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Teacher to Parent - You don't need to tell the teacher how amazing your child is

Jody Stallings headshot

Stallings

Q: My son is extremely smart, hard-working, and talented, but he’s having a hard time with one of his teachers. If she could see how exceptional he is, she would be able to offer him more encouragement to get the best out of him. He really is an amazing kid, and I feel like I should let her know, but would it do any good?

It would not do any good. Your child’s teacher will not treat your son any differently because you think he’s amazing. A teacher’s job is to treat children without prejudice or favoritism, regardless of how highly their parents esteem them.

Filing a dossier to the teacher describing your child’s exceptional nature — which is done all the time, by the way, especially at the beginning of the year as a way to “prime the pump” of distinction — will probably induce nothing more significant than eye-rolling.

There is a simple reason for this: as luminous as your child may be, there are scads of students just as luminous as him constellating the corridors of his school.

Parents tend to see their children as uniquely gifted because the world in which they are comparing them is small, consisting mainly of their own children, the neighbors, cousins, and a few family friends. Teachers, however, see ‘em all. In your world, being selected to participate in the gifted and talented program or being invited to take the early SAT is an unheard of achievement. Teachers know, however, that these honors are offered to hordes of students every year.

As incredible as it sounds, amazingness is not a character trait that is in short supply in schools. Many students are wiser than their years, kinder than their peers, and blessed between the ears. Those who don’t rise to that level get stars on their bellies in other ways.

We’ve become so adept at offering labels of distinction that the only kind of student I would currently place on the “rare species” list is the one we used to affectionately call “ordinary.” But that’s a story for another day.

Another problem with touting your child’s wondrous traits is that it usually says more about you than it does your child. This isn’t just because boasting about your offspring’s innate excellence makes you appear vain and grandiloquent. It’s because everyone knows, empirically, that nobody’s perfect, particularly not kids or teens. We all do the wrong thing sometimes, including manipulating others for personal benefit. That sort of manipulation is so pervasive that speaking in breathtaking absolutes about your child’s superiority will only make teachers wonder if he’s successfully manipulated you.

I take it for granted that parents who tell me how extraordinary their child is have also been telling the child the same thing. I urge caution with that. Telling your child he’s fabulous can be counterproductive because he might start believing it. When people think that they’re better than others, their attitudes can get very nasty indeed. Have you ever known anyone like that? What did you think about them? Some people may be born thinking they’re God’s gift to the world. Others learn it at home.

Of course, the solution isn’t to tell your kids how boringly normal they are, and it isn’t to withhold praise when they excel at something. The key is to tell them they are indeed unique and wonderful (when they choose to be) … but they must always remember that everyone else is just as unique and just as wonderful (when they choose to be).

To be fair, I should point out that there actually are one or two (or zero) students every year whose character, brilliance, and work ethic are totally off the charts. Universally, these children also possess the quality of humility. I do not believe it is a coincidence that their exceptionalism is almost never reported to teachers by their parents.

A good rule of thumb is this: let your child’s amazing qualities speak for themselves. If your son is even halfway as magnificent as you claim he is, his teachers will realize it soon enough. It makes a far deeper impression when people discover your child’s transcendental qualities without your help.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question or receive notifications of new columns, email him at JodyLStallings@gmail.com. Follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook at facebook.com/teachertoparent and on Twitter @stallings_jody.

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