Feb 4, 2010

I WAS TOO paying attention, so THERE!

We had mid-session evaluations and freestyle solo testing at my rink last week, which always brings out the crazy in parents (sorry parents, you know I love you). Some choice bits, both said to me directly, and quoted to me by other coaches:
"She better not come in last again like last year" (from a parent whose child who skips three lessons/practices in every five)
"She passed the elements, that means she should pass the program"
(not if she didn't do the elements at the test standard in the program. Sorry, 2 rotations on a spin that requires 6 isn't passing just because it's in the program.)
"I've watched you. You never pay any attention to my child."
(Not even going to dignify it with a response, but more later on how to handle this.)
"Those other girls need too much help" and "why did you give that boy all that extra attention?"
(essentially suggesting that because some of the skaters were more needy, they should be neglected in favor of the "better" skaters.)
"Coach X promised my daughter would pass"
(based on? This wasn't her private coach, nor her class coach, just some random coach who told you your kid would pass?)
"I'm a lawyer, and she better move up one level" (or what, you'll sue?)
"They're best friends, they have to be in the same level." (Does that work at their school, too?)
Well, I sound pretty callous and cynical, and when confronted with these statements it's difficult not to get defensive. Especially during testing week, when you get this multiple times after every class, you sometimes wish there was a side exit so you could just sneak out without any parents seeing you.

So are the parents right, or are they out of line?
Your interest in your child is never out of line, but if you talk to the coach honestly and without blame, he or she will have a clearer head to examine the issue. If you start with "you're a bad coach" we're only human and will get defensive; the coach might end up denying something he needs to hear. Personally, I try to do active listening (saying to a parent, for instance, "you're concerned that I'm not paying enough attention to Suzie") but it's hard to do when your first instinct is to say "am too!!"

If you're concerned about something, ask the coach about the problem, not the cause. Ask "Why didn't she pass" not, essentially, "Why don't you like my child." (You might not like the answer to that.) You'll get a more honest response, and maybe some good ways to help.

Get off my lawn!
Some of the over-the-top statements come out of the culture. Middle class parents these days are involved in their children's activities and successes to a fault. Having grown up in an era when we were left much more to our own devices, and allowed to define our own successes and failures, to me this is ineffective parenting. But I know that there's a bit of a "get off my lawn" element here-- (imagine curmudgeonly voice): "you young parents don't know what you're doing!" So I try to keep the judgment at bay when responding. (Plus I'm just the skating teacher. My opinion of your parenting falls into the "not my job" category. When you're a busy-body like me it's easy to forget!)

Some of the misplaced concern comes from simply not being part of figure skating culture. Parents of recreational skaters, or parents who didn't skate themselves, often don't mean "you, the coach, are doing it wrong," even if that's what they're saying. They mean "I don't understand what's going on out there. Please explain it and reassure me."

So here's what's going on:
My general goal is to give every child individual attention in every class. In a 30 minute class with 10 children, when you take out group time, your child is getting 1 or 2 minutes with me, because that's literally all the time I've got. If you happened to get distracted during that one minute, you think I didn't pay attention to your child. Even the most eagle-eyed parent is going to lose focus for a few minutes during class. Sometimes I'll look up to catch a parent's attention when their kid does something well, and they're not looking, so they miss the moment. I would like to emphasize that this is fine, but don't then accuse me of ignoring your child. I can't force you to watch, and I can't wait until you're watching to focus on your skater.

Sometimes a child is doing especially well, and I'll let them work on their own for a class or two. They're still participating, but I may have made the judgment to leave them be, to work out any kinks themselves. Another week, I'll "neglect" someone else. I am, in fact, aware when I am doing this, but it's not because I'm ignoring someone. Skaters also need to be able to work on their own.

Sometimes a child is doing especially poorly. I've got a struggling Beta student in a very strong Beta class. He's getting further and further behind. Rather than let him simply fall off and just repeat the class, I've been pulling him out and working with him for about 3 to 5 minutes by himself each class. The rest of the group gets set a task; I've got the eyes in the back of my head on them, and they're learning to manage their own time and tasks. Meanwhile, little T is catching up, and furthermore is less of a distraction and hazard because of it.

Sometimes a child is working ahead of the class. I don't believe in passing kids up mid-session. They can always use the time to work on the current skills to greater proficiency, or at a higher level. So I may take the time to give them specialized instruction that keeps them engaged in the class.

Sometimes a child is unreachable in the limited time, maybe a half hour a week, that I've got. A classroom teacher has both the time and the obligation to get each child past his or her barriers to success. In an after school program group class instructors don't have that luxury. I'm not your kid's therapist and I'm only part of the village that it takes to raise him to a certain extent. There is a limit to the amount of indulgence one can offer a child who constantly gets on and off the ice without permission, who complains of aches and pains, who wanders off, or doesn't listen. The child who won't participate cannot be permitted to create a drain on everyone else's time. If this is your child, you need to take a deep breath and be honest about it. The coach will do what she or he can, but you can't make the whole class suffer to constantly discipline or indulge one child.

So how can you know when it's the teacher and not your kid?
Look at your child. Is he or she steadily improving? If he's not, look at the class as a whole-- in general are the children improving as a group? If the whole group is improving and your child is not, that is what should be brought up to the teacher, not blame and recrimination. Like as not, the coach is aware of the problem and has a good idea of the cause (poor attention span, promoted to too high a level, bad equipment are all causes of poor performance).

We want to talk to you about your child, and we want to be the best coach for each child that we can be. Blaming the coach is a game that can't be won. Don't play it.

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