From Grades to Guidance: Sending the Right Messages about Education to our Kids

Welcome to our series on Learning to Learn, where we interview parents about their experiences in school. Catch up by reading previous interviews here.

Well, hello. Welcome, Sara. I’m so glad to be here with you today. 

Thank you. You too. I’m excited for this. 

Great, It’s gonna be good. So, we’re going to talk a little bit about learning. But first, would you just introduce yourself, say a little bit about what you do, and who your kids are. 

Sure. My name is Sara Ajemian and I run a portfolio practice for a technology PR agency called Source Codes. My specialty really is focused on anything across advertising technology, marketing technology, retail and really any type of business that’s trying to sort of create better systems for brands and consumers to relate to each other. I live in Long Island and I have two little kids, a 5 year old son, and a 2 year old daughter. 

Great, thanks. We’re going to talk a little bit about school messages in a moment. So your son is five. If you can go back to that far, tell me a little bit about who you were as a student in early elementary school. How did your teacher see you? What kind of messages did you get about yourself back then? 

There are probably a lot of parallels to where my son is now. I was a very excitable kid, a very engaged learner. I liked to read and sort of sit around with stories, but anything that probably needed a lot more of my attention was a struggle. 

I was a good kid, all you know things considered, but sometimes I remember distinctly sort of getting called out for behavior in terms of “sorry you can’t make a face at someone.” “You can’t act that way.” 

I definitely see some of those parallels in my son now, but I don’t ever remember being labelled as a certain type of learner. 

I grew up in North Carolina and we had what they called academically gifted programs. You were either academically gifted or highly academically gifted. I don’t really know how that translates now. But in third grade, I placed into the academically gifted, which means you started to do a grade higher math and english. 

I always struggled in the math, but excelled in the reading, but also had a hard time focusing. So in class, once I became a reader, I would frequently sneak in books to read in between the books we were supposed to be reading because that portion of it wasn’t accelerated enough, but then the math side of it, I wasn’t developing enough if that made sense. But, no one ever sat down with me and kind of talked to me about that and my parents had very different learning experiences too. My mom, I think only finished her first year of college. My dad finished college, but you know, outside of that, my dad was the first person in his family to have ever gone to college and and my mom’s perspective on learning was, “you’re doing more than I am, so, good job.” I think I probably fall into just sort of the average – it was good enough, I was a good enough learner I wasn’t ever pushed to be more than that. 

Do you wish you were? How do you feel about not having been pushed to be more than that? 

I don’t know. I haven’t I have mixed feelings, because what it did was make me think and figure out on my own and kind of come to terms by myself, what type of learner I was and the type of things that I enjoyed. Probably that early gravitation toward reading and the stories definitely set my course to become a communications professional, and I think there was some alignment there to say, “well you’re good at this keep following the thing that you’re good at,” versus pressure to try to do it all. So, when I got a C in chemistry and high school it was okay. There wasn’t a discussion as to why, and I’m sure that probably would have benefited me. But, even when I went to college it was you know, you figure out your own path. Here to help, but the journey is yours. And so, in some ways that journey is mine. I took it to heart. I graduated college very early. I had internships throughout. I moved to the city over a year after working and continued to chart my own path and success, and I’m really proud of that because I had to. There wasn’t an option not to do that, essentially.You have to keep staying the course. 

But you know, if people pushed me would I have done it differently? Yeah, I would have loved to have probably ended up in a small liberal art school somewhere in the northeast and just sat around reading all day, and I’m sure my career would look very different. So, it’s hard to look back and say, “Yes I’d want something different,” because I’m really happy with where I ended up. My husband and I do have very different perspectives on education because he had very invested parents. Not that my parents weren’t invested, they were –  I just think that my mom did the best that she knew how to do and that was okay. But my husband’s parents had a very different perspective on education. He got a master’s degree,  so we’re starting to see some of those differences, and how we come together to parent our kids. 

Interesting. Tell me a little bit about that.  I want to talk to you about you learning at work,  and what happens there, but since you mentioned that now. What messages do you try to send about learning at home? And then, what messages do you feel that your son is getting in school? 

I’d say we’re very much a learning based family. So, a ton of reading from day one and that’s probably just because I could sit in a book and read for hours. We built our kids rooms around books instead of toys. Everything is sort of intentional and it’s very much a nightly thing to sit down and let’s read and let’s talk about this. We have a lot of action activity books and things that sort of promote learning but through creativity. We don’t do a lot. I’m not a crafty person so it’s hard for me to sit down and do crafts with my kids because I don’t have that skill set. But we have a lot of adventure books. We go to the library. My son could pick up 100 books from the library and he just explores and he picks up books on animals and he picks up, books on geography and more learning about the the world’s smallest exhibits across the country. It’s more of a natural state if that makes sense. There’s not a lot of pressure to sit down and focus on learning but we do a lot of learning based activities. 

