Making a Stand: Not What We Wanted For Our Children

In an effort to teach our older children about the joys of democracy, I have taken them along with me in the past elections as I have exercised my right to vote. As I have done this, I have explained to them that by casting my vote, it then allows me to have my say in decisions made by a government I chose to vote against. “If you don’t vote…..don’t complain” has been a much debated mantra in our household. I accept that in a democracy, the majority (or those who can create a majority in the case of MMP) are there representative of the number of people who voted for them. They have the louder voice, so any resultant policies are reflective of the ‘majority’ of New Zealanders who have voted for them.

Something I struggle with immensely though, is when I hear the term ‘parents’ used by the current Minister of Education. The Minister uses the label ‘parents’ when justifying the various education policies implemented in her current term. ‘Parents’ tell us they want to know how their children are doing at school; ‘parents’ want plain-English in school reporting; ‘parents’ need to know how to support their children’s learning at home. Minister Parata almost assumes a ‘speaking on behalf’ role of all parents in New Zealand. And yet, I didn’t cast my vote in National’s direction. But apparently Minister Parata knows what I want for my children. Her loose use of the term ‘parents’ sweeps me up (last time I checked I was one of those) into this group.

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And yet what if I disagree? What recourse have I got, as a parent, to not have government policy have a detrimental effect on my children? As parents, we have made a conscious and informed decision about the schools our children go to. Finding the right ‘fit’ for our kids. But most recently, there have been policies, such as the introduction of National Standards, that we would also like to exercise our parental rights around. And yet, legally, we cannot prevent our child from being measured against these standards. Schools are required to use assessment data to measure my children against the government-imposed standards.

So today, as parents, we took the only other option we could in exercising our parental rights. While we cannot stop our daughter being compared against a standard, we can ask that this information is not included in her upcoming mid-year report. We can also ask that any information regarding the standards are not shared with her directly. We do not want her defining her learning into ‘above, at, or below’. Instead, we want her knowing what she can do, and what she needs to do next. It’s as simple as that.

Our letter is detailed below. As parents, whether we voted this government in or not, we still have some options when it comes to the well being of our own children. The Minister may feel she has a mandate to speak on behalf of all ‘parents’……but she does not have my permission to speak on behalf of my family. For those of us who object to this, we do still have other ways to exercise our individual responsibilities to our children. Here is just one simple way we can do that.

Letter To Our School Principal:

“We are very supportive of the work *** primary and in particular **’s classroom teacher does to meet the individual learning needs of **. We value, as parents, feedback received regarding **’s current learning levels and suggestions for her next steps in her learning progression. However, we do not value having ** placed next to other peers her own age in a comparative format to determine whether she is making progress satisfactory to an arbitrary standard. The National Standards, in their current form, do not factor into account the many facets of our daughter’s ability to learn, her strengths and weaknesses, along with her far more valuable talents such as measures of her creativity, problem-solving, risk-taking and social skills. It does also not measure her true happiness and engagement in the learning process. It is these skills that, as parents, we value most importantly, and not where she fits next to other children her own age, or whether or not she is meeting a ‘standard’.

Because of this, we now request that future reporting to us regarding ** learning progress be devoid of any reference to the National Standards. Furthermore, we request that feedback given to ** regarding her progress, either verbally or in written format, also make no reference to the National Standards. We welcome any correspondence from the classroom teacher that gives us information regarding her current learning levels, and suggestions for her next steps. We also do not want to add to the already enormous workload classroom teachers are under and are quite happy to simply have current reporting templates left blank in the areas mentioned.

Once again, we appreciate all the work the staff, including the classroom teacher, do for our daughter’s learning. She is enjoying all the opportunities afforded to her by attending ** Primary School”.

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It Must Be That Bad

People who work in education funnily enough move in similar circles.  Its as if, I would imagine like others in service industries (eg Police, Nursing etc), you find out that the person you have just met at a social function is a kindred spirit – they walk your walk everyday as you negotiate your way around the ‘system’.  In fact, I can identify most, if not a high percentage, of my friends either are, or have been teachers at some point when we initially crossed paths.  If not teachers, Education Advisers, or Psychologists.  We automatically connect, as if we are a family of sorts.

Most recently, these connections have highlighted for me several common themes through our conversations.  Firstly, the conversations usually start with the heavy workload, the stress, the late nights and the feeling that no matter how much we do, it is never quite enough.  Then the conversation progresses to policy impositions and ultimately National Standards and how it is directly impacting on the ability to do the job we once were excited to do.  For those of us who are parents, there comes a third component to the discussion.  Given that my younger children are just starting out in the school system, the chat inevitably returns to the age old adage of how I view school for my own offspring.  And this is where I have made some startling observations.  My teacher friends are worried.  They are genuinely concerned for the well-being of their own children within the education system.  They work hard to try to select the most appropriate school for their child to attend – often having to drive past several other schools to ensure this happens.  They liaise closely with the school staff in order to ensure the impact of such policies as National Standards, larger class sizes, clear reporting etc doesn’t filter down to mean their child has a negative experience of school.  And more recently, the teacher/parents I have spoken to have all categorically stated that if they could they would choose to home-school their child. That they felt their child’s emotional and mental well-being was at risk in some schools because of the pressure schools are now under to conform to the government’s policies.

You know it must be bad if teachers, given half the chance, would choose to home-school their own kids.  For teacher/parents who have children who find school somewhat challenging – albeit socially, emotionally or academically – the current policy direction will require the school to label them and make them fit in a box.  These boxes are labelled ‘at’, ‘above’ or ‘below’.  As a teacher/parent I am highly concerned that my children will be put into boxes that they just aren’t ready to be fitted for.  My daughter will fit in far different, colorful, weirdly shaped box from that of my son, who might fit a more industrial, toughened and security-enhanced box.  Each box is different, and I am loathe to see my children labelled at such a time when they are still forming their own self-identity.  For children who find school a challenge, their ‘below’ box will follow them around and haunt them.  It will come to define them, and despite all they do, (and all the work their teachers will do), they will struggle to get into another box that far more epitomizes their uniqueness, creativity, problem-solving ability, independence, responsibility and craziness.

So as a teacher/parent, I would raise my hand to have my children out of this system.  And it would seem, so would many others I speak with.  They see learning as experiencing, making meaning, doing and exploring – not always having to meet a benchmark to prove one’s ability to learn.  Learning should be happening consistently in the life of a child – making meaning from experience.  As such, children don’t need to be boxed in and limited to a range of criteria determined by someone that will not walk their path in life.  The knowledge they seek will be relevant to their life experiences and as such cannot be measured.  So, as a teacher/parent, I feel it is that bad.  I do not want my children categorised and ranked, given a number or a grade.  I want them having experiences, making connections and engaging in motivating learning.  And it would appear, at this time thanks to current government policy, the  New Zealand education system is struggling to offer this to our children.

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