Everybody panic – report cards are coming home

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Report card time. Ugh.

If you’re a parent, you already know that you’re an irrational worrier – from how high the four-year-old climbs on the jungle gym to what the 11-year-old is accessing on the computer behind closed doors. Luckily, the world around us knows that there are always spare moments to freak out about things and it accommodates us with things like homework agendas (you’re not doing enough work!) and bitter words from bus drivers (your stroller is too big!).

And then there’s the king of them all – the written down record that marks you for the rest of scholastic life – the report card.

Is there any piece of paper anywhere that causes more false heart palpitations and elation than the one in that grey envelope? We see the letters on the page as some sort of shorthand for how smart and wonderful our kids are and by extension, how we’re doing as parents. Joy for an “A”. Anger for a “C”.

I’d always felt off about grades, but could never articulate what it was about them that bothered me so much. To package a child’s intelligence into a single character never seemed to fit for me. Then I caught a StatsCan Report a few years back that talked about kids who dropped out of first-year university after having stellar high school careers. These kids spent all their time studying in high school, instead of having their heart broken or working a cruddy minimum wage job. Somewhere in my brain, a lightbulb flickered on.

Grades represent results and results don’t matter in the way we think they should.

I do a fair amount of work as a strategist and creative director in the field of corporate recognition, basically thank you programs run by corporations to improve employee performance management. The number one thing I tell managers in this field is to stop looking at the results. It’s hard to coach a specific result. You can’t tell a financial services professional to improve customer service by 10 per cent.

But you can coach employees to ask more questions, to actively listen and to spot opportunities. Get those behaviours right and the employee better understands what they need to do. Customers are happier and other employees can emulate the behaviour. Better behaviour, better results.

The same thing goes for kids. I see a flurry of research and experimentation emerging on this concept. Some people call it Emotional Intelligence. Others call it Character Development. It’s early days, but author Paul Tough has done his best to shine a spotlight on the trend in his recent book, How Children Succeed. He explains that educators and leaders are starting to put the pieces together on what’s really important when it comes to learning. And it’s not solely academic. Experts in the book indicate things like “grit,” “optimism” and “self regulation” are better indicators of future success than “A,” “B” or “C”.

That’s why, when it comes to report cards, I don’t invest a lot in the letter grades. Instead, I look at the other side of the report card. What are the teacher’s comments saying about things like initiative, empathy and the ability to grasp core concepts? Those comments describe the type of person my child is becoming, his capacity to learn and his ability to overcome challenges. I believe that those behaviours give me a better sense of where we need to coach, parent and teach. My real role as a dad of six isn’t to simply hammer home the rote and the didactic, it’s to grow the behaviours I think they need in life.

And life doesn’t always come with a report card.

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