Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Preference for Extroverts

Last night I attended what the junior high calls "Student-led Conferences."

This is an evening in which your child puts together a sampling of work from all of their classes and is to explain to you, the parent, how they are doing in each class.  Once examining the work, it is then up to the parent and child to determine which teachers to see and which questions to ask.

I have experienced this several times before, but yesterday I felt something I have never felt before as a parent: systemic preference towards one of my children and almost total indifference towards the other. Why tonight?  Because I saw my children through the eyes of teachers in a very personal way and the way that we as parents don't often see: through comparison to other students.

I scheduled both of my children at the same time as it would be most convenient for me, and I roamed the halls of the school with the two of them.  The evening started out truly delightfully for me--I sat in the band room (my daughter's home room) and enjoyed chatting with the kids while waiting for the band teacher.  I had a moment when I looked around and could not be prouder of who they are, regardless of grades.  Their personalities are so enjoyable, I was looking forward to hearing about their strengths as well as gaining some evidence to help encourage them both to do better. When we spoke with the band teacher, she clearly knew my children by name and was able to articulate what they were doing well.  After reviewing the work of my younger child, we then headed to the home room of my son, who is in his last year at the junior high.  In contrast with his younger sister who excels in the system and takes pride in showing her work, my son did not have his folder so I was unable to see any samples.

The evening went downhill from there:  the art teacher praised the "artiste" and was enthusiastic in her praise of my daughter.  This same teacher, I remembered, two years ago with my son, did not recall his name, though he loved art class as much as my daughter, and the woman did not engage in conversation with me about him or his work.

We went to my daughter's science class who enumerated her many assets as a learner while my son's science teacher did not appear to know that he was even in the Honors Biology course and instead handed us the directions for a different class assignment--two grades lower.

The English teacher for my daughter asked why she was not in GATE while my son's English teacher was unaware that my son is a regular though slow and methodic reader and the method of reading every two weeks has been hard for him.  

What struck me the most at the event was how little difference I see in their intelligence--my son is clever, a wonderful thinker, and though he does put in less effort, I would still imagine that others would enjoy his company and quick wit as I do, regardless of a relatively lower desire to complete assignments on time.

Thank goodness for math, the great equalizer, in which by some amazing grace has a teacher who appears to genuinely care for him and know him as an individual and my daughter's math teacher has only recently returned from maternity leave so was unable to speak to her status as "an amazing student."

I imagine that I might have left the school merely thinking that my daughter was a better student than my son (which I knew already) but I ran into a quieter young lady and her parents at school.  She is an incredibly hard-working individual and has a straight and hard-earned 4.0.  I asked her parents in the hallway if they loved coming to these events because the teachers all just raved about how great their daughter is.  The parents shrugged and said yes but the teachers had all suggested that she "speak up more and participate." Really?  She has a perfect score in all of her classes and this is what the teachers say to this child's mother?  But at least they had some feedback--I looked around the rooms full of parents and students and saw patterns of vague recognition, kids whose parents had driven down to the school and got rather blank stares from some of the teachers.

As I was reflecting upon this with  my children in the car, I became further and further agitated that in fact, the teachers considered my daughter a good student not because of her hard work and tenacity, but because she is an extrovert.  The descriptions of her included "great participation" or "works well in groups"  or "is very social."  "Articulate and well-spoken."  While I am proud of my daughter (and I was just as flattered as she was by these praises) I also want her to recognize the latent privilege that her outgoing personality allows her in the school system.  I don't want her to continue to attend school and believe that she has somehow earned her amazing success as a student because in fact, her teachers simply like her and how she socializes with adults and her peers in class.  She has been doing it since she was three years old, and it hasn't taken a lick of effort for her to get these apparent "skills."

I began to wonder how self-perpetuating of a cycle this has become for my son.  At an early age did he realize that because he was not raising his hand, approaching his teacher, or articulating his thoughts in an impressive way, he was not a class star?  And did he then determine that it didn't really matter?

After all, he did not appear perturbed by this experience and I imagine he has for the last 9 years watched his peers praised for similar efforts while he sat in the class as an anonymous sea of faces to the teachers--with rare exceptions.

