When I originally conceived of this post, I was in a fired-up state of indignation over what I perceived, at the time, as a gross demonstration of what-is-the-world-coming-to-ism. After skimming through my 8 year-old daughter’s 2-page double-sided report card, I had honed in on this one sentence:

Nico sometimes needs to demonstrate the capacity for innovation and a willingness to take risks. She is encouraged to assess and reflect critically on her own strengths and needs.

What does this even mean?? I asked the broad, worldly audience of my Facebook friends and several of them responded equally incensed over the overly-complex wording, obviously written by some bureaucratic ignoramus of a teacher in this education system of ours that is irrevocably going to the dogs.

I stomped over to this photo album that my parents had kept for me since I was a baby and flipped to the back where I knew several old report cards were kept. I pulled out grade 3 and quickly read Mrs. Belfie’s slanted cursive summary:

Heidi has continued to be an excellent pupil. Her mastery of the basic facts has greatly improved and she appears better able to think her way through and solve problems in mathematics. She participates well in all areas of the grade three program and is very co-operative.

Clear. Specific. Measurable. And also, incident-oriented:

Music: Heidi should study her music notes for tests.

(Aside: something must have happened that term that resulted in this comment and what I think was my first and maybe only ‘C’ grade in my entire primary school career. This must have killed my parents because by that time, I was well into the Royal Conservatory piano program, so should have had advanced music skills compared to the standard school curriculum. I bet it was those dumb musical hand gestures. Yeah, that’s it.)

report cards

My entire report card on the left in 1981; Page 1 of 4 of Nico’s on the right today


What happened next is my sister, who is a primary school teacher–and a fantastic one at that–responded to me privately saying that while she agreed that report cards in general are a poor gauge of how a student is doing in school, it was unfair to trash this teacher’s work without giving her the opportunity to explain her comment. She suggested that I schedule a meeting with the teacher to have a conversation about what this line and the rest of the report card meant.

Here’s the thing: I don’t actually care what this line means and I don’t want to waste the teacher’s time finding out. As a parent, all I want to know is if my kid is doing all right at school, i.e. is anything upsetting her? Is she having trouble with any subject in particular? Should we give her some extra practice with anything at home?

Does she seem happy?

And I already know this. I have no problem with Nico’s teacher. Her communication skills might be lacking (our chat with her at parent-teacher interviews was like pulling molars), but Nico likes her, wants to please her by working hard and doing well, made her a special Valentine’s Day card, and in my mind, that’s all I need to know.

When I re-read Nico’s report card, I realized–and was a little disappointed, I have to admit–that what was written was actually pretty clear and comprehensive:

Nico is a very conscientious and ambitious student who always comes to class prepared and ready to learn. She always follows routines and instructions without supervision. She uses her time efficiently in class, promptly starting the work when it is assigned and focusing on the task until it is completed. She welcomes new tasks and opportunities for learning with enthusiasm. She investigates and obtains information independently using the classroom reference materials. She is able to keep textbooks, notebook, writing materials and personal belongings orderly and ready to use when needed. She usually writes appropriately in her notebooks following standard practice. Nico participates willingly in most class and in group activities. She is able to work and play cooperatively She listens and responds respectfully to her peers and adults alike. She is able to identify goals and perseveres to achieve them. She quickly understands instructions for tasks, but when needed she asks questions to clarify meaning and ensure understanding.

It should be noted that the TDSB’s report card system enables teachers to choose from a list of pre-written comments, which they can then customize to each student. Years ago, when this was first implemented (in the name of efficiency, I’m guessing), parents complained that the comments were overly-jargonned and technical-sounding. Since then, improvements have been made. My sister tells me that in Ottawa, teachers do not have this option.

It should also be noted that the above block of comments is one of 7 similar blocks that comprises of Nico’s report card, including reports for physical education and the arts. When I was in grade 3, it was just one block per term, plus the requisite letter and number grades. It was hand-written, though.

As I was writing this, I got an email from the school principal, a newsletter telling me about what activities they have going on at the school, including a winter fun day. This morning, I dropped Nico off at school dressed up as a pioneer girl, complete with bonnet and metal lunch pail containing a hunk of soda bread, the recipe for which had been sent home by the teacher.

It turns out, things aren’t all that bad. It turns out that perhaps in the absence of things to complain about, a little thing has stood out like a sore thumb. And it turns out that angry and indignant is the kind of content that engages well in social media. I’ve learned something here, and that’s that it’s easy to fall into the trap of “things just ain’t like they was in the good ol’ days”, but if you think about it a bit more, things aren’t all that bad either, and sometimes, they’re even better.


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