Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Motivating for Grades - Opinions Wanted!

Okay, I haven’t written anything in a while. Sometimes, I think of things that might make interesting subjects; but I hold back, thinking, “No, that’s stupid. Who would care about the minutia of my boring life?” Then, IT HITS ME! Writing about the minutia of my boring life is the very reason I started a blog to begin with!



So, here’s an important topic! If you read this, I would love your opinion – be it in the comments below the blog post, or on the Facebook post that brought you here.

Pax’s first year in middle school brought its typical challenges. He’s a smart kid (if I may say so myself); but he’s not so terribly organized. Consequently, he’d miss assignments, and struggle with the timing of studying adequately for tests. As the year went on, we experimented with different ways to incentivize him, so that he would take ownership of his grades. By the last quarter of 7th grade, we had found a system that seemed to work. More than anything in life, Pax loves his electronics (hereafter referred to as his “stuff”) – his Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS, iPhone, etc. Using his “stuff” as the carrot, we set up a sliding scale for his grades. As long as he had an A-Minus or higher in all of his classes, he could have his “stuff” as much as he wanted – after, of course, he did his chores and homework. At B-Minus and higher, he could have his “stuff” for one hour on weeknights, and up to three hours on each weekend day. If even one class got below B-Minus, our house became a “stuff-free zone.”

Each day, the first thing Pax does when he gets home from school is to traipse up the stairs to my office. Together, he and I log onto the school’s website, and check his grades. For each quarter after we implemented this program, his grades climbed higher. Finally, for the first quarter of this year – 8th grade, for Pax – the quarter ended with one A-Minus (Science), and six A’s. Susan and I were thrilled! This could be a system we use until he graduated from high school!
Pax - 8th Grade - One Handsome Dawg!
 So, Parent-Teacher conferences roll around for the first quarter, and we proudly go from teacher to teacher – excited to hear the glowing things they have to say about our clever son. And most of it was glowing! The common thread among all of the teachers was that Pax was a student who was actively engaged. Literally every teacher, independent of the others, mentioned how a day never passed without Pax waiting at the teacher’s desk, wanting to discuss a test result, an assignment score, an opportunity for extra credit, etc.

I almost got the feeling that Pax’s aggressive, proactive approach to his grades was an irritant for one or two of his teachers. They didn’t say anything directly, mind you – it was just my perception. Overall, Pax’s teachers seemed to sincerely enjoy him. I felt so proud of him that evening. It wasn’t just that he had achieved good grades – of course, learning how to be a good student will be one of the most valuable lessons he can learn in life. No, what pleased me even more was his persistence. I probably didn’t have the wherewithal in 8th grade to be that gritty with my teachers – to be that direct with any adults, for that matter. And I know that in the real world, that quality of dogged determination will be incredibly vital to Pax’s success – probably even more important than his ability to memorize facts for a test.

So, while still basking in the afterglow of an extraordinarily-positive parent-teacher conference, I was surprised when Pax came home the next week and told us about something that had happened to him at school that day. Apparently, one of Pax’s teacher’s assistants had pulled him aside, and said, “Mr. XYZ asked me to tell you to stop obsessing over your grade in his class. You’re doing yourself no favors by bugging him about it every day.”

At first, I was defensive – ready to have an angry discussion with the teacher, and the principal. But ultimately, I held back. Maybe the conversation had been exaggerated. Maybe it was taken out of context. Maybe there was just something I was missing. I had, after all, gotten the sense at parent-teacher conferences that a couple of his teachers had felt this way. So, I decided to investigate the situation a little deeper.  I sent an email to each of his teachers, explaining the incentive plan we had in place – and I asked them for additional feedback on Pax.

The response I received was almost entirely positive. Indeed, most of Pax’s teachers really did seem to genuinely enjoy him. Some said that they got a kick out of how on top of his grades he was – they found it refreshing. One said that she had originally worried that we might be “Nazi parents” – but that she felt a lot more comfortable after meeting us, and getting a little insight into why Pax was so “grade-motivated.”

There were two exceptions to this positive feedback. The first was the teacher that had allegedly been the source for the “stop bugging me about your grades” comment. He didn’t even bother responding to my email. Now THAT really DID raise my ire – let’s just say that I’m probably not this teacher’s biggest fan, at this point. The second exception was what has really gotten me perplexed – something into which I have really put a lot of thought, over the past several weeks. The comment was, “I wish Paxton would spend more time obsessing about learning the subject matter than he does about getting an ‘A’ in the class.”

I want to have an open mind about this.  I sincerely approached this whole thing with a desire to be a better parent for my student. In other words, I am not just looking for validation regarding my opinion. I want to understand!

Why would those two things (“getting an ‘A’ in the class” versus “learning the subject matter”) be mutually exclusive items? Wouldn’t you suppose that “getting an ‘A’ in the class” would automatically entail “learning the subject matter?” Outside of cheating, how could you possibly get an A in a class and NOT have learned?

Are there any teachers reading this who would be willing to speculate – to offer some insight into this? Maybe I’m over-analyzing it? I would truly value your input – both on the comment itself; and on anything you might have done as a parent to motivate your child to take ownership of his or her academic performance. I hate the thought of trying to motivate my kids by simply hounding them until they accomplish something. What’s worked for you?