Last night Parent-Teacher Conferences were held at the Junior High where my daughters both attend school. Both of my girls earned great grades, all A’s and one B for both, and are reportedly “a joy to have in class, helpful, ask great questions, and are dependable and hard working.” Both of my girls were also lightly teased by their teachers for talking “just a little” too much. Hmmmm… imagine that? It was one of those nights where I was so proud to be their mom! All in all it was a great night, but despite their glowing reports I didn’t leave the school without heavy concern.
The order of the night was to meet each teacher and discuss the progress and concerns of our students. Teachers were seated at their own tables and in typical arena style parents took turns having their individual meetings. Since there are few concerns about the girls’ academic progress, I decided to take the time to ask each teacher for more specifics about the content of the classes that my daughters take from them. It was an interesting view into the world of today’s 7th and 8th graders.
It was at one of these tables, with a teacher that was new to our school this year, and seemingly new to her teaching career, that all of my internal sirens started wailing. It wasn’t her fault. The phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger” comes to mind here. She teaches my oldest in a class called Framework for 21st Century Learning. This class title has intrigued me and I have been curious about what content the teacher is going cover. As I learned last night, the class covers a lot of basic life skills like balancing a budget, how to manage debt, and write a resume. It was when she began talking about writing resumes with 8th graders that my “lizard brain” began twitching. The earnest young teacher began explaining about the variety of aptitude tests that my daughter was taking in class and how after taking all of these tests my 14 year old daughter would be prepared to enter high school with a very good sense of what classes she should be taking to prepare her for her future career or further education. It was all I could do to keep my emotions from totally popping on this well-intentioned teacher. Ahhh, she had no idea who she was talking to! Let me give you a little back-story…
I grew up in a very traditional (even though it was “blended”) family in an age where the times for women, well, they were a-changin’. My mom went to a year of community college until she married my father, whom she had met the first week of school. I was born literally 9 months after their wedding, and my brother almost 2 years after that. On occasion she took jobs to supplement the family income, but they were certainly not considered a career. My parents divorced, and for the brief time mom was single she worked a J-O-B to put food on the table. After she married my dad she was a full time stay at home mom until I was a senior in high school. My dad was a 3rd generation paper mill worker. He was a faithful and reliable union employee who put in a very respectable 40 sum years. He once corrected me when I referred to his job as a career. It was a job, and nothing more.
I was a young girl coming of age in the 1980s, an era when women were entering the work force in record number. The opportunities that a college education could afford me were exciting and I had dreams of ‘having it all’. Title 9, Rowe Vs Wade, the Feminist Movement, like it or not ladies, we were the children born of that labor. Despite this, it wasn’t all ‘Woman Power’ on the home front. Now, I want to be clear that the home I grew up in was not an oppressive environment for women, there were just not a lot of opportunities for exposure to what was really out there. As I prepared to enter college I was excited to one day pursue a career and I think my parents, particularly my mom, were excited too. Although they never said such a thing, it felt like the acceptable career choices were for a woman to be either a nurse or a teacher.
Since I was the weak stomach type, I was forever being encouraged to become a teacher. I have great respect and admiration for teachers. In many ways I see myself as a teacher. I loved the coursework for my Human Development degree, but being a teacher of little children in the formal sense of the word was a career I quickly ruled out once I became a student at Warner Pacific College. It took me at least a year to divulge that information to my parents. They handled it well, but I was constantly being asked what I was going to “do” with my Human Development degree, and honestly I didn’t have a clue.
I was discovering that College was a perplexing environment! On the one hand I was attending a Liberal Arts College exploring Human Development through the lens of an institution that heavily engaged the Humanities. This was an environment where I was discovering and exploring all sorts of things about people and life in general, the Human Condition and the correlations between all disciplines. On the other hand I was learning that College is not Vocational School. I was learning to be a thinker and not do a specific skill. This was confusing to me. I had come to College with the preconceived notion that much more of the latter would be happening. The focus was about who I would be, not what I would do. I have come to understand and believe this is so much more important. I am forever grateful for that experience because it has irrevocably changed who I am. It now really bothers me on a guttural level that as a society we place such a high value on doing and not being.
So this is the place I was coming from when I met my daughter’s fresh-faced teacher across that table. As we spoke I could see the chasm of differing opinion opening up between us. She began to explain to me that after each student had taken all 6 of these aptitude tests they would have a direction on which to plan their high school career. Seriously. From the tests of 13 to 14 year old 8th graders. Don’t get me wrong. I think aptitude testing can be a valuable tool for identifying interests and talents in specific areas for people who have had a wide exposure to various experiences. When I was the same age as my daughter I was certainly not prepared to take tests that would gage talent and ability, and future success in specific areas. These test that are being taken while she is still in Junior High could affect the trajectory of her educational career! Furthermore, I would have to say that I don’t think aptitude testing should be the focus of educating kids this age anyway! Shouldn’t they be allowed to explore, discover, and (dare I say) mature a little bit before they are shoved into the press that will sieve out any creativity, or desires to experiment with something new?
I guess this is what happens when society has a system in place where it is of utmost importance for each one of us to become the sharpest cogs in the wheel, when it is most important to be very knowledgeable and smart about one certain thing in a very quantifiable way. Science is like that, math is like that, philosophy, character, and thoughtfulness are not, but it does not make their discipline any less valuable. I shudder to think of our community, our nation, and our world without all of those things. All of those things work together to bring out the best in all of us.
Somewhere along the way I once heard someone described as being “An inch wide and a mile deep.” When we become so focused on only the things that we are good at or have a natural aptitude for we loose creative problem solving skills, we loose patience for those who don’t think the same way we do, and we become myopic and ego centric in our views. We become an inch wide and a mile deep. That’s not the hope I have for my children’s education. Quite frankly it isn’t the hope I have for anyone’s child. When we put kids into a funnel that drains into a specific bottle we limit their exposure to so many things and we change who they can become. I see this as such a colossal tragedy. It’s a big world out there, shouldn’t they have more than a short 14 or so years to find their place in it? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about who they will be than what they will do? I sure think so.