Monday, December 20, 2010

The French Disconnection

One of my comrade at arms in education reform was just telling me about one of her husband's colleagues, a high-ranking employee of a large, multinational corporation and father of a five-year-old boy. Apparently he recently relocated to a branch office in Lyons, France, largely because his son did not get into any of the elite U.S. schools they applied to. Public education in France, he'd heard, is much better than public education here.

A few months into it, however, he's having second thoughts. His son's teachers, apparently, insist on telling their students what to do and don't give them the freedom to follow their interests and be creative.  Worse, they're downright aloof, often addressing the children in a sterner tone than his son has ever before experienced. "They really don't seem to care about connecting with their students and attending to their emotional needs," he laments.

It doesn't seem to have crossed his mind that there might be a positive connection between these troubling idiosyncrasies and the academic superiority of the French system.


FedUpMom said...

Katherine, I want my kids to have a positive connection with their teacher. My daughter had a stern, aloof math teacher in 5th grade, and she wound up profoundly depressed. It's why we left the public schools.

Young children have serious emotional needs, and we ignore them at our peril. I'm not interested in good academics at the expense of emotional well-being.

Actually, if a child isn't well emotionally she isn't likely to learn much either. Anxiety and depression prevent learning.

Also, if my kids are basically happy I can remediate academics. But if they're miserable every day because of the pressures of school, I can't remediate.

Hainish said...

Conversely, if they aren't intellectually stimulated, their social and emotional well-being will suffer.

Well, that's true for some children, at least. I know I would have rather had the stern, aloof teacher who teaches the content well. The other way 'round wouldn't have worked for me anyway, because intellectual shortcomings can't be fixed with socio-emotional compensation.

FedUpMom said...

If I had to choose between serious academic content or a warm, nurturing environment, I'd choose the warm, nurturing environment for my kids, especially for elementary school.

But why should I have to choose? Can't I have both? Is it really impossible to be serious about content and also nurturing? I don't get why these are seen as opposing qualities.

Katharine Beals said...

" Is it really impossible to be serious about content and also nurturing?"

Well. no. Especially if your notion of "nurturing" includes academic nurturing.

But if you think that emotional nurturing is also something schools should engage in independently from academics, then you must decide how to divide classroom time. Here the American ideal differs from the French ideal.

And, like Hainish, I'd take an aloof, in-control, academically-focused teacher--for myself as well as my children--over one who takes time out of academics to try to bond with me emotionally, make me interact with my classmates in classroom groups, and make me spend time sharing my personal feelings.

Anonymous said...

As a parent of an Aspie teen and an inner city high school teacher, I would rather see content over nurturing emphasized. Having said that, I would like to amend nurturing to respect. If the there is respect from the teacher to the student and back, relationships are formed and the opportunity for learning flourishes.

My experience is that too many students (and parents)have developed the idea that teachers are to be surrogate parents and/or entertainers. Everyone feels their personal wants, which they call needs, trump everyone else's needs. Teachers are expected to create an ala carte menu exclusive to each individual at any given moment. This is not possible and a very unrealistic expectation set up by administrators and sold to parents as reasonable. I have actually heard parents say, "I don't care about other kids. I ONLY care about mine" and expect school personnel to support that.

It is very difficult to maintain rigor and nurture the individual needs of 30 kids while maintaining a classroom environment that is conducive to learning and academic inquiry. If we replace the the expectation of "nurture" to "respect" I think the outcome will be better for all.

Liz Ditz said...

The story concerns a five year old--just entering kindergarten.

Yes, I think that before the age of nine or so, a nurturing attitude in the classroom has a place.

Anonymous said...

I think it all depends on what is meant by stern and aloof or connecting with emotional needs. My teachers were never warm and fuzzy. They may have been stern by today's American standards. But overall they were nice and effective teachers.

Teachers can't be the kids' friends. They have to establish authority and demand respect. That might seem stern to some people. It is different if a teacher is a bully. I can see that causing problems for students.