In school, it’s a bit harder, there’s the curriculum. My son has homework now. But it’s different, it’s things like, draw or cut out three pictures that start with the letters. Then, draw a picture about a story and he is much less engaged in the things that identify, because he knows those. We don’t spend a lot of time on that, but where he does spend time on is on me.

Every week, it’s read a book to your child, discuss the story, and then draw. Story and then color the picture, and he loves that because his imagination comes to life and he spends a lot of time telling the story. I think we’re maybe a narrative based family. I’m not sure if that’s really a thing, but it’s hard to understand in some ways what happens in school outside of that because there’s a lot of communication in terms of curriculum which I want, but in some ways I’m okay with that because I think I’m very much a parent who says, “You know what? I work to fill a part of my life and passion and I am entirely okay knowing that my son is getting an education from people who are trying to give him an education.” And so, I don’t tend to ask a lot of questions. We’re also early in that. So, I’m not sure what type of questions asked. I don’t know if that fully answers your question. 

Yeah, totally. I wonder if we’re defining learning as going from not being able to do something, being able to do it. Do you think that your son sees himself as a good learner? Do you feel like that’s different from him being a “good student”? 

Yes. Absolutely. I think he is an exceptional learner. The amount of knowledge that he has and the amount of things that he’ll say back, his recall is incredible. He’ll say, “Mommy, did you remember two weeks ago, and you did this thing, and I did that?” Or, he’ll tell me about stories, and he remembers it very vividly. We just actually had our first parent teacher conference and they didn’t even grade yet on that story recall, which I thought was interesting because he’s got all of that ability. 

We sit down instead of doing some of these things where he’s counting and he’s moving more quickly and his writing is improving. And, I think he’s very much a good learner and he likes to learn.

He likes to watch and learn, to read and then doing tapping, where he sort of goes and they sort of tap at turtle speed and then they tap it at rabbit speed and to watch him move through that process is great because obviously it’s gonna open up a whole new world for him. But in terms of being a good student, that’s where you start to see some of these things. 

Now that we’re talking about this, I definitely have grown up in terms of sitting still for that long, listening and following directions and some of these more behavioral patterns that obviously have to be met. But we try to really distinguish between the decision to do that behavior wasn’t great. Let’s isolate that from the things that you are learning in school because they’re very different. And that’s hard. I think he was surprised to start kindergarten, the pressure to be like everyone else is so intense. Even just to be liked by the big kids on the bus and everything.This is a kid who desperately wants to just be liked. And how that translates to ability to pay attention or not. It’s a lot more nuanced than I expected. 

Yeah, I find that a lot of times especially with younger kids in school now. In school they’re behavior is what’s noticed first and is a very, very, very skilled practitioner to separate the learning from the behavior, because the behavior impacts 20 other kids.

I wonder how that’ll start to play out. How you guys at home could sort of separate that, just like you’re talking about now.

You’re a super bright kid, and you did this one thing. How that might translate to him in the workplace. So, speaking of at work. You’re saying that as a student in which you were a little bit distracted, you kind of  wanted to follow your own path or you got really invested in the things you’re interested in and a little less invested in things you weren’t so interested in. How does that translate to you and your job now? 

I think it’s probably very much the same. I tend to focus on goals and achieving them. Whatever that looks like. Once it’s done, it sort of begins to feel like, “okay, well, that’s done.” If I do it again, it’s a lot less interesting because they already know the path. Do I try to create a different path to get there? Or, do I start to think about what else I add into this to make him as robust as it used to be? Let’s see, it’s very interesting that you say that, because I do think you’re probably right in that I gravitate towards problem solving. I gravitate toward even the things that I don’t know. 

Learning them, understanding them, and spending less time probably on the things that are already there or the things that are a bit less interesting that I’m not gonna pick up or volunteer for. There’s always been an insatiable appetite to learn more, to do more, and kind of again, build it forward. 

There has never been a place where I’ve been put into something to say, “This is what you have to do and this is the next step and this is the next step.” In some ways, I think maybe that would’ve been helpful especially when I was young. If when I was younger, I would not feel like I was constantly just making it up on my own and questioning, “is this right?” If someone had just told me, I think that very much would not have fit with my past. So, it’s an interesting thing to think about in that regard. But I definitely gravitate toward the things that keep me learning, keep me growing, and shifting and kind of not sitting in stagnancy. But yeah, I have a hard time with being complacent. 

Do you feel like you’ve been rewarded for that at work? 

