Saturday, May 8 2021


Defining what it is to ‘excel’

Update: July, 19/2020 - 08:35


Illustration by Trịnh Lập

by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà

Now is the closing week of school and you’ll see certificates of merit and other accolades on social media posts from parents complimenting their children on their academic achievements or from teachers bragging about their students’ winning international or national maths and spelling bee contests.

It’s a good thing to boost the self-esteem of those who won, their proud parents, their teachers, and last but not least, their schools, to strengthen their profile for future enrolments.

But how does this affect those who are not on the list of high-achievers, not mentioned on social media posts, not celebrating accolades, or not yet finding what subject they excel at?

Some parents recently felt triggered by a photo on social media of kids in a primary school classroom holding up 'Excellent Student' certificates for the camera. Except for the kid in the front row, who didn’t have one to hold up.

“How could the teacher do that? Couldn’t they just give him one!” asked a parent with a child in junior high school.

From a parent’s point of view, I agree. In sending my children to primary school, my bottom-line expectations are that they learn how to read and write a full sentence with a subject and a verb, can count up to 100, do simple maths, and remember the multiplication table, can spell their names in English, and know their parents' phone numbers and their home address.

The most important thing for kids of primary school age is to make them feel safe and loved in the classroom. They need to want to go to school every morning when they wake up. They need to learn from loving and caring teachers, make a small circle of friends, and off to life they’ll go.

There are different primary schools to choose from: good public schools with great teachers, a strong parent-teacher association, and overall a love-to-learn atmosphere. They can be hard to get into, however.

Private schools are expensive and beyond the reach of most parents. They have spacious classrooms, modern equipment, and parents able and willing to pay for extra-curricular activities and excursions.

But educators have warned against parents’ anxiety for their kids to succeed and reminded them that the neighbourhood school is invariably the best option, being close to home and relatively inexpensive. The kids live near each other, so it’s easier to visit during holidays or on weekends. Sleepovers are not so popular in Việt Nam just yet, as kids spend enough time together already outside of class.

Educators ruled out any system of formal grading in primary school a few years ago, so kids won’t feel they are being judged at the end of the school year.

When they enter junior high school, though, teachers in general are more demanding. Kids need to adjust to a new learning environment and need to know about the academic assessment system. The trend of making every child feel good at primary school, with teachers too easily handing out meaningless marks of ten or nine, has caused a problem, because children taking a screening test before secondary school may fail or be deemed below average.

Discussing online how kids are doing at school, one parent exclaimed recently that his son’s teacher had been very harsh on the seventh grader: “She wanted to make sure he wrote exactly as the textbook said, or she would cut his mark!”

“I know it’s hard on the boy’s pride,” other parents wrote, “but he needs to know that life isn’t so easy!”

Life is indeed not easy, and I agree that kids need to learn that.

Every person is different, and teachers are the first people in life children may find tough to deal with. “Easy” teachers give kids time to rest, while “difficult” teachers push them to work harder. If a balance can be struck, then kids will be in a good position to learn. Kind and loving teachers stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Extremely tough teachers are a thing of the past. No longer do these dinosaurs verbally abuse kids or mock them if they come from a well-to-do family or if their parents hold some important position, only praising the smart kids who make them and their school proud.

Today, no teachers want to upset the parents and so many soften their approach towards students failing to do their homework or making a mess in the classroom.

As parents, we want teachers to be tough to some degree, so they show our kids the right path forward and don’t compromise until they behave appropriately. A tough teacher may not be loved, but we will be thankful in the long run.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the academic assessment bar needs to be raised as children grow up. In the academic world, one needs to be correct and fair. If you are too lenient on some kids, you’re actually being unfair on those who have worked harder.

That photo of the sole, certificate-less student was best not taken, but once it was some common sense was needed to not post it on social media. A truly good school doesn’t need to show off its accolades.

A classroom full of smiling faces is a better result and much more memorable. - VNS

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