08/23/2013 03:30 EDT | Updated 10/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Teacher Michael Reist encourages schools to adapt to times, kids' needs in book

TORONTO - He has retired after three decades in the classroom, but concerns for current and future generations of students remain front of mind for Michael Reist — particularly youngsters who may feel ill at ease within the school environment.

"School should be a happy place that kids like to go to. That's my dream. And I saw too many kids that hated it and for whom it was even damaging, and an incredible loss of human potential in kids who had so much to offer," recalled the longtime teacher who lives in Caledon East, Ont.

"But because of the way the school system works, they were made to feel stupid. They were made to feel excluded. Their self-esteem was damaged. And I want to talk about that. I want to open up a conversation and I want to get parents involved."

In his new book, "What Every Parent Should Know About School" (Dundurn), Reist looks at the physical, emotional and social environments within schools and the students and educators who comprise the system.

While his book is geared toward parents, Reist also encourages discussion among teachers and administrators to examine strengths and weaknesses within the current system. The father of four also stressed the need to listen to kids and to observe how they demonstrate their feelings about school in words and actions — all an effort to create more effective strategies to help them thrive.

Reist said the "factory school" model which applies a singular approach to educating kids is "obsolete."

"Because of technology, we now live in a web world of radical democracy and radical empowerment, and when kids are on their screens, they're totally in charge," he said.

"They're free, they're autonomous, they can learn, they can go where they want to go, do what they want to do. They come to school and it's this old environment. 'Sit still. Be quiet. Do what you're told.' And the world has changed so much that those three rules are now very hard for kids to follow."

Reist has spoken frequently to parent groups and education conferences across Canada with workshops centred on gender differences and learning.

In the book, he writes that one reason boys fall behind in school is because they favour spatial activities which are enticing to the male brain — a contrast from the largely logical, linear and verbal functioning of the school environment which is generally more comfortable for the female brain. While literacy in boys should be encouraged, "we must also find ways of tapping into their natural love of movement."

Reist said he believes it's inevitable schools will be going online, already evidenced with the explosion of e-learning and teachers making use of websites. But he sees the school system of the future as one that won't be strictly a factory or virtual model but will feature an "eclectic mix" of different facets.

Reist, who's recently retired as head of the English department at an Ontario secondary school, said he'd also like to see a return to a more child-centred system which emphasize youngsters and their needs. One of the strategies discussed in the book is the need to allow for earlier specialization in their area of interest.

For kids uncertain of which path to follow, Reist said parents can offer support by promoting kids' strengths and enrolling them in extracurricular activities which feed those interests — even if they're not academically focused. He recalled a friend whose child wanted to participate in archery and ended up as a member of the provincial team.

Reist also devotes a chapter to marks, and writes that parents can do a lot to help kids process or interpret their grades.

"In MBA programs and elite programs, Ivy League schools, they're moving away from SATs, they're moving away from number scores. They're looking more at: 'What can this person do? Let me see your portfolio. Let me hear about your internship. I want to know can you really do this job,'" he said.

"I think school is still behind in that way that we're depending on numbers, so parents don't have a lot of power to change that. That's a structural problem. But where parents can be a help is in just calming down about marks," he added.

"When they get the report card, (students) feel judged by the system. They bring the report card home and they feel judged by their parents, and it's a double whammy. And I say to parents, yes, marks are huge stickers, they're huge tickets to advancement. But it can backfire if you overemphasize them."

Reist said no kid wants to perform poorly and he advises parents to adopt a rational approach, like asking kids how they feel about their marks and what they can do to help.

"The mistake that many parents make is that they react to their kids' marks emotionally. And what's it based in? Fear," Reist said. "'My kid's going to be a loser. My kid's going to live on the streets. My kid's going to be left behind.' Fear, fear, fear, fear. And fear is not a good thing.

"(If) they come home with a bad report card, you rub their back, you give them a hug, you say: 'We're going to work on this. I'm sure this is discouraging.' And you support them every step of the way."