Parents, set the example

Cedar Sanderson’s post over at Mad Genius Club this morning really hit home with me. Part of it is because she writes about a topic near and dear to my heart — children and reading. Another part is because it ties in with a conversation I had with some of my fellow library friends members at our meeting Thursday night. Then there were the articles about the “School of No” in New York where a series of articles by the NY Post about the lack of text books — as in no math or English text books, iirc — a failure to hire substitute teachers and an absentee principal finally brought down investigators from the Department of Education and even then it is alleged the principal failed to hire subs.

All of this brought back some terrible memories of my son’s third grade and how one teacher came close to forever killing his love of reading. That year was followed closely in the annals of school years I came to hate by my son’s fifth grade year where the principal decided it was more important to cancel the gifted and talented classes — without telling parents — so teachers could devote more time teaching to the test so the principal looked better in the eyes of the administrators. The only reason I found out was my son came home and said something and I, being the concerned parent, went up the next day and the school counselor, a wonderful and caring young woman, stopped me and took me into her office where she told me everything that had been going on. When I finally got to see the principal, she first denied the classes had been canceled and then she tried to say she didn’t know anything about it (funny, she seemed genuinely surprised that I didn’t accept the premise that every GT teacher in the school decided on their own or together to cancel classes they’d fought so hard to get in the first place). It took about a week of what were really nothing short of confrontations between this so-called educator and other parents with the same concerns I had to get the classes reinstated.

While that was bad, the third grade situation is still one that brings my temper to a boiling point after all these years. Before that year, my son loved to read. He grew up, as did I, in a house where reading was always encouraged. He was read to before he could read and then he read to himself and to me. Trips to the library were things to be treasured and enjoyed, not dreaded. Then came the year from Hell.

The portents were there from the beginning that this was not going to be a good year for my son. I wasn’t too concerned when he came home at the end of the first week and said his teacher hadn’t been there after the first day. But, over the course of the next month to six weeks, he had substitutes on a rotating basis more often than the teacher herself was there. I worried about what the lack of consistency might do to his learning. I should have worried about what would happen when the teacher came back.

Which she did and very quickly I learned that was cause for concern. Remember, this is the third grade. Suddenly, my son no longer had assignment sheets to review at home to remind him what his homework for the night was. That meant I had no way of knowing if he was getting his work done. When the first set of progress reports came out after the teacher had been back for a month or so, it was clear something was wrong. An “A” student was suddenly close to failing. My son didn’t know what was going on other than the teacher always seemed to be mad at him and the other boys.

So, like concerned parents, his father (my ex) and I made an appointment to talk to the teacher and that’s when we realized that there was a very real problem. This woman, this educator who supposedly understood her students, was trying to teach her students responsibility. She’d write their assignments on the board and leave it there for a few minutes — less than five — before erasing them. It was up to them to make sure they wrote the assignment down. If they didn’t, too bad. No, this wasn’t in accordance with school or district policy and she hadn’t gotten approval to vary from the policy. But she was going to make men out of the boys, by God.

Our response was to meet with the teacher and the principal — well, vice-principal because the principal didn’t want to deal with the issue (see above about the GT classes. It was the same one.) — who basically told the teacher to quit and go back to following policy. She did. But she was still going to get those evil male children. That’s when she started using reading as punishment.

I don’t know how many recesses my son and the other boys missed for so-called “infractions” of her rules. She’d make them stay in the room and read the worst books she could find. Then they had to report on them. If their reports didn’t meet her standards — which weren’t written down and which were never shared with the parents — they were penalized even more. By the end of the year, I’d spent more time in the principal’s office trying to deal with the issue than I did in my entire time as a student. Worse, my son no longer wanted to read.

Nothing could tempt him. It was like pulling teeth to get him to read the summer reading list — not that I blamed him on most of the books, but there was the occasional good book included. I had to sit right there with him to make sure he finished his reading during the school year for the next two years or so just to insure he got his book reports done. His teachers those years, both excellent teachers who cared more about their students than they did about the politics of kissing the principal’s ass, worked just as hard as I did to re-instill the joy of reading in my son.