In some ways, yes, in some ways no. 

How so? 

In the tech and startup world, there’s definitely this reward for growth and for achieving that, and moving through milestones and that has all been great. I think on the other side I’ve missed out on opportunities to really learn from people who have done it, and done it really well because I’m often the only one. I’m often the one who’s trying to figure it out. Again, versus the one who’s being told. This is my experience. This is the path that I’d like you to follow. This is the role. I often end up sort of creating the role that I want, and building that out, and again like I think that I’ve built a successful career looking at that but I’ve missed some guidance along the way. 

Interesting. That sounds like that echo with what you were saying about your kind of guidance through schooling as well. 

Yeah, it does, and I’m proud of that. I’m very proud that. I figured it out because I have an option and I succeeded. And from a learning standpoint, it then means that I have a real hard time with things like test prep and tutoring because, A, that just wasn’t an option for me. I didn’t grow up with that type of access which again, was fine. But I have a hard time seeing it from someone else’s perspective. You then know your aptitude as a learner if you can figure it out. I knew that when I got a 1040 on my SAT, that it probably could have been better but, that was me on a piece of paper and so, that’s what it is. There was no questioning that and I probably have some mind opening to do on that right now. 

Yeah, it sounds like the themes of independence and learning as a self-reliant tool of self reliance. Cool, any other messages you try to give your son that you felt like have worked for you, as far as going from not being able to do something, to then being able to do it.  

Yeah, I think a lot of belief in yourself. Right? You are fully capable of this. See how you do X, Y, Z. We try to just really instill the belief that he is enough, wherever he is and I think that also comes from a bit of my perspective to there was never any pressure to be more than what I was, which I found a lot of relief in because it meant I can just be me and that was okay. And so, a lot of this I think we try to say this is the type of person that you are, believe in yourself, you’re brave, you’re strong, you’re smart, you’re kind, you’re caring, and so, you know, if it doesn’t work out and we’re obviously not really too far down that path.

I don’t think there’s a lot of things that he’s struggling to overcome. He’s not getting graded on things. He’s just getting check marks and doing homework, which is fine. But trying to really focus on easing the frustration well I didn’t get that letter right, So, just write it again you know if you don’t do something right it’s okay. Try it again, you can always try it again tomorrow and so, trying to focus on where you are right now is okay. And you can believe in yourself too to do it better next time. To focus. I think we really try to just instill a ‘as best you can’, a positive sense of self. You know, try and that’s what matters. We always try and if we didn’t get it right we’ll try again. 

As we start to close out, any questions or wonderings about “how am I going to handle this?” or “What messages should I be sending?” Anything like that? 

Yeah I do wonder a lot about grades, I don’t know when that starts. I do wonder when you start to be able to kind of  say to a kid, “you did this.” Right? Like from a consequence standpoint, mostly. Okay, you got a C on that. How do you navigate working through some of those challenges with kids, especially with a kid who has very deep and intense feelings? How to then be able to isolate again. Alright, well, this is the grade because of this reason. So, let’s focus on this. And also encourage them to do better. And where you draw the line because in some cases, you probably do need to be a bit firm and say this is not appropriate, not okay whatever the case may be, and so that I start to think about a little bit now as we know as he gets older and it’s only going to accelerate. That I have no idea. 

Right, right? Yeah, separating your own self worth from okay, you know, this you didn’t do so well in this and you didn’t do so well but you tried so hard versus you didn’t do so well. I didn’t really see you trying either. You know? 

Yeah that part of the trying is the critical part, right? Okay, I saw you try. Let’s work through this, versus, you just didn’t try. I’ve been reading a lot about natural consequences. That’s a natural consequence to that. So, what do we need to do? And I know I have a kid who’s very much, I could try this or I could try that but he also shuts down really easily, and so we’re trying to navigate how to keep him sharing and keep him open. I mean we talked about that an hour ago about sort of talking about feelings and it’s nice to see that play out but he’s also a boy, and he has a lot of feelings and sometimes he just doesn’t want to share and so as a parent I’ve realized there is that little bit of personal anxiety that comes in, and then he does he doesn’t want to talk about this and try to take a step back as a person. Be reminded that okay it’s not that. There are a lot of feelings in a tiny little body and that’s gotta be it. Learning has got to be hard. 

Yeah. Well, thank you so much Sara for sharing all of this with me.

Happy to!

Sara Ajemian is a strategic communications advisor who’s spent the last 15 years helping CMOs across the advertising, marketing, and technology sectors build impactful programs to stand out and thrive. She currently runs the Insights & Engagement practice for the award-winning B2B and B2C technology PR firm SourceCode Communications.


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