My young son who is 9 years old had his last day of school today and has officially completed 3rd grade at his Austrian elementary school. Traditionally the first and last days of elementary school (perhaps even in secondary) are very short and sweet. A bit like a meet and greet, except on the last day it’s a meet-and-pick-up-that-all-important-report-card-for-which-I-hope-you-brought-a-plastic-sleeve-to-take-it-home-in. The teacher says some nice words to the kids while parents gather to enjoy a final burst of pre-vacation small talk which differs only slightly from first-day small talk. For the most part you can keep the same activities and just change the verb tense from future to past.
I actually kind of like this tradition. Probably because it’s tradition and I’m also reasonably chilled out because my school year ended two weeks ago. I have time, so of course, it’s no problem to wait outside while the teacher-student thing is happening and then pick a low stakes activity to do with a couple of other families who have time and kids on their hands.
At any rate, the boy received his Zeugnis (report card) for the first time with “real” number grades. In Austria the scale goes from 1 – Excellent to 5- Not adequate (in between are 2-good, 3-satisfactory, 4-adequate). On our walk to school he was already speculating what his grades might look like. He was pretty confident they’d be good or better but also wondered what might happen if he got a 3.
That’s where I had to stop him and explain that exactly nothing happens. Nothing. No upset, no punishment, nothing. On the way back home I also put the idea out there that his report card tells me very little about how his school year was, what he learned, how he learned it, what he liked most and what he didn’t like at all. It doesn’t tell me what kind of person he is in his class group, where his special strengths are, where he might need more support and where he made the greatest efforts. Nope, the report card as is, is simply a sheet of paper which tells me the broad subjects in which he was instructed and provides a number sign for each one indicating to what degree he met the teacher’s expectations.
If I really want to know about his learning then I have to ask him. And listen to his responses. I need to pay attention to what happens when we read a story together, to the questions that come up for him pretty much any time we are together. If I really want a picture of his progress then I can pour over the stacks of individual papers he has brought home all year long. I can read the stories he writes for homework. If I really want to know how the school year is and was, the most I can do and perhaps also the best, is to be available, open, present.
Report cards are what they are: institutional records of school attendance and academic…achievement? maybe. Academic clearing (like clearing the bar in high jump)? Closer perhaps. Let’s say “clearing” for now (yes, I just made that up). It’s about fulfilling external criteria and being judged on that. OK. Report cards are an institutional tradition. The weight and significance we assign to this tradition and the actual document will vary – among families, between kids, within a school, across school levels and types. My hope is that I can convey to my son that we have choices in deciding how big a deal it is in the grand scheme of things.
My 9 year old is not too bothered about any of this now. He has moved on to video games, read aloud time and a big long stretch of summer plans. I bet he’d be alarmed to know I just spent almost 700 words on it right now. Srsly, mom? Yup.