In defense of Sarah’s sparkle

Yesterday I met with Sarah’s second-grade teacher, who said she is struggling with reading, writing and math. Of course my first question was, “But how is she doing in gym? There’s no problem in gym class, right? Right??”

We also discussed (at my request) the near-complete draining of Sarah’s self-confidence over the last month. She is terrified of making mistakes because her teacher, who has a great reputation, “has a mad, frustrated face” when Sarah doesn’t understand something.

I love teachers, people. I do. I am in awe of the good ones. A good teacher magically turns groups of unruly children into smart kids who want to learn, often despite themselves. But magic has been rather thin on the ground in Sarah’s class, at least from her perspective.

This is what’s at stake: Sarah has a great imagination. She is funny and affectionate and up for anything. She carries around a notebook because she wants to be a writer. She is incredibly empathetic and insightful for a kid. She really wants to learn. Every mom thinks their kids are extraordinary, but you should see the sparkle in her eyes.

If you asked Sarah’s teacher about her, she would tell you that Sarah is unfocused, doesn’t follow directions well and doesn’t work independently. She wouldn’t say it outright, but she clearly is frustrated with her and thinks she has ADD.

If you asked Sarah about her teacher, she’d say she wishes she were homeschooled.

In the face of the teacher’s numerous complaints about Sarah’s performance, I felt compelled to meekly accept Sarah’s deficiencies and slink out of there with my tail between my legs.

Instead I demanded (as nicely as I could) that the teacher change her approach. Try a little positive reinforcement. Maybe express a little faith in her abilities. I also offered to do extra work at home and to reinforce classroom expectations with Sarah.

For me, a Catholic school girl taught to never question authority, especially in the classroom, this required a little chutzpah.

I hope I improved the situation, but I don’t know that I did. Maybe she does have ADD. I don’t know. I’m no doctor, but I think it’s too soon to tell, especially given that she freezes like a deer in headlights in the face of her teacher’s frustration. And I’ve seen her focus on schoolwork at home. I just don’t know.

It’s so easy for a parent (especially a neurotic one like me) to turn this bump in the road into a harbinger of doom—continued scholastic struggle, low self-esteem and ultimately, a career in fast food. I know, I know. Someone should schedule a meeting to discuss my mental deficiencies.

My continuing challenge is to have faith that no matter what happens in school, Sarah will turn out just fine. Better than fine. To believe there are smarts that aren’t measured in school and to demonstrate that belief to Sarah. To remember the Sarah I know when faced with criticisms of the Sarah her teacher knows.

To protect her sparkle no matter what.

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52 Responses to In defense of Sarah’s sparkle

  1. Alicia says:

    So many thoughts while I read this…but you expressed them all so much better than I could have. Your perspective is PERFECT, in my humble opinion, as a mom of 3 imperfect children.

  2. winsomebella says:

    I am the mother of two grown boys. The first was accelerated through talented and gifted programs, a leader in school and in athletics. The second struggled from the moment he hit kindergarten. When he was in second grade I remember him saying as I helped him study for the weekly spelling test “why do I need to worry about spelling? I know what I mean and I can’t help her if she doesn’t.” Eventually he found something that really interested him and he ended up getting a degree in aviation science with a very good GPA and is now a pilot who absolutely loves what he does. His brother is doing well but is not happy in his job. You are right to protect her. But don’t panic. I think our standard educational system works better for some kids than for others and sometimes the average students do just fine in life!

  3. You are exactly right to advocate for your daughter. As a teacher, I too love teachers when they are good. However, I think our society is way too passive with education.Far too often the squeaky wheel gets the oil and the squeaky wheels are the ones that want less work and higher grades for the projects they did for their kids. The good parents out there are frustrated. Speak up! The good teachers will appreciate it and the maybe the bad ones will either get the hint or quit!

    • You could say that I am a squeaky wheel, but I am willing to do MORE work and all I want is for my kid to feel good about herself in school again. I will keep it up. Thanks for visiting!

  4. I love your last line. That is ultimately what all parents and teachers should do. I am both a parent and a teacher, and it saddens me so much to see the sparkle taken out of kids either at home or at school.

  5. The right teacher is all it takes for a child to shine. Sometimes teachers are so over-burdened with large class sizes and disruptions. It’s understandable that they are frustrated. But it’s difficult when their frustration is placed on your child.

