Q: We have a very athletic junior high school boy who loves every kind of physical activity. He gets most of his exercise in gym class every morning, but I happen to know that he doesn't shower afterward. The school no longer makes him or the other kids do it. When I was a student we were required to clean up after sweating in the gym. How come this is no longer considered necessary?
A: Like you, I was required to shower after every gym class. The coach would look us over to make sure we were clean before sending us on our way. Students who didn't shower didn't pass. But those days are just about over. The reason is because junior high students are so sensitive about their bodies today that it is very painful for them to have to strip in front of one another.
They vary so much in development at that age that some are grown-up adults and others are still little prepubescent kids. It is nightmarish for the immature youngster to have to put his or her body on display in front of the wolf pack. They would tear him to pieces. Others feel fat or skinny or hairy or (fill in the blank). Increasingly, they resist having to take it all off in the locker room.
When I was a school psychologist, I met with a high school sophomore who absolutely refused to shower. His recalcitrance violated district policy, and I was asked to identify his problem. After talking to this boy and seeing how vulnerable he was to the ridicule of his peers, I agreed that he should not be required to humiliate himself five days a week. Twenty years ago, this lad was an exception. Now, given the body-consciousness of our culture, his attitude is common.
Another factor is that coaches and teachers have become very leery of false charges of sexual abuse. Even if untrue, a person's entire career could go down the drain just by the suggestion that he or she was enjoying looking at the kids. This is another reason mandatory showers in schools are being phased out.
The result? Teachers have to work in a classroom full of sweaty adolescents who smell like a gymnasium - or worse.
Q: Some educators have said we should eliminate report cards and academic marks. Do you think this is a good idea?
A: No. I believe academic marks are valuable for students in the third grade or higher. They reinforce and reward the child who has achieved in school and act as a nudge to the youngster who hasn't. It is important, though, that grades be used properly. They have the power to create or to destroy motivation.
Through the elementary years, I've always felt that a child's grades should be based on what he does with what he has. In other words, I think we should grade according to ability. A slow child should be able to succeed in school just as certainly as a gifted youngster. If he struggles and sweats to achieve, he should somehow be rewarded - even if his work falls short of an absolute standard. By the same token, gifted children should not be given A's just because they are smart enough to excel without working.
Again, the primary purpose in grading in the elementary school years should be to reward academic effort.
However, as the student goes into high school, the purpose of grading shifts. Those who take college preparatory courses must be graded on an absolute standard. An "A" in chemistry or calculus is accepted by college admission boards as a symbol of excellence, and secondary teachers must preserve that meaning. Students with lesser academic skill need not take those difficult courses.
To repeat, marks for children can be the teacher's most important motivational tool provided they are used correctly. Therefore, the recommendation that schools eliminate grading is a move away from discipline in the classroom.
- James Dobson is chairman of the board for Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the home.