The familiar brown envelope will be burning a hole in your child’s backpack today. But every time I rip open the report card I have a moment of trepidation: Will it reflect my child? Or will it be filled with heavy-handed feedback I can’t decipher?
The comments section on my kids’ report cards has been a constant source of frustration since they entered the school system 12 years ago. A recent article, written by Naomi Buck in the Globe and Mail gives voice to my confusion.
Buck laments that comments such as “in the Arts, he independently chooses different strategies to create movement,” and “makes appropriate choices to meet his personal and academic needs to achieve his goals” do not further her understanding of her son’s academic needs or accomplishments.
I’ve been there. My husband and I still laugh about feedback that noted our oldest son’s ability to “perform the basic movement skills required to participate in physical activities, including locomotion/travelling (e.g. running), manipulation (e.g. throwing) and stability (e.g. jumping)”. Why the need for brackets? Why not say he can run and throw and jump?!
I blame the preset comments teachers can use with a push of a button. The statements are clunky and loaded with vocabulary that you may need a Master’s in Education to decode. There was a time when I did not understand what “identifying the elements of design” meant—today I’ve cracked it: It means he knows his colours. But I can only imagine what “recognizes and uses appropriate language structures in response to written texts” means to someone who is not fluent in English. I think it means that he forms sentences, but even I’m not sure.
The occasional personal comment—like when my son’s teacher one wrote: “He has a sense of fairness and is a calm addition to our classroom”—comes as a welcome surprise. I learned something about my son thanks to that comment. But that was six years ago.
My two youngest kids now attend a private school that puts an emphasis on communicating with both the students and parents (but of course it does—it’s a private school. But it does give us a glimpse at what teacher comments could be if all of them had the time and resources). A recent report card for my son reads: ”He was voracious about the assigned reading and tenacious about interpretation and analysis. Having seriously reflected prior to every discussion, he eagerly shared connections, giving full detail and reasoning. He has become increasingly confident and independent in all stages of the writing process from brainstorming and planning to creating a final composition.” And it went on to recommend that “to take his work to the next level of achievement, he is encouraged to continue to strive to add more detail to written responses and observational notes.”
Their report cards paint a complete picture of my kids as students—one with strengths and weaknesses. Some of the language is reminiscent of their public school reports, but sets them apart is a spark of personality that reflects both the teacher and student. Most importantly, the report cards give me enough information to sit down with my kids and talk about their work, their challenges and their goals for the coming term. That discussion is the most important part of report cards—without it, what use do they truly have?
I asked a teacher friend why some of them opt for robo-comments and why some write their own. He says that he keeps notes about his students throughout the year so that he has specific examples to draw from at report card time. But even with extra work, each report takes him about 90 minutes to complete. He says the while the canned comments are a choice available to teachers, the principal at his school urges teachers to use plain English on report cards.
Another teacher friend has 35 students in his elementary class and acknowledges that it can be exhausting to write comments for every kid. Music and art teachers often have more students than this—coming up with original feedback for more than 70 students would be even more burdensome.
But even teachers who write their own comments have to keep to board and ministry guidelines, which often means avoiding personal insights and ensuring descriptors match the grades. This explains the awkward reliance on the words “sometimes,” “often” and “accurately.”
Teachers always say that a report card should never come as a surprise to a parent—that they’re simply meant to make official the ongoing conversations you’ve had with your kid’s teacher. And sure, parents shouldn’t rely a few banal sentences for a full picture of their kid’s academic performance. Open communication should be the norm, not the exception, but it can be hard to maintain when some teachers avoid email or parents’ work schedules make meeting at 3:30pm near impossible. If you are currently staring at a report card that doesn’t make any sense, then a conversation with the teacher is even more important. (Even if it has to wait until September.)
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