    My littlest is nervous when people yell and does not respond well to yelling or impatience. He retreats to his shell. This is year is different he has an amazing teacher who is helping him shine. I hope Sarah finds the same 🙂

    • I hope so too, Belle. I do think it comes down to the right match. This teacher has a great reputation, so I wouldn’t call her a bad teacher. I think she may just not be the right fit for Sarah.

  6. I love this post because I have experience with a teacher who misunderstood my daughter in Kindergarten. My girl is twenty-five now, and never had any of the problems her teacher thought she did. I’m trying to learn to be cool and not write articles on other people’s blogs, so I won’t go into the details of my situation, but I love your response to yours. Every kid needs a parent who’ll advocate for them.

    Also, I recently read an article in Mindful Metropolis that makes me (at my age) feel less ‘weird’, and my daughter, who also has artistic leanings and sensitivity to other people’s ways of communicating, appreciated the article, too. I have no idea if the sensitive, artistic daughter you describe here could also have what this author calls SPS, but I feel good to know that my sensitivity isn’t about something like ADD. I won’t put a link here because I’m not sure how you feel about that, but here’s the online address for the article without the www. so you can cut and paste it if you’re interested:

    I love your last line, too.

  7. bigsheepcommunications says:

    Who can learn anything if they’re afraid of making a mistake! I wonder if you could have Sarah tested to see how she learns best and then sit down again with the teacher and see if she’d be willing to take a more effective approach. It’s not that the grades matter that much, but to drain an enthusiastic child of her mojo is awful.

    BTW, this may be my favorite blog post title of all time – you’re a good mommy!

  8. Thanks, Lisa! I have been looking into testing, and we may go that route. For now, I want to see if my talk with the teacher helps any. I think the next step may be getting the school phsychologist involved, have her observe the class to see what is going on. If it makes sense, I will probably schedule some testing then.

  9. Elyse says:

    Second grade is a hard one for many kids — it was for me and it was for my son. Jacob had a horrible teacher who couldn’t change her shoes let alone her approach. Work with the teacher and see if she is amenable — she sounds it and I think that most are. If not, maybe you can move her. Someone else will see that sparkle. And that is more important than the disruption of moving her.

  10. Donna says:

    Sarah does NOT have ADD. Having had children in the public school system for 13 years now, I have noticed that teachers often spew negativity about a situation that they can’t seem to control as a kind of preliminary damage control. They feel the situation will fail in the end so they paint it as a failure from the start. My advice, take matters into your own hand. Work with her at home. Force the teacher to update you at least monthly and to give you examples of what needs to be worked on. Maybe see the guidance counselor for some advice if you feel that he/she could help. Really, you are talking about a second grade child – do they really expect them all to be reading, writing and up to speed on Math??? Makes me sick. OK, now I am angry……..

    • Donna says:

      Replying to my own comment for you wonderful teachers out there, I am not talking about all public school teachers. We have had some absolutely marvelous teachers who have had lasting impact on my children and my family.

  11. Donna says:

    OK one more comment. We know our children best. When my oldest son was in pre-school, the teacher advised me to hold him back. I knew this had a lot to do with how quiet he was and his speech impediment which he has since overcome. But I also knew how smart he was. She looked at me like I had three heads. She clearly did not understand him. Needless to say, he did wonderful in elementary school, always got A’s, was in accelerated Math and is now in high school with some honors courses. Stick with you gut – this teacher is not right for Sarah. Maybe find someone on the outside to work with her who can inspire her and boost her confidence for this year.

  12. Muff says:

    1. Don’t most of us have a touch of ADD? I know I do. So does my second kid, and when they are tired or frustrated, all three of my kids struggle with focus. Important to note that my oldest is that top of the class, athlete, kid everybody likes kid, but if he is tired and frustrated, ADD child appears. Don’t let a label define your daughter. If things are getting overwhelming for her, teach her to break things down into smaller steps…tackle one at a time.

    2. Second child syndrome. Those darn first borns are just too willing to jump though the hoop, balance a ball and bark like a seal for the fish. The second borns? Not so much…I LOVE an imaginative child. She sounds amazing!

    3. Sometimes teachers are incompatible with kids. She may be an AWESOME teacher – for someone else’s kid. The trick is to not let your daughter’s self-esteem slide as a result of some incompatibility/ Your teacher should not be able to negatively influence your daughter without consequences. It is GREAT that you are engaged in this now. I observe a huge difference with the self-esteem factor with my daughter vs. my boys. Girls are so hard on themselves, and then immediately think they are bad people (at least in my experience so far). It’s so disheartening to witness. Boys tend not to do this anywhere near as much.