Finally, ready to hunt down the teacher responsible for this sad state, I talked with one of the children’s librarians at our local library. She only worked there part-time because she was full-time in a neighboring school district. When I explained the situation to her, she was as outraged as I had been. Then she sat me down and asked me what my son liked. What did he watch on TV? What games did he play? What subjects interested him? Before I knew it, I was walking out of the library with an armload of books, including a collection of manga.

My son ripped through the manga like someone who hadn’t eaten in days. The next day, he came in and asked if I’d take him to the library to get some more. Part of me rebelled. These were, after all, nothing more than glorified comic books. But he was reading. That really was all that mattered.

So we went and before long he’d read all the manga the library had to offer and it was bringing in more through inter-library loans.

That’s when something else happened that surprised me.

As I said, I’m a reader. So, whenever I’m in the car for long, or when I know I’m going to have to wait somewhere for long, I have a book or audiobook with me. At the time, I was going through the audiobooks of Diane Mott Davidson’s “Goldy the Caterer” series. I hadn’t paid much attention to the fact that, as we’d drive to and from school, my son fell quiet after telling me what happened that day. But then, one afternoon as we drove home and there was no audiobook playing, he wanted to know why. He wanted to know what Goldy was up to. Didn’t I have another book for us to listen to?

Flabbergasted, and pleased, we spent the rest of the drive home talking about the books we’d been listening to. Later that day, I asked what books he’d like to listen to. We’d tried reading the first Harry Potter book together but the bad taste from third grade had lingered on. So I was a bit surprised when he said he’d like to try Harry Potter. So, off to the library we went to check out the audiobook and the rest is history.

My son once more enjoys reading. His kindle is always with him. He’s found authors he likes and he doesn’t hesitate to share them with me — just as I do with him. But it was a close call, thanks to one teacher who didn’t think — or perhaps who didn’t care — about the consequences of her actions. What I learned from all this is that you not only have to set the example for your child that reading is something that is fun but that you have to protect them from those who would strip that source of enjoyment from them. You have to be flexible and driven when looking for ways to keep them interested in reading despite the crap the schools would have them read “for their own good”.

As Cedar said, it is up to us, as parents, to set the example when it comes to reading. We can’t rely on anyone else to do it. So, pick up a book and read with your kid. You won’t regret it.


  1. Parents can have huge blind spots. Mine was reading. I don’t remember learning how to read. My mother found out I could read when the kindergarten teacher scolded her for teaching me.

    So my husband and I read to the kids from the very start. The kids, fortunately, showed an early preference for fantasy. We fumbled our way, mis-pronouncing all the names in Alexander Lloyd’s Black Caldren series, and went of to the hobbit . . . I think I read the whole ring cycle through at least three times . . .

    When we sent the kids off to school, the grades were fine, and, this being Texas, I kept my eye on the science program, but there no problems.

    Until the oldest hit sixth grade, with a whole slew of reading textbooks required.

    I had _noticed_ that they weren’t reading much . . . I hadn’t realized that by any serious measure they _couldn’t_ read. Oh, sure, they recognized all sorts of words, but they somehow hadn’t picked up that you string them together and they mean something.

    So I started having them read to me. And it clicked. And I found books they might like and _now_ they read for pleasure.

    I don’t know why there was a problem, how the teachers missed it, how I missed it . . . Their friends didn’t have this problem, but both my boys did. Best guess is, a mismatch between how the reading was taught and how my boys learned, with a dash of smart enough to learn how to get around it.

    Now, the assigned books were no help at all, but at least I didn’t have to fight a toxic teacher.

  2. My wife and I read the Dianne Mott Davidson books to recognize places and people we know in “Aspen Meadows”. Unfortunately, it’s been waaayyy too long since we’ve been up there lately, and the town has changed. We still recognize some areas, but not all of them. We also read the “Maggie Sefton” books about “Fort Conners”, and several other authors that write local books.

    Our youngest is now in second grade, and it’s hard to keep him interested in learning because of all his learning disabilities. The fact that we always have one or two books going keeps him interested, but he’d much rather play video games. They help with his hand/eye coordination, so we don’t complain too much…

    We had a third-grade teacher that almost destroyed my youngest daughter’s love for school, but with her it was math. We ended up pulling her out of school and home-schooling her for four years. Some people shouldn’t be allowed within twenty miles of a school or school-aged child.

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