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ParentsFebruary 8, 2017

A genius in his own way: My child isn’t ‘below standard’


What do you do when your child is being graded poorly in a system that doesn’t feel set up for kids like them? Emmaline Matagi writes of her hopes and dreams for a child who is smart, gentle, and ‘below standard’ in literacy.

Albert Einstein once said: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.” These words have resonated with me deeply during my parenting journey.

I have three children. Mister 11 is a gentle giant. He has a heart of pure love like his father and a mouth like his mother (which is wonderful of course!) Miss Six is an old soul. She’s been here before, she’s done this before and she just wants to get on with it like her dad. She also has a mouth like her mother (yes, she is blessed!)

Master One is the boss full stop (again like his mother!) They are all very different but very much alike in terms of independence, their Fijian noses and their terrible dry humour.

Where they differ is in the way they learn.

Mister 11 attends an intermediate school. He has always struggled with reading but he is a mathematical genius. He can do amazing things with numbers in his head and he does it for fun. He also loves sport and is most comfortable running around a field or a court.

Miss Six attends primary school and is a literacy whizz; reading chapter books makes her happy, as does writing ridiculously long stories. She won excellence awards for literacy at her school prizegiving last year and she’s pretty good at maths too. She’s an all-round academic. Sport is definitely not her thing though. With long lanky legs and arms, she looks like a baby giraffe trying to walk for the first time . Yep, that’s my girl!

Having two school-aged children who are completely different academically has been a very interesting rollercoaster ride.

I am a teacher. My mother is a principal. We come from a family of natural teachers, not the ‘university-educated teaching in the classroom’ kind but the ‘raised in the village, taught in the plantation, the ocean, the river and the fields’ kind.

I am always torn inside when it comes to education. I absolutely believe it is necessary. However, I am unsure of how we best deliver an educational programme that fits the needs of children like mine. What do you do when one child obviously thrives in the education system and the other child drowns within that same system?

My son is ‘below standard’ for reading and writing. He always has been. Since his first report six months into his schooling he has been ‘below’. He has made amazing progress within the ‘below’ space. But this will never be reported on because he still has not ticked all of the boxes required to make him ‘at standard’ for his age.


This is one of the hardest parts of receiving a school report. Not only does it put pressure on the parent – “Hey, your kid isn’t where he should be! Do something!” But it also puts pressure on the student. Imagine being 11 years old and seeing ‘below standard’. It’s like a giant neon light saying you are not good enough or smart enough.

I tell him that he is smart all the time. Because he is.

But he knows who the ‘smart’ kids are at school because they are constantly being praised. And he knows where he sits within National Standards because that’s what we do in this country. We share with students, we conference with them, and we tell them what they are achieving and what they are not achieving or need to work on. We expect them to take this information and keep it in their minds and work on it. This is how the education system in 2017 works.

Hes 11! Lets be honest here, he doesn’t care about what he can or cannot read. He cares about who just won the last NRL game he watched. He cares about what he has to eat after school. He cares about everything other than making sure he can re-read a paragraph to make sense of it and then answer inference questions from the same paragraph. Of course as his parent I expect him to care about his learning but the reality of the situation is that it’s probably the last thing he truly cares about. Surely a lot of parents can relate to this?

The difficulty is that he needs to be educated. The difficulty is also that what I consider ‘education’ is not the same as what the government considers ‘education’.

Why can’t he learn literacy and mathematics outdoors? He loves being outdoors! Why are we making children sit and learn in a room with a desk and a pencil? Why can’t they be outside making stuff and talking about it and then drawing it and writing about it? Why can’t they be tested on how well they can explain how something works rather than writing an essay about it? Why is academic language so valuable? Why can’t his opinion be just as valuable?

I have so many questions.

I hate how slow the government is to move with the times in terms of education. I hate the old one-size-fits-all approach. I hate the expectations put on teachers to make sure everyone fits the one size regardless of how painful it is for student and teacher. I hate how many passionate teachers end up hitting their heads against so many walls trying to help our children.

There are many examples overseas of different styles of teaching. There are places in Europe that have class sizes of no more than 15. Others have no exams until Year 13. Mixed ability classes and even places where they are completely educated outdoors rain, hail, snow, or shine!

Can you imagine how amazing (and cold) that would be?

There are countries where teachers cannot teach unless they have a Masters degree in a subject they are passionate about.

Alternative education shouldn’t be alternative. It should just be another educational option. I have friends who home school and some who are part of the unschooling movement. They have children who can talk openly about the environment and feminism and they have children who have opinions more well informed than some of the adults I know. I would love the opportunity to unschool my children. But I am one of those stuck in this place of wanting better but still needing to work within the system we have.

It’s such a painful and upsetting place to be. I want better for my children but it is out of reach for us because of our circumstances and needs – namely money and stability. Who knows, maybe one day I might just get five one-way tickets to the Islands and I’ll move my family to the village and raise them all there. At the moment though, I’m here. Trying to do my best by my children.

In our education system the more educated you are, the more options you have in terms of employment. The higher your qualification, the higher your pay rate. But to gain further education in this country you have to pay. We have to pay to become well educated citizens – with a piece of paper to show for it.

So, to become high-earning person with great job prospects you must first have the means to pay for the necessary education. Then you must also have the support around you to make it through that education process. It is a system that is definitely not built for everyone. Although we are very fortunate in our country to be able to have access to education at all, it is frustrating nonetheless. And it’s lonely. I know other parents feel this way, but where are they?

For now, in the absence of an answer – or at least an easy fix – I am doing what I can. I know I have to work harder with Mister 11. I know Miss Six is a monkey who can climb the education system’s trees with ease. And I know Mister 11 is a fish who the system wants to climb trees, but he can’t.

So he will continue to swim freely through the ocean while being told he is below the monkeys.

How amazing would it be if the government and our education system wanted monkeys to climb trees and fish to swim – and still told them both they were both right where they’re meant to be?

Emmaline Matangi grew up in Fiji and lives in West Auckland with her husband, three kids, sister, brother in law, dad…the list goes on. She’s a teacher with a BEd currently doing her MA in Education. You can find her usually in bed or at work – no in between.

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