The 'Teacher Comments' Are What I Care About

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
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Last week, I received several reminder emails notifying me that my three oldest children’s report cards were available. Then, a few days later, my account sent me notifications reminding me I had unchecked messages, including opening emails about report cards. The automated nagging worked, and I dug out the passwords to my kids’ accounts and took a peek.

As I always do, I quickly scrolled past the letter grades and percentages assigned to each subject, going straight to the teacher comments. In my opinion, the letter assigned to each subject is far less important than what the teacher has noticed about my child. Numbers are impersonal and only tell part of the story. The comments, those are what matters most to me as a parent.

Is my child kind, respectful, and engaged in their learning journey? I want to know, how is my child’s character? If they have a C in math, so be it, but if they are a great listener and participator, that’s a win in my book. Honor roll? Meh. I teach my kids to do their best, not be the top dog at the cost of sacrificing their sanity. Plus, being on the honor roll can be steeped in ableism. Those with the abilities and access are the ones who have the best chance of making it to the highest academic rankings.

I’ll never forget when one of my kids’ kindergarten teachers wrote on my child’s report card that she is inclusive of everyone and kind. The classroom was more crowded than usual that year and included eight students who pushed in from special education for parts of the school day. One of the children was non-verbal, communicating by typing on a tablet. How was my child treating that peer and others with special needs?

Her ability to write her name, recognize sight words, do basic addition, and properly hold scissors matter, but they don’t matter nearly as much as how she treats others and if she respects herself. The social and emotional components of school are more important to me than perfect academic skills. If a child enjoys being at school, it will naturally motivate them to do well academically.

Another child received a report that said they always show up to school with a good attitude. Every parent knows that attitude is everything. If the child’s mindset isn’t in the right place, there’s absolutely no way they will learn readily and well. I knew my child left for school as a happy and eager kiddo, but to know that attitude was carried throughout the day meant so much to me as a parent.

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One day I got an email from another child’s teacher. A little girl was sad that her mom was having surgery and sat on the floor, crying. My child went over, put his arm around the girl, and cried alongside her. This, to me, is so much more than letter formation.

I’m a former teacher, and it’s important to me that my children love learning and enjoy school. Enjoying school doesn’t mean earning straight As, having perfect attendance, or earning all sorts of awards. If those things happen, so be it. However, a love of learning can be carried throughout the child’s life and in different situations. Developing curiosity and creativity are immensely beneficial to not only expanding one’s mind, but also one’s happiness.

I also know that how my children treat and interact with others is a reflection of themselves. We’ve all heard that “hurting people hurt people,” and I think that similarly, when someone is kind, curious, creative, or respectful, they motivate those characteristics in others. When my children opt to open their minds, hearts, and arms to another person, it tells me that they are experiencing love, joy, and inquisitiveness themselves. This can become a beautiful, magical cycle.

I’m also not going to become the grade-driven parent, because I know that grades are just one piece of the puzzle. Our kids are so much more than a letter, percentage, or ranking. I refuse to hyperfocus on these things when, instead, I know my child’s physical, mental, and emotional health are so much more important. Hasn’t the pandemic taught us this? If our kids don’t feel safe and have stability, if they aren’t listened to, then how can we expect them to effectively learn?

I absolutely recognize that biases happen. There’s studies and statistics on how children of color and children with special needs are too-often treated in the educational setting. When we compare these truths to how white, typically developing students are treated, it’s disheartening. I am parenting children who are Black and some of whom have special needs. I’m paying attention to every little detail, being hypervigilant, because that’s the reality of parenting Black children in America. What the teacher says about my child, as important as I think it is, isn’t the be-all, end-all and isn’t always the truth.

That said, I want my children to know that I care most about if they’re being a good human, not if they can perfectly multiply fractions or list every state in alphabetical order. Book knowledge can only go so far in life, but interpersonal communication skills—fancy talk for knowing how to act right and communicate with others—is a beautiful thing.

Do they stand up to bullies? Are they willing to do what’s right, even when it’s difficult? Are they encouraging their peers? Do they respect their teacher? Are they willing to sincerely apologize when need be? These things matter. They are life skills.

When I read and watch the news today, I see so much entitlement, cowardice, judgement, and manipulation. Where is humility, bravery, reverence, and openness? I do wonder, how many people had parents who saw them, truly saw them, and worked with their children to build character rather than a polished record of letters and numbers?

I’m not a parenting expert, and I don’t know what my four kids’ futures hold. I hope that by focusing on who they are, including their strengths, and praising their efforts to love themselves and others (something our faith teaches us), that I’m doing the right thing.

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