I have written before (here and here) about the benefits and consequences of increasing rigor in education, but it is time to revisit this issue as we near the end of first semester. (For a fuller understanding of what exactly I mean by rigor, click here and here. Hint: It’s not more work.) I wish increasing the rigor of the school curriculum was a smooth and easy process, but this is the real world, and it’s just not. I will say this, in independent schools at least, parents play a huge role in how easy or how difficult the process ultimately is. Parents can be a source of support and encouragement…or not. There will be important consequences for students either way.
My friend and colleague, Leah Slawson, recently wrote a great post on the tradeoffs that come when students are involved in extracurricular activities. She wrote about how they can’t have it all all the time. If they want to be involved in sports and the fine arts in addition to taking challenging courses, students may see crests and troughs in their grades or in their performance on the field or stage from time to time. However, she argues in the end it’s all worth it.
That’s true of increasing rigor in a school’s curriculum and instruction as well. There will inevitably be challenges, hardship, and possibly at times lower grades than parents and students are used to seeing. In the end, it’s all worth it! Through that struggle, students will grow, they will learn from their mistakes and failures, they will think and problem-solve more, and they will be able to deal with setbacks more effectively when they inevitably run into them in the future. Don’t take my word for it; the research concurs. (See books like David and Goliath by Gladwell or Mindset by Carol Dweck.)
I think this is especially true in the middle school years. Middle school is a great time for students to be challenged as any setbacks they overcome will prepare them for the rigors of high school without the pressure of a high school transcript attached. During middle school, students are changing in multiple ways and at a rapid pace, and allowing them to stretch themselves, allowing them to try new things without the constant pressure of maintaining all A’s is a good thing. Students who make B’s and C’s or even an occasional D on an assignment or test will better understand what it takes to overcome that when they encounter the same thing in high school. And please believe me, if we are doing our jobs as educators and truly challenging your students, from time to time, this will happen from 6th grade to 12th grade.
So it’s all worth it in the end…but whether we get to the end has a lot to do with parents. It is so important for parents and teachers to work together with the ultimate goal of getting every student to reach his or her full potential, but reaching one’s full potential is never easy. Parents sometimes don’t know how exactly to deal with perceived setbacks in their children’s lives and, acting out of the very best of intentions, they sometimes react in ways that may not be in the student’s best interest. Sometimes such parents may think the answer is to pressure the school and the teachers to ease up. At times, they do this quite persuasively. Always remember, however, teachers are human. It’s not surprising that teachers can only take so much of this pressure before deciding to take the path of least resistance and actually do what is definitely not in the best interest of the school or students and ease up. As a result, the end may have been worth it, but unfortunately we didn’t get there.
Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. Most teachers want to partner with parents, and most are happy to sit down and discuss how to best help individual students through a challenging curriculum. Parents have every right to ask questions. When doing so, however, my hope is that two things occur. First, I hope that they come to meetings with an open mind and that when given a thoughtful, reasonable, well-educated recommendation from a teacher, they will listen and truly partner with the teacher. My second hope is that parents, teachers, and students keep in mind the end result of their actions and decisions. Teachers can ease up and in the short term things will be “good,” but over the long term, things may not be so very good at all. And if a student leaves school less prepared than we would all like, who all bears the burden of responsibility?
While this post has mostly been about parents, I have a message for teachers as well. I feel for you. I do. My first year of teaching was rough. I got a few emails and had a few conferences that are best forgotten. Even so, I think I resisted the urge to ease up. It wasn’t easy, and perhaps I haven’t always been consistent in that, but I think I’ve largely succeeded. I did it by constantly reminding myself about the end goals, constantly reminding students about the end goals, and openly communicating with parents about the end goals. I tried very hard not to be defensive with parents who came to me with questions, and instead maintain a consistency in my teaching, assessing, and communication. As I’ve gotten more years under my belt, I have gained confidence and others have (I think) gained confidence in me.
Finally, as a teacher, I received support from my administration that helped me navigate through these challenges. As an administrator and classroom teacher now, I want to support teachers in the same way. I want to pay it forward. If you have administrators who are willing to help you have the difficult conversations with parents, take advantage of it. Do not be afraid to challenge your students.