By Darren Johnson
While shopping, we surely have seen the parent who we assume is from a poorer background get a little too rough, either verbally or otherwise, with their young child, who may just want one of those pieces of candy that the stores purposely put near the checkout.
And we surely have seen the parent who looks to be from a wealthier background at the checkout counter, caving in, and speaking softly to their little precious and giving him the Ring Pop, little doll or whatever parting gift is on display.
And, not to push this generalization too far – while both parents are teaching a life lesson – the poor kid will still likely end up poor and the spoiled kid will be buying Ring Pops for his whiny child someday.
As far as grades go, I’ve read that the most common one at Harvard is an “A.” The average grade is an “A-.” Sarah Lawrence College, one of the most expensive liberal arts colleges in the world, doesn’t even bother. They just give out “P” and “F” grades (almost wholly “P”).
Meanwhile, community colleges, where the students often come from poorer backgrounds, struggle with high failure and low graduation rates.
Every student at a fancy school can’t be an “A” student in every subject, but, rather than hear them whine at the checkout counter, the teaching establishment placates the students with the grades they imagine they are worthy of in their minds. And maybe that’s OK.
And as I have transitioned teaching courses at four-year colleges and then two-year colleges, I often think about my grading and the harm or good it does.
Does the student need to be strictly watched, because life is hard, after all, and being kind does him no favors?
Or, for certain students, maybe they can use a break once in a while? Maybe the person who has heard “no” his whole life really needs to hear “yes.”
But I can’t pick and choose. My grading has to be consistent. If I am going soft, I have to go soft for everyone. That’s only fair.
As I’ve transitioned to teaching students who, if they get a paper back full of red with no words of encouragement, won’t return – maybe ever – I have gotten kinder and gentler.
My grading has gone from the most common grade being a “C” or a “B” to an “A,” and I don’t apologize for that. Maybe I have gotten better as a teacher, after all, and the students genuinely are improving to that level over the 15 weeks of a semester.
I relate to community college students and their psyches because I was that child whose parents couldn’t justify many extra expenditures, and somehow I found myself at a private college where most of the other students did seem to have it all; nice cars, well stocked dorm rooms, a weekly check from mom and dad.
To compensate for my lack of means, I developed an outward personality that was confident, assured. In retrospect, it was a facade. Many of the instructors were difficult – I still maintain needlessly (some only gave C’s (or worse) – to everybody) – but others were forgiving. Some were very forgiving (all A’s). While grades were never a carrot-on-a-stick for me to study, they did give me a confidence boost. Because, really, my ego was fragile under the facade. Perhaps I would have quit if I’d only gotten C’s (or worse).
I went from being a person who was always raised with “no” to finding some people in authority positions – my instructors – who, happily, said, “Yes. Anything is possible.” Their A’s empowered me.
And this was enough for me to trudge on. To complete my degree in the expected time frame. To attempt graduate school after a couple of instructors told me, “Why not?” I went from believing in destiny to free will.
Were all of my C’s deserved? Were all of my A’s deserved? In retrospect, no. But, at that time, the mix of grades kept me grounded and hopeful. It was just enough fuel to get me to my destination.
Now, as a grader, I do realize that there are some students who need the carrot and stick. But, even if they are worthy, I almost never score their papers above a 92%. That’s the border of “A” and “A-” and usually enough to keep such students interested. In the end, they will get the grade they deserve.
Each college should look at its grading and its enrollment and decide if what the institution is doing is right. Are there more dropouts than students making the honor roll? If that’s the case, maybe the tough-love approach isn’t working.
Besides writing for newspapers, including this one, Darren Johnson has been an instructor of all sorts of courses since 1997, at a variety of colleges.