, yet, they are a way for teachers to spell out how our children are doing and indicate opportunities for growth.

My father-in-law has this incredibly amusing routine in which he discusses the modern-day little leaguer.
“Johnny gets up there, holds the bat all wrong, his knees knock into each other, he’s looking into the stands and he watches three straight-called strikes,” he says.

“He puts the bat down and goes back to the bench where the coach congratulates him on a good at-bat,” he continues.

“Good at-bat?” my father-in-law demands, his voice rising in sarcastic surprise. “Seriously? What exactly was good about it? You can convince little Johnny that he’s doing well, but I certainly wouldn’t.”

Harsh? Yes, of course. Inappropriate? Possibly. But, here’s the thing: Kids know when they’re moving forward, when they’re marking time and when they’re mailing it in, regardless of the sales and marketing job parents and teachers sometimes provide as they try to convince them that they’re “truly exceptional.”

Several years ago, I accompanied my daughter on a class field trip to the Bronx Zoo. On the way home, I sat next to a teacher I’d never met. She impressed not only with what she knew about the animals at the zoo, educational standards and American history, but with the way she expressed herself and with her ability to listen. When we returned from the bus ride, I told my wife I hoped our daughter would have the privilege of learning in this teacher’s class.

Two years later, my hope became a reality. Hearing that this teacher had a reputation for giving considerable amounts of homework, our daughter predicted it would be a “terrible year.” By the end of the first marking period, our daughter had adapted to the workload, planned every evening and threw herself into her studies.

She beamed at her teacher every time she saw her.

As I think back on that relatively short bus ride, I can’t help wondering how schools choose and then evaluate their teachers. Educators with the gift to connect, inspire and demand genuine effort from students can and should have the opportunity to help shape America’s future.