When did being ‘average’ become inadequate?



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JAMES THOMLINSON, aka 'Mr T', says 'Normal Poppy Syndrome' is affecting kids' progress in and out of the classroom. When did this understanding that you have to be ‘great’ to be ‘great’ become a common culture in New Zealand? he asks.

Best interests at the CoREThe pressure to be a ‘high achiever’ these days is ridiculous. Just head down to your local footy club and listen to the interactions between certain parents, coaches and other crowd members. Many parents have this idealistic fantasy that their ten-year-old is the next Richie McCaw or Dan Carter. You can actually feel the joy being sucked away and replaced with these egotistic and irrelevant expectations. Children shouldn’t have to carry the weight of their parents' dreams and shortcomings on their tiny shoulders. The classroom isn’t any better, especially since the introduction of National Standards.

Early on in my career I had a conversation with a parent that really troubled me. It was a common situation the all teachers can relate to but it still gets under my skin every time I encounter it. Let me take a moment to set the scene. I was not long out of university and ready to take on the world of Education. I was passionate, head-strong and had that classic naïve dream of being the greatest teacher to ever walk the Earth. I was actually excited and looking forward to my first parent-teacher conference night. As the night went on my confidence grew and grew. I made sure I put a positive spin on how each student was going, which was being received really well. Near the end of the night I had one of my ‘cool’ parents come in. I was on a high by this point. The night had gone smoothly and I had nothing but amazing things to say about this particular student. Little did I know that my balloon, full with hot air, smugness and ignorance, was about to pop and be sent plummeting back down to a little place I like to call reality. I started off with the classic overly excited greeting, followed with a bit of small talk. I then moved on to explaining how the child was doing.

“He’s an amazing kid. He’s respectful, sensible and has a great attitude toward his learning!” I said enthusiastically.

This praise was accepted graciously and it looked like the night was going to be a complete success. Then it happened. I jovially mentioned a four-word statement that caused my supportive and intelligent parent to catch a severe case of “Normal Poppy Syndrome”. This syndrome has the same symptoms as Tall Poppy Syndrome with one major difference. Instead of discrediting those who have achieved extremely well, people suffering from this syndrome tend to refer to another’s achievements as mediocre or insufficient as it doesn’t measure up to some impractical (often fictional) expectation that they have created in their head. So what was this diabolical four word statement you ask? I bet it’s not what you think…

“He’s a smart kid!”

Little did I know that being ‘At’ the National Standard for Reading, Writing and Maths is not the achievement level of somebody who is considered ‘smart’. POP!!  The parent began to barrage me with accusation after accusation about why their child was not put ‘Above’ in all curriculum areas. For the first time in my teaching career I was speechless. Unequipped to handle such questions, I was torn to pieces. I left the interview deflated, wondering why I ever thought it would be a good idea to become a teacher. Is it right to call a kid a failure for not surpassing some line, drawn by some person who hasn’t stepped foot in a classroom in years? Since when did being average become inadequate? Was my understanding of the word ‘smart’ incorrect? After all this time these ponderings still bug me. When did this understanding that you have to be ‘great’ to be ‘great’ become a common culture in New Zealand? Is the introduction of National Standards actually to blame? Or have we always been so tunnel-eyed?

Firstly, I think we need to address the issue of what ‘smart’ actually means. A general definition of the word smart or intelligent is: the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Powers of reasoning, understanding, wit, insight, perceptiveness, sharpness and intuitiveness are just a few aptitudes that identify with this extraordinary word. Yet, most school communities view ‘smarts’ as being above a set standard of measure academically. Sure, high achievement in the generic academic subjects fits under this wonderful terminology but it is in no way the be all and end all.

As a society we need to start being okay with celebrating mediocrity. I know that’s a weird statement to make but why shouldn’t we feel a sense of accomplishment when a child is achieving at their appropriate level. It is a big achievement! In 2015, only 63.9% of boys in New Zealand where at or above the Nation Standard in Writing. That means an astonishing 36.1% of boys in New Zealand were below! Parents need to be encouraged to focus more on their child’s academic growth and less on their proficiency as this is what will drive our students to keep progressing. Measuring achievement by academic growth not only reduces anxiety and pressure for all involved but allows us to hone in on the needs of each child rather than our wants.

Now this is a hard thing to do as it is easy to judge achievement through an arbitrary standard. It takes no time at all to read or be told a grade. That’s why it has become the norm when judging students in New Zealand. It’s quick and simple to grasp. Some would then state that getting rid of National Standards all together is the answer. I agree that there are many justified arguments to be made about how we use National Standards in New Zealand. Personally, I like having National Standards. They give me (the teacher) a benchmark or guide of what my students should be learning. However, when judging student success there are a lot of other factors I put ahead of National Standards, especially when talking with my parents. School is much more than a middle or end-of-year grade. Being confident, caring, honest, happy, reflective, creative, resilient and inquisitive are all more important qualities that we should want our children to aspire toward. Creating lifelong learners, who embrace challenges, accept criticism and strive to move forward in their learning, will have a much greater and positive influence on our country's progress rather than being above some set standard in Reading, Writing or Maths. Yes, it’s important to set high expectations and have ambitions. Encourage children to aim for the stars just don’t forget to celebrate if they only make it to the moon. Even the smallest and seemingly insignificant comments can mean the world to them.

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