It’s the end of the grading period and my high school students are scrambling to turn in late work, which I always allow them to do, pandemic or no. And this is why.
I was a terrible student. From an early age I frustrated my parents and teachers because I was always on the verge of failing. Though capable, I was unmotivated to do anything that did not interest me. Nothing the adults in my life tried could make me more responsible.
In 10th grade I was failing so many classes that my parents made an agreement with my guidance counselor to have all my teachers fill out a weekly progress report so they could monitor me more closely. One day I picked up the report from my counselor and she had written a note for my parents: “Congratulations! Melissa got the highest score in the school on the Reading PSAT.” Instead of feeling proud, I was filled with dread. I knew the note alongside that F I had in English was going to get me in big trouble.
By the grace of God and the kindness of my teachers, I graduated high school with a decent enough GPA to get me into college, though my university performance was less summa cum laude and more “laude daude, we like to party.” Somehow, I managed to earn a degree and talked my way into graduate school.
Once I began studying topics that interested me, I became a motivated student with the grades to match and went on to earn both a master’s and a doctorate.
Just because a student is capable of doing well in school, doesn’t mean they will
Today I am thankful for the gift of being a lackluster student. When I look at my own struggling students, I don’t assume they’re lazy. I look at them and see myself and know there is always more to the story. Just because a student is capable of doing well does not mean they will. There could be a variety of reasons for this: trauma, lack of support at home, social issues, learning disabilities, or simply feeling unchallenged by the work, just to name a few.
Over the years I have learned only students who are already motivated to learn get upset about zeros; those who don’t care about grades are unaffected. Educational researcher Dr. Thomas Guskey found not only are grades inherently subjective, they also have no value as punishments. So giving a kid a zero because they didn’t turn in the assignment only teaches them that I am inflexible. It does not teach them to do better next time or be more responsible.
UCLA professor Rebecca Alber suggests there are some things failing students wish their teachers (and parents) would remember, and I try to keep these in mind when working with my students and my own children.
Four things students would like their teachers to remember
1. I am not my grade.
Sometimes students are so accustomed to failing they stop trying on assignments. The grade may not accurately reflect what they know in the subject and furthermore—as my story illustrates—grades are not necessarily predictive of success in life.
2. I am not a disappointment.
Students often care more about what teachers, parents, and peers think than they let on. Finding things they are doing right and taking emphasis off grades can help quell the negative self-talk.
3. Meet me where I am.
If a student has a learning difference (many go undiagnosed) they may need help with clarifying directions or organization. These are things the adults in their lives can assist with.
4. Don’t give up. Find a way for me.
So, here’s how I roll: YES, you can have more time on that assignment. YES, you can retake that test. NO, you do not have to explain, grovel, or beg.
In the end, this is the lesson I hope to instill in my students: grace will come to you, even when you do not deserve it…because people are good, and the universe is benevolent. It was the grace of my teachers in high school and college that helped get me where I am. And now it’s my turn to pay it forward.