Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Gunny Highway Theory of Education for Parents

One of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies is Heartbreak Ridge. In it, Eastwood plays a crusty marine gunnery sergeant named Thomas “Gunny” Highway. He’s in charge of a new unit, but the major that runs the base won’t allow him to train the unit as he sees fit. This issue prompts the following question from Highway to the major. 

“How can I fix it if I don’t know what’s broken?”

I thought about this statement recently as I tried to help my older son, who has struggled in his first year of high school. He started out well and made good grades. However, as the semester progressed, his grades began dropping and my wife and I grew concerned. We worked more with him on his homework and helped him study for tests. We also asked to look at the work where he was receiving bad grades.

All he could give us was a Scantron sheet.

We discovered that we couldn’t review his tests with him. At my son’s high school, tests are created on a department basis and are not allowed out of the building. Teachers go over the tests in class, but that’s the extent of it.

I contacted his teachers, looking for ways I could assist him at home. I also asked to see the exams. My question to them:

“How can I fix it if I don’t know what’s broken?”

The teachers allowed me to review the tests with my son, provided I do the reviews at school. This meant meeting teachers before 7:00 a.m. and working with my son for 30+ minutes until the bell rang for class. It also gave me a chance to meet with the teachers and discuss strategies to help my son succeed. I ended up doing this twice last semester, trying to get my son ready for finals. He finished well, though I credit my son’s dedication to his studies and his teachers’ willingness to meet me before school more than my two visits. However, if my going to school is the only option I have to review my son’s work with him, I’ll continue to do so until I find something better.

I know the issue with tests won’t be the first issue my son faces, but I have 3+ years remaining to teach my son to roll with challenges before he goes to college and I’m no longer there. That’s 3+ years to teach my son (borrowing a line from the movie) that when one is faced with a problem “you improvise, you adapt, you overcome.”

I’m calling it the Gunny Highway Theory of Education for Parents.

For those interested, there are number of Heartbreak Ridge clips on YouTube that showcase the quotes from above. Please be warned that they are laced with profanity.


Amy Atwell said...

Once again, you prove that with (or even without) decaf, you're an excellent Dad. Way to go. And kudos to your son for hanging tough.

Robin Kaye said...

Kudos to you, Walt. But I'd be pretty angry about the tests. I understand having testing policies and criteria which should be approved by the department, but this is ridiculous. How is anyone to study for finals without copies of their tests? That's just nuts.

Walt Mussell said...

Amy,thank you!

Robin, I agree it's ridiculous. You would think schools would send them home to allow parents the opportunity to help their kids but creating tests that meet certain standards and making sure everyone can use them overrides that. At least I get to review them with my son.

DT Krippene said...

Boy, do I know this story. Both my girls (thankfully grown now) faced similar challenges. Freshman year is by the far the most challenging for kids, as it is a significant step change in study habits and project work. If it provides a small measure of comfort, they figured it out and did well in the following three years. School systems, public and private, can be frustrating in many ways, most trapped in a vortex of catering to all levels by law. Aside from a small number of incompetent nincompoops, most teachers want parent engagement. Closely follow your son’s syllabus, and ask the teacher how best to study for exams. Organization and structure are alien to most kids when they enter freshman year and it’s crucial to success. We downloaded with the girls each day, and kept a daily diary notebook of what was due, what was important. They chaffed a bit at first, but when they could demonstrate self-sufficiency on it, we’d step back, with a subtle reminder we’re right back in it if things go south. Most of all, being on call when the frustration level reaches decon 1, and they reach out for help.

You’re doing the right thing. It aint easy, but there you have it.