Encourage Excellence, but Don’t Expect It

It’s the end of the first quarter, and per usual, many students are suddenly very worried about their grades. I’ve conferenced with students about why their grades are what they are, and I’ve reminded them that they have ample time to bring their grades up before the end of the semester. I am always pleased to see some of my less motivated students start working after these conversations, even if it’s just so they can secure a D rather than an F.  Of course, the student who will set just about any teacher off is the one who asks the teacher why she “gave” him such a low grade, but like any other teacher accused of doing such a thing, I take this opportunity to remind that student that he earned the grade and to point out all of the incomplete assignments that likely lead to that grade.

No, those are not the conversations that bother me the most.

The conversations that bother me the most are with students who have Bs but are begging for any opportunity to bring their grade up to an A. These students often aren’t interested in discovering how they can improve their performance; they simply want to negotiate a higher grade. To be clear, I am not one of those teachers who “doesn’t give As.” Plenty of students earn As in my class; however, I do believe that grade inflation is common in education, and it’s causing students to believe they deserve an A simply for doing the work.  That’s not what an A is supposed to mean. An A is supposed to mean excellence; it means that the student has exceeded the expectations for the assignment, and it should not be awarded for simple participation and compliance.

But far more upsetting to me than the conversations with the students who think they deserve an A are the conversations with students who are afraid to take anything less than an A home to their parents.

Earning a B is not something any student should be ashamed of, nor should it ever be something parents view as evidence that their child did not work hard enough in a class. Earning a B means the student met the expectations of the assignment. They have mastered the skills and content knowledge that they were supposed to achieve. And despite what the overwhelming attitude toward Cs seems to be, they are nothing to balk at either. C’s mean “average,” and not in the sense of basic – average in the sense that they should be the average grade. Cs recognize that most students fall short of mastery, but that doesn’t mean they’re struggling or performing poorly. There is a reason college students love the phrase “Cs get degrees.” It is an acceptable and sufficient grade and not a grade a child should be punished for.

I’m not saying that students shouldn’t strive for excellence.

I expect my students to give me their best every day, but their best differs from day to day. What I am saying is that we should not equate failure to achieve an A with worthlessness or inadequacy. All that does is trigger anxiety and encourage cheating. Instead, we should encourage students to take advantage of their educational experiences, to strive to learn, not just to earn a certain grade; to gain knowledge and improve skills, not just achieve a certain GPA. Students who strive to do better because they want to, and not because they feel they have to, will be more resilient and more successful in the long run than those who equate their value with external marks of excellence.

Kelly Vollmer
Kelly first moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University, from which she earned a B.S. in Psychology and English and an M.A. in English. She quickly discovered New Orleans was the place where she had always belonged, and her high school sweetheart, Jeff, soon followed her here. They have now been married for 16 years and have two beautiful girls, Emma Jane (11) and Hannah (6), and 4 year-old pup named Ember. Kelly is a lover of all things nerdy, a proud fangirl, and she is a passionate high school English teacher.


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