Having the Courage to Fail

"During the 2007-2008 school year, remediation programs nationwide totaled as much as $5.6 billion. Many students in college are genuinely unaware that they will be given aptitude tests upon matriculating and are often surprised when their freshmen academic schedules vary greatly from what they expected. This misconception, and naïve sense of entitlement, is another startling indication that secondary public schools are failing to prepare kids for the academic challenges of pursuing an undergraduate degree."

Yesterday's Chicago Tribune reported that "students struggle to get a B average as freshmen at the state's universities and community colleges, even after leaving top-performing high schools with good grades. In fact, public school graduates at 10 of the state's 11 four-year universities averaged less than a 3.0 GPA their freshman year."

I struggled to obtain decent grades at the high school I attended, a private school in Princeton that took me as a sophomore. After several years studying abroad and several years at a terrible local middle school, my study habits were nonexistent and I barely understood basic math. I was however much better read then most of my teachers and I had a true aptitude for writing and research. Three years at the excellent albeit biased high school taught me a great deal about grades and effort and determination. By the time I graduated I had a decent report card and went to college inspired to succeed. Some of my teachers graded me harshly but it wasn't something I discussed with my parents. Improving would be my revenge.

It never occurred to me to expect my professors to make me successful. The classes I took as a freshman included a graduate level social history course and several other upper level courses. There was never a time I felt secure or didn't accept the challenges I was given. For example, my art history professor gave weekly exams that required us to memorize a minimum of 75 works of art along with all the details that went along with identifying each painting or sculpture. I began the quarter with a c- but I spent hours in the gallery and reviewing my notes. Gradually, my grades improved. I also partied like a rock star but not after studying 3-4 hours very night. Also, I never missed a class.

When I received my first semester grades at Rutgers I read them incorrectly and thought I had received straight Cs. I was disappointed and surprised but I knew this was college and I knew I was responsible for whatever grade I received. I looked further to the right and realized I had actually been given straight As. I cried. I hadn't done well in school in years and those grades represented my true effort and my taking responsibility for my own education. I called my parents but I owned those grades. This is something we need to teach our kids. Becoming independent is a wonderful part of growing up, My son refuses to allow me to question his grades. If he does well or poorly his response is the same, "I deserved it."

I spent my junior year studying history in Dublin and read Ulysses with a famous Joyce scholar and read history with historians who had been cited in other books I had read. I felt overwhelmed and lacking in knowledge and understood that this was a privilege. I don't think I received an actual grade in those classes. Somehow my transcripts were still accepted.

                                               "naïve sense of entitlement"
This spring I taught a graduate education course to a group of students who thought I was a terrible teacher. Possibly I was but I think they are on their way to modeling some really terrible behavior; complaining about grades, asking for the chance to rewrite something for a changed grade, arguing about how things needed to be completed, negative and whiny. I couldn't help wondering how or why these students saw themselves as the savior of poorly served urban kids. Urban kids need to be  inspired, encouraged, supported and educated.  They need to read the book, write papers, get those papers back, rewrite them and be given grades they deserve. They need to get stickers on their papers, along with comments to help them improve, they need to be told they are good writers and readers but then they have to be made into good writers and readers. You must model excellence and high standards, Their grades need to reflect the work they can do. They need to be encouraged and supported to get better grades.

Teaching is hard. It isn't fun to have a class full of teenagers mad at you because they failed the Shakespeare quiz. It isn't fun to have students cry about their grades or simply hate you because "no one else ever gave me a B." But guess what? That's your job. Love them, teach them, show they how much you expect. Stop sending them to college as potential drop-outs. Give them the chance to struggle and fail so eventually they will own their own success. Help them get better by modeling excellence.


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