Cheering for Failure

GradesI meet most of my students when they’re freshmen, unsure and uneasy about the demands of college life, in and out of the classroom. I follow them through senior year, onto graduation and even beyond, and witness their personal growth with pride and pleasure.

I like to think that I’ve helped more than a few of them cross the stage at graduation with a little more knowledge, competence and confidence. I suspect they consider me a cheerleader to their success, audibly shouting from the stands, but more silently relishing in all that they have accomplished.

I wonder if they know, though, that I’ve also rooted for their failure.

When one of my students had atypically gone a full week without showing me any of the work she’d done on a soon-to-be-due paper, I confronted her.

I passed it in.

Huh? I hadn’t caught a glimpse of it yet. This from a student who once worked back-and-forth with me on more than a dozen revisions to a single paper. On the one hand, this is exactly the trajectory I hope for. Eventually, students hand in papers on which they’ve worked hard and long and feel confident enough to put their best work before their professor for a grade –without any assistance from me whatsoever.

In this case, with this girl, I was thinking there was another hand. I asked her why I hadn’t seen it.

She looked me straight in the eye and said, Because it sucked.

The one quality I always loved about this kid was her honesty.

She went on to explain to me that she just didn’t want to do the work I would make her do and that the paper she passed in would earn her a B; she was fine with that. In truth, the paper probably didn’t even deserve a B but she knew the professor. She also knew I held her to a higher standard than he did.

I never saw the paper. She got a B.

I wish she hadn’t.

Just as I’d hoped for that C another student received in final grades instead of a B-. And was glad for the 10 point penalty for the late paper.

Don’t get me wrong. I like receiving those texts with the got an A followed by exclamation points. I really do cheer on their successes –that is when they deserve them.

So many times they don’t.

They take short-cuts, make excuses, do shoddy work. None of it at all surprising. Some of my own college papers were less than stellar. The difference though, was that I usually received grades commensurate to my effort. Lots of work and lots of effort got me a well-earned A. Not so much work got not-so-good grades. No excuses. I got what I’d deserved.

My students seem less likely to acknowledge that their instructors aren’t giving them grades so much as they themselves are (or are not) earning them. They don’t often appreciate that C- as the gift that it is. Really, they want the B.

One of my students bemoaned a poor grade saying the professor could’ve cut him some slack. He likely didn’t appreciate my dude, you’re in college comeback. But called out, he gave me a reluctant admission that he could have submitted better work. Then, he flashed his winning smile. He’ll go far on that alone –he’s counting on it. And today, he may not be wrong.

Maybe my students know better than I. Many of them seem to be doing just fine with minimum effort and maximum manipulation of a system they have a better handle on than I do. They often get the grades they want –even when I wished they hadn’t.

So I’ll keep wishing them ill. Or at least a handful of them.

It’s only the students who are most capable for whom I truly cheer for defeat. Because they may know all the short cuts, but I know all the scenery they miss when they don’t take the full ride.