Mandy Brasher is worried public school may not be the best learning environment for her son, or for boys in general.
For years we looked forward to meeting with our children’s teachers during the quarterly parent/teacher conferences that weren’t obligatory but instead a way to pat ourselves on the back for being attentive parents. Our daughter was always described as bright, well behaved, helpful, and willing to take direction, which was not surprising because she was all of those things at home. Being the oldest, she took on responsibility with ease and was eager to please not only her parents, but her teachers as well. When our son started kindergarten, my husband and I were concerned that unlike our little girl, he couldn’t sit in one spot for longer than 45 seconds. “That’s how boys are.”, people would comment as he did front flips off the couch and ate dinner while pacing around the kitchen table. While my daughter found enjoyment in hours spent sketching in a notepad, our son couldn’t sit long enough to finish one coloring page. We knew that public school could present a problem for him, but we placed our bets on the fact that because we did activities with him at home and allowed him to get out his energy in other ways that he too would excel in school. We could plan on having twelve more years to enjoy his teacher’s nod of approval.
The first three years in the educational system was fairly painless for our son and he became a voracious reader, as well as a child that his teachers described as helpful and sweet. He received high marks in all subjects, tested well, and had no behavioral issues at school. When he entered second grade, mornings became a problem. He didn’t want to go to school and was often irritable from the moment his feet hit the floor to the moment he begrudgingly flopped out of the car in the school parking lot. He complained that school was boring and that he hated sitting at his desk all day. We met with his teacher, addressed our concerns, and were relieved to hear that once he was in the classroom he didn’t exhibit any of the behavior we saw at home. However it did concern me that he was beginning to complain about being bored in school and I worried that his inability to sit still for 6 hours would prove to be an issue as he got older and had less opportunity for physical activity. When he started school this year, my husband and I assumed that our son would continue to have a positive experience, void of any major academic issues. Unfortunately that was not the case.
The first issue that was brought to our attention was that our son was being bullied by one of the children in his class; he was being teased for liking rainbows and being one of the smallest boy in his grade. We addressed our concerns with his teacher and we were told that it was just “boys being boys” and that our son was instigating the problem as much as the other boy was. I wasn’t there to witness the issues between them, so I took his teacher’s word. The next issue came when we received his midterm grades five weeks into his 3rd grade year. Our son was getting a D- in all subjects including reading, yet he was reading at home consistently and completing all the assignments that were sent from school. I emailed his teacher and received no reply. At the parent teacher conference, his teacher informed us that our son was apt to not pay attention, that he wasn’t finishing his work in class, and that he was frequently not on task. The grades he received were based on unfinished work and test scores, yet the test scores made for an interesting dichotomy. While we were told that he wasn’t paying attention or finishing his work, he received 90% or above in every subject that he was tested in. The grades reflected worksheets and projects that he wasn’t completing or assignments that he neglected to hand in. While I believe he should be held accountable for not finishing work, I was confused as to how he was getting such poor grades when he clearly understood the material. When I spoke with my sister about my concerns she said something that struck a nerve, “He’s bored with the work because he already understands it. That was my problem in elementary school, too.”
I’m not suggesting that I’m raising a genius, but it seems to me that if a child tests well and isn’t finishing assignments perhaps the problem does not lie solely in the fact that the child isn’t trying hard enough. I also believe that many public schools take issue with children who haven’t mastered the skill of sitting for hours on end and I think boys seem to reflect that behavior more frequently than their female counterparts. Acting out, not paying attention, and being unable to sit still are behavioral issues that have affected boys and their grades for years. In a great op-ed piece in The New York Times, Christina Hoff Sommers addresses this issue in depth and raises the question that I have been struggling with; why are boys who test as well or better than girls getting lower grades? The author points to a study that proves that teachers are grading not on test scores alone, but on behavior. And it starts as early as kindergarten.
As a parent who believes in public education and holds teachers in the highest regard, our experience this year has opened my eyes to underlying issues with my son’s education. At our last parent teacher conference, the second in three months, our son’s teacher described him as unfocused, prone to fiddling, and unable to finish assignments as requested. She suggested that she keep him in for recess and PE time if he wasn’t completing assignments and I was appalled. The very last thing our son needs is less activity in the confines of a school that requires hours and hours of mindless busy work. The answer to his restlessness and bad grades seems less to do with him being a bad student and more to do with him being a misunderstood boy who may need to be challenged more and given opportunities to actively learn. I’m not sure we can find that in public school.