Earlier this semester, my fifth grade daughter started deciding what to do about middle school. Her elementary school offers an optional sixth grade year, a gentle, loving cocoon that my husband and I found extremely appealing, mainly because we love the school and the teachers, but also because it felt safe and familiar. For kids ready to leave elementary school behind, they have the option of attending the appropriate feeder. For kids looking for a more challenging academic experience, they can apply to a magnet or fine arts program. These are competitive programs that require academic excellence, teacher recommendations, entrance tests and essays.
If you ask me, this is a lot to put on a 10-year-old. When I was going into sixth grade, my biggest concern was which fluorescent earrings looked best with my pinstriped jeans and if my friend Courtney would be willing to wear her matching fluorescent earrings on the same day.
Never one to take the easy route, our daughter boldly announced that she wanted to apply for all four of the magnet/fine arts programs. I supported the decision, but also informed my daughter that I was not filling out a single application. If she wanted to apply, this was her gig. Together, we created a project schedule on a poster board to log each school's deadlines. My husband and I agreed to cart our daughter where she needed to go, and to help her work through her essay topics, but we both agreed that this was her journey.
One evening, while typing one of the entry essays, my 10-year old looked up and said, "What's that word that's a positive spin on bossy?"
Before I had a chance to answer, she said, "Leadership. That's it. Leadership skills!"
I had an immediate flashback to kindergarten at the parent-teacher conference. The teacher already knew us because she'd taught my stepchildren, so she knew she could be straight with us.
"She's doing a great job," she began, "She's a big helper."
Uh-oh. I'd heard that line before. Our daughter was a "big helper" in pre-k as well.
"Sometimes," she went on, "I have to take her outside, point to the sign above my door, and ask, 'Who's name is that?' And she will read my name, and I'll say, 'That's right. That's my name, and I'm the teacher. If I need your help, I'll let you know.'"
With that, my husband died laughing. From that point on, every teacher conference began with the story of how our daughter needed to be reminded that she wasn't the teacher. This made for a funny story, but it also gave me pause.
Was calling our daughter "a big helper" just steps away from calling her bossy?
Lately, thanks to Sheryl Sandberg's LeanIn.org and the Girl Scouts collaboration, Ban Bossy, the word "bossy" is a bad, bad word. According to Ban Bossy, by middle school, girls are less likely to take leadership roles, and that unfortunate trend continues into adulthood. We're asked to pledge not to use the word "bossy" at all, and I'm fully on board with that, even where boys are concerned. Who wants to be called bossy anyway? But call our girls and boys leaders? Sounds like a great idea to me.
Luckily for us, our daughter's kindergarten teacher (and, for that matter, every teacher she had from that moment on) supported our daughter being "a big helper." They encouraged her to help, and as a result, she was able to channel her need to help in the right direction. Because of a positive spin on bossy, my daughter had the confidence, at 10, to decide on her own that she was ready to apply for an academically-challenging school program. At 10, my daughter knew that there was something negative about the word "bossy," but she understood that a simple word choice could turn bossy into something powerful.
I give a large portion of the credit to our underpaid, overworked school teachers for preparing our daughter for middle school. So much of who our daughter has become is due to the hardworking, compassionate teachers who cared about our daughter's personal development as well as her academic success. Sure, our education system is flawed, standardized tests are the pits and we have work to do to educate all children on an acceptable level, but the teachers who commit their professional lives to our children deserve our praise.
On the afternoon that a stack of important mail arrived, my daughter cautiously opened the envelopes while I nervously documented it all on video. Each time she opened a letter, her face lit up. Afterwards, she promptly went outside on the front porch, closed the door and screamed at the top of her lungs while my husband and stepson and I gave each other high-fives. When she came back inside, I could already see the change. She's ready to take middle school by storm, and you can bet she'll be a leader when she gets there.