    4. You may find over time that the school she is in is not right for her to maximize her learning. This is what we found with my second kid. “…he’s doing…fine.” What he was doing was as little as possible to just get by and be under the radar. Not too smart or show too much potential, but not failing either. Too many kids in the class means this category of child gets ignored. He liked that. My wife and I did not. After 5 years of lackluster adjectives to describe my child (the primary describing word of “fine” got rather annoying to say the least), we switched schools. Are his issues of wanting to do less gone. Absolutely not. Does he still have trouble with focus? Yes! Is he highly engaged and learning huge amounts in a happy and healthy way? Absolutely. This school does cost me a literal fortune to send him, but he is worth the investment, because like your kid, my kid is pretty special too. OK, sometimes. So, you may get to a place where you have to engage in alternative tactics to get the joy of learning back into her life! Find a fantastic tutor that you see every once in a while. Have her work on writing competitions, co-author a child’s book and get published together! Wow, how f-ing awesome would that be!!!!! She sparkles, and so do you. You can do it.

    5. Glad you spoke up. It’s not a fight authority thing at this stage, it’s a “team up with allies” move to ensure she gets back on track. And if you do find her focus is an ongoing problem, tackle it together.

    Last, in the end you cannot control if your daughter grows up and has a fast food career or not. Maybe she works in fast food while she writes her first novel. Anyway you look at it, they will be her choices when that time comes. I am not preaching here, I am repeating a mantra to myself of what I need to do every day with my kids, too. I struggle with the same neurosis of my kid not being all he can be. (on the other hand, every family needs a pit boss in a casino, right? Have to be good in math at least!)

    You of all people know that you cannot place judgement on what someone has a calling to do. All you can do is what you are doing now…ensure that she gets exposed to all the right things to engage her mind and to educate her so that her self esteem is strong and positive and confident. This way she will make good choices for herself.

    And if all of the above doesn’t work, throw out that plan, and if the teacher does’t change, go after her like a mama bear. Finger pointing, head bobbing, irrational, mama bear. OK?

  13. You are so right. You must protect that sparkle. I am in a similar situation with my second son. School is not the place he once thought it was, and they no longer offer pull-out classes for gifted kids in our school system. It’s frustrating to see kids who once loved to learn turned off by school because it doesn’t quite meet their needs.

  14. notquiteold says:

    I had a teacher who was intolerant of mistakes. It paralyzed me for a long time, since I was full of mistakes. Trying to be perfect is daunting. Maybe it is Teacher who is trying to be perfect.

  15. Betsy says:

    It will be so cool for you to read this back to Sarah on the day she publishes her first short story or novel. LOVE your approach! I wish I’d been as brave as you when my son’s teacher (mis)diagnosed his behavior in her classroom….

    • Betsy, you rock and you know it. I am still working on letting go of my harmful ideas about smart and what all this will mean for Sarah. But I am starting to envision a future where school isn’t the be-all-end-all indicator of her success. So that’s a good sign, right?

  16. Cyndi says:

    Wow, you hit a nerve with many, including me because my friend Karen has gone though this with her daughter. She felt like the elementary school teachers weren’t happy with her because she didn’t fit a certain mold, put her through testing, lots of stress, etc. She doing just fine now in high school!

    I just can’t help but add to the some kids mesh better with some teachers point. You may find that next year’s teacher completely appreciates her. Good for you for speaking up and asking for specific strategies to help her through. I am always comparing notes with other moms in my kids class and am amazed by what each kid comments on, is bothered by, or doesn’t even notice. You would swear they were in different classrooms.

  17. Gilly says:

    This is such a beautiful post. Wow. I hope to be a mom like you when the time comes. Your daughter is so lucky to have you speaking up for her and supporting her.

    Also, I’m so skeptical of ADD diagnosis and labeling.

    • You are very kind, Gilly. Thanks. Your children will be lucky as well. 🙂 It does seem like the knee-jerk reaction to trouble in school is an ADD diagnosis. She may have it, but there is no way I am drugging my 7-year-old.

  18. You did the right thing speaking up for your daughter. Keep feeding her sparkle at home even if someone else is trying to extinguish it.

    I loved that you used Catholic school girl and chutzpah in the same sentence.

