Over at This IS London, there’s an article up about dyspraxia , which is
the new dyslexia, a medical term now bandied about by both parents and teachers who sometimes use it as an excuse for academic underachievers.
The woman in the article relates a story which is, after all, pretty damning; it shows how medical labels sometimes get misused in the educational system. It’s something I know for a fact happens with the term “dyslexia”, and the story the woman tells is tragic.
But there are other stories out there. For one, there are dumb kids. I’m not talking about kids who have no confidence those kids also are sometimes mistaken for dumb kids. But there is, in fact, a small percentage of kids who are stupid. (The proof for this is that, when you look around the adult world, you see many idiots; every one of them was once a child.) It’s not a commonly-acknowledged fact, but I’ve seen it in my classrooms, and every good teacher I know has observed the same thing: some kids are slow, some kids are fast, some are surprisingly bright, and some kids are dumb as soup cans.
But you know that saying about a person having “a face that only a mother could love”? Well, Mommy (and sometimes Daddy, but almost always Mommy) is the one person who can’t see when little Johnny, or Janey, or Mi Sun, or Sang Yeon, or whoever, is a puck-stupid child. Parents just are blinded by their love, which is perhaps good for the kid emotionally, but it’s terrible for the kid’s education.
I’m not the world’s best teacher, but I am pretty good. I know because, when I teach kids in a decent environment, I see results. They learn, or at least the majority of them do. And if I am reaching the top 80% or 90% of the class, then that bottom 10% is unfortunately going to be left behind.
Often, though, Mommies will hear none of the result of that. “Look, your kid’s having trouble, he needs to be held back…” brings on a volley of “My kid’s not stupid!” People worry so much about kids having damaged confidence from repeating a grade that they don’t stop to think of the damaged confidence of a kid who is forced to follow the other kids up a level in whatever subject, and forced to pretend he understands, and forced to fail (without hope of passing) a series of exams appropriate to a level the other kids manage but which he cannot meet.
I’ve seen this personally in one case: a kid was failed in previous classes, and every time the mother vetoed the F, having him advanced to higher and higher classes. His writing was like a first-grader’s; he couldn’t understand ENglish at all, let alone make his own sentences. New grammar and vocabulary went way over his head. And worst, you could see how embarrassed he was every day in class. He obviously felt like a moron.
I sent a note home to his mother explaining he wasn’t in the right level, and she turned up at my class. I had to spend half an hour talking to her (in my broken Korean) before she would understand my meaning: “He is not dumb. But he thinks he is. He is not confident. He doesn’t think he can do well. Because he was failed in lower level classes but didn’t repeat them. He doesn’t know how to say simple things and now other kids say complicated things. So he feels bad. He needs to do a simple class. And I think he should take a little time off English and do something he likes, maybe judo or hapkido or swimming. Then when he has confidence he can try English again.”
The mother could see I cared about the kid, and was worried about him, so finally after a half hour she was willing to have him put into a lower level class, something she bloody well ought to have conceded to before advancing him through 3 levels he’d been failed in by his previous teachers. Now, my basic instinct was that he’s never, ever going to be good at English, and that it doesn’t much matter in his case. I was never that good at math and it’s not like my life has suffered for it. But in Korea, English is one of those “must-excel” subjects… so I doubt his Mom ever gave him any time off.
Here’s the point, though: his Mom was so resistant even to that kind of reasoning. If he’d been genuinely a dumb kid, I don’t know what I would have said. But I do know she would have refused to except my conclusion and advice; she would have categorically refused it, and perhaps tried to get me fired. Nobody will ever believe a teacher who tells them, “Sorry, look, your kid’s just dumb.”
But teachers all know that there is, out there, a small percentage of students whose real problem is, yes, stupidity. I think this is why terms like dyspraxia tend to get used… teachers figure using a clinical term removes the responsibility of the judgment that, as a teacher, they naturally make. It makes it harder for a Mommy with a spoiled moron child to disagree and raise merry hell. It’s sad, but I certainly don’t see how it’s going to change, except for to outlaw teachers “diagnosing” children in this way. Which is probably an important thing to do, but then it leaves teachers with the old option of, “Look, your kid is dumb. Send him to the technical high school when he’s old enough. Don’t expect much from him. Sorry.”