Leaving for School with a Smile

At our first parent teacher meeting on behalf of our son, then in first grade, now 17, the teacher addressed our many concerns but kept coming back to a single question, “Does he leave for school with a smile on his face? That’s the most important thing.”

 I thought of this when I saw the newest report put out by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which rates 15 year-olds in 65 countries for their knowledge in reading, math, and science. Israel comes in below average for high achievement in math and above average for low achievement in math.  
 In other words: nisht gut. Not so great. We should be doing better than that. But when you look carefully at the body of data, all the flotsam and jetsam of graphs and charts, another, more encouraging piece of information comes up: 88.6% of Israeli school children strongly agree with the statement, “I feel happy at school.”
I saw that and I thought of my son’s first grade teacher and what she said was the most important thing: a smile on his face as he left for school each morning. He did, always have a smile on his face as we kissed him goodbye each morning. He liked going to school. 
 As a matter of fact, this particular son, just one of my 12 children, did quite well all through school. He studied hard and got good grades. I always thought it might have something to do with the attitude of that first teacher, way back at the beginning.
 This was a teacher who knew how to create a happy environment in the classroom. She knew that if a child enjoyed coming into the room each morning, he would continue to be engaged in his learning. He would feel good about himself and his teacher and would want to produce the best work possible. All this set the stage for my son’s continued academic success.
 Not all children are as lucky as my son. There are good teachers and stellar teachers. This particular teacher was stellar. And she was his first teacher, so he started out on a positive trajectory.
 So what can be done to compensate for a less than perfect school environment? What can be done for the child who doesn’t leave for school with a smile on his face?
 For one thing, a parent has to be very gentle and allow the child to talk about his day at school. The act of unburdening himself of the tension that has built up during the school day is, in and of itself, an important release and can lead to a feeling of well-being. 
 A parent can also offer age-appropriate tasks to the child, thus offering an opportunity for the parent to praise the child for a job well done, and help build the child’s self-esteem. This can go a long way toward countering the feeling of not being “good enough” in school.
 Last but not least, set your child up with a quality mentor or afterschool program. As we’ve seen at Kars for Kids, these can make a huge difference for a child who is slipping between the cracks at school. Mentors tailor their approach to a single mentee, while afterschool programs are more child-centric than a classroom. This is because teachers must “teach to the test.”
 This means that teachers are pressured to cover the curriculum during the course of the year and this supersedes the importance of what the individual children in the classroom actually learn and retain. Teachers must also teach a large number of students at once. Some students will inevitably be bored at the “slow” pace of the classroom, while others may be left behind. Teachers must necessarily teach to the average student. 
 The lesson in the PISA report is clear enough. Every teacher should be aiming to provide students with an enjoyable classroom environment. Every parent should be monitoring his child’s happiness quotient. The bottom line? Every Israeli child must leave for school with a smile on his face, every single day.