What did you learn today?

Being good at school: What Did You Learn at School Today?

As parents we want our child to succeed. The definitions of success vary somewhat depending on the, parent of course. There are social challenges, physical competitions, class/work obligations, and examination scores that may be the unspoken or spoken priority of the home. The majority of kids come into school with some level of parental expectation as their academic landscape. Kids wear these family-assigned identities like they wear their clothing. These vary as much as the definitions for success. They are being prodded to run faster than the other kids, or win the spelling bee, or never drop an assignment, or to be on time, and to always follow the rules. The parent’s expectations form the first layer of pressure for the student.

Families that do not provide this layer of “external motivation” are perceived as dysfunctional. Little Bobby walks into class with no compunction about doing what the teacher says. These “undriven” students may represent the biggest irritant for the instructor and the school alike. If Bobby hits another kid in the lunch line, or if Bobby refuses to take the test, or if he will not stand in line with the other kids, classroom management goes to heck in a hand basket. Calls home offer some commiseration but no action on the part of the parent. At a session that I was conducting with a room full of teachers some time ago, I asked how many of them had students who were both academically and behaviorally disruptive and also had a fully engaged parents? No hands went up. The perception is that the front line is at home. If that war is not being fought then students are not prepared for school.

The expectations, the reinforcements, and the rewards all stem from the home. If you have disengaged parents I believe that you will have usually unhappy teachers. Of course some kids are the antithesis of their home situation, but all too often a kid who is not adequately prepared to operate in a school environment, and by this I mean does not value the opinion and direction of the instructor over his or her own, will prove disruptive and cause the mechanism of school to cease working smoothly.

Students are also pressured to behave in a certain way by their peers of course. Most of us are painfully aware of the peer-pressure lectures replete with metaphors of jumping off of bridges from which our pals invite us to leap. On one level the message is to ignore the collective will of our fellows and do the right thing. But for students the selection of who their peers are is made for them. I will not belabor this dynamic because the point of about kids swimming in a collective world of others and finding their own identity along the way is cliché, and also serves as a microcosm for what we as adults face every day.

It is worth stating that for the average student the idea of “going to school” and the social interactions inherent in that activity are one in the same. In script writing there is a process of decorating conversation with background noise and slipping in content along the way. This way the lawyers in the law show talk very lawyerly about case X or Y, about which the viewer may care very little, and then they work in the relational stuff about lawyer A wanting a divorce from lawyer B and the true plot of the story becomes evident. One type of language is window dressing for the relational stuff that drives the program. Schools too seem to work this way. The course work, the instructors, the assignments all become part of the background noise to the feeling and the emoting a kid does while in tha environment. We could be sending them off to work in the looms or to pick pockets in the streets of London and still this would all serve as window dressing to what seems authentic, or important to the average student.

So while “peer pressure” may be seen as a concept about students confronted in commercials to smoke dope with their pals, the truth is that peer pressure is the sea in which they swim. Just as young gazelle (or gnu’s or whatever) spend all of their time charging around smashing into the horns of the other gazelle, so students in school are biologically predisposed to spend their time dashing around smacking into the emotions and opinions and of their fellows. There is that expression that you can’t ask a fish what water is like, because they know nothing else, their opinion would be the most informed and the least useful. So when a parent asks what school was like today, the answer usually means, “uh it was like reality, Mom. What’s to say?”

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