As an extrovert and a willing participant myself, I know that it has helped me to be successful and I would not have the job that I love so much if I were not comfortable in my own skin in public settings. And do I want my son to have these attributes so he can be successful in navigating the system?  Of course!

But I also want a school system that values each child's strengths and while I don't think he should be singled out as some kind of prodigy, I would like to walk into a classroom and have a teacher smile at me and say "I know your child.  And I have specific information about him, should we discuss it?"

I want a system in which the skills that actually matter--the confidence, the gleam in the eye, the enthusiasm, the creativity--these skills are developed and graded.  If my son can be in your class for two months and you don't really have any specific information about him that you want to share with me, shouldn't you as a teacher question the structures in place that allow this to occur?

I know what a teacher reading this might say:  "Student Load!  I have 200 students, I can't keep them all straight!  Too may things to do.  I have test scores I have to keep up."  I know you do.  And I want you to know that as a parent, I protest this system on your behalf as much as I do on mine.   This isn't personal, this isn't about you, it is about the systemic structures at play that allow this to occur. You might actually dislike student-led conferences more than I do, the expectant faces of a sea of only semi-familiar faces of students whose parents are coming through to grill you about the grades that you believe in perhaps even less than the rest of us anyway.

But I have a proposed cure for this: if you have to have a grade, why not actually count the things that matter?   If you are going to praise my daughter for something that you are neither teaching nor assessing and call her a "good student" we might want to ask the school why teachers aren't teaching and assessing those skills for the dozens of kids just like my son who apparently lack any real skills worth mentioning.

If the point of school is to merely reinforce that certain skills are more valued in society than others, than please, for the love of a mother, can we help my son to develop them too?

Because my son, if he survives his secondary education, with his perfect attendance and dogged consistency is going to be someone too.  And my daughter, who can do it without you, doesn't need to be reminded that with her winning personality she can skate through your doors with little effort and you will love her anyway.


  1. Hi Lee Ann! I really appreciate what you wrote! As a mother of two very extroverted children I appreciate your perspective. Nellie is in 8th grade and we just had parent/teacher conferences. Kevin and I (more "I") were discussing with her history teacher why her grade was a "B" instead of an "A". He said that she was a great student, wonderful to be around and a real asset to the class. He said that she really just didn't put out as much effort academically as she should or could have, but he asked, wasn't I glad that she was so enjoyable to be around? He said that he would much prefer a child that was well rounded socially instead of the silent egg-head sitting in the corner getting a perfect 4.0. I said I thought it would be nice if she could be both! Don't get me wrong, I think he is a good teacher and a very nice man, but I found our conversation interesting. He also jokingly mentioned to Nellie the next day that he thought her mom was kind of "harsh". Maybe I expect too much from her? As I don'tt have a college education, I know that my successes in my career and in my life are directly related to my extroversion and personality. I often wonder though where I would be had I had the education too? One can only wonder! Hope you and your family are doing well! I love following you guys on FB! Love, Nancy Screen (from Turlock) :)

  2. JK Rowling is an introvert. So was/is Audrey Hepburn, Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, and Abraham Lincoln. So please, we introverts don't need, nor want, your pity. ;)

    Read this, if you haven't:

  3. I noticed this most with my twins. One was so delightful. Academics came a little easier for the other and he is extremely creative. But, he was not as much a "pleasure to have in class" as his twin. He knew of the difference in attitude towards him. It affected his drive to do his best work in school. So how do we change things? It's too late for my children.

  4. I read the Quiet book Jenny ESP mentioned. Basically the premise is, as you concluded, our society favors extroverts. So if you want some scientific evidence to support your thesis, you'll find it there. I don't recall solutions/action items to correct the problem though? You can write that book.

  5. This is thought provoking for sure, like everything else that comes out of your mouth and keyboard. I went to Jolie's parent teacher conference a few weeks ago, and her teacher rushed through her praiseworthy writing and grades, etc., and spent most of the time nagging that she needs to raise her hand more and speak up more and participate more, etc. I've got 5 months until her next conference, and am going to spend it memorizing this post to deliver as a response. Thank you.