  19. addielicious says:

    I love the last line. ‘Protect the girl’, i was told, was what my grandmother would often tell others she would do for me. And I will forever be grateful. Protect the sparkle and I’m sure Sarah will appreciate you for doing so. 😀

  20. I’m sorry I’m so late to this conversation, but I love the way you handled this. No second grade teacher should be making a scowly, frustrated face at her students. No second grade teacher should be implying ADD because her own approach is not serving her students. Good for you for standing up for your girl, even in the face of convention! Protect her sparkle! And make sure that woman knows EXACTLY what she is doing when she erodes her students’ confidence. What makes a great teacher is not a strong history of glowing recommendations, but the ability to adapt her methods to meet the needs of her students. Clearly, she needed to be reminded of that.

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  22. workmomad says:

    I think ADD is an overused term. It is a real disorder, but a whole lot of people want to think someone has ADD when, dare we say it?, they may simply be bored. Kayla gets in trouble at school sometimes because she finishes some of her work ahead of the others and then decides to do things to entertain herself and others. It was very, very brave of you to stand of for her like that!

  23. Good for you! You must be your child’s advocate because no one else will. I’d feel unfocused and insecure if I thought I was constantly being critiqued and criticized.
    I’ve found that very creative children are sometimes academically immature. They have tons of wonderful ideas and thoughts floating around in their heads, worksheets and math facts pale in comparison. She needs time to grow. If given support by her teacher, I bet she’ll be thriving next semester.

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  25. Lisa Wields Words says:

    I could ramble on forever about this post, but I will try to keep my comments concise. I think ADD is an easy out for not embracing the fact that every child, every person, learns differently. It is hard to incorporate multiple intelligences i in a classroom, but that is no excuse. It is the job of a teacher to find a way to reach her students and encourage them to find a way to learn as well as a joy in learning. You have every right to ask for a change of attitude. Sometimes the teacher knows better, but sometimes they know one way of teaching. It sounds like Sarah needs a different approach. (I love that both our daughter’s are named Sarah). Perhaps you can find her some outside course that will build her self-esteem so that she then can bring that confidence back into the classroom. Like an art class with a teacher who encourages anything, or a writing class for young kids (do they even exist). Or, my personal favorite of course, a drama class that allows here imagination to roam freely. Or just give her writing challenges on the side and encourage that creative side of her.

    Thanks for leading me to this wonderful post. It is definitely on the list . . . if I can ever figure out what I am doing.


  26. Eggton says:

    Oh, how I love how you write. I am so glad we came across each other.

  27. Kate Kresse says:

    i came across your blog because of the 100 word challenge. This particular post hit home with me. the comments people have added are spot-on. first of all, ensure that your daughter ALWAYS has things/outlets/activities that affirm her gifts and talents outside of school. next, get keyed in to her learning style and get the school on board. continue advocating. be prepared to switch schools if this continues.
    My son went through 4 years of hell (5th through 8th) in elementary school with teachers that were horrible to him. Grades 2 through 4 weren’t much better.) The students picked up on it and started calling him stupid [because the teachers were calling him stupid]. after a few years of counseling during high school, he was able to overcome the low self esteem that occurred due to their actions. He is now a college graduate and doing well. if i had it to do over, I [also a ‘good girl Catholic school “—so i get it…] i’d have pulled him out of there. You need to see if this is systemic throughout the whole school. if it is one of those places where being curious, tender hearted and physically active is a ‘sin’…get her out of there. all of the advocating in the world will not change them. they will be heck-bent on destroying her if that is the type of culture they have at the school. A Montessori school would have been a better fit for my son in those years…(or home schooling0.
    It sounds like your daughter is a fabulous, wonderful girl. don’t let them kill her spirit. Stay in touch—you are in my prayers. kate Kresse

    • Wow. Thanks, Kate. That is excellent advice. Funny, I have been thinking about Montessori lately. It keeps coming up in different places. Funny how that happens, huh?

      • Kate Kresse says:

        I would say check it out. Does your daughter tend to be a “total immersion” kind of gal? For instance, does she become completely fascinated with a specific topic or activity and want to spend all her time on it until she becomes kind of an expert or understands all she wants to know, and then moves on to something else? My son, to a great extent, was always that way….Oh please, do not let them crush her. DO try to fully understand the culture of the school and the classrooms….get a good feel for how the teachers operate. They do talk to each other …the way they see a particular student can become the way the next teachers see that student. the created reality can become the next reality. I will pray that things go MUCH better for your daughter than they did for my son. The key is to analyze not only the situation in your daughter’s classroom but in the entire school. What type of student do the the teachers favor. What kind do they ostracize? Find out. Let me know!!

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