“Oh boy!” I said with a smile, opening the envelope with overly dramatic excitement while she watched, curious.
I quickly scanned the paper: High marks in every category. Not surprising. However, it was in that exact moment when a little red flag popped up in my head: Think about how you respond to this.
My mind traveled back to myself as a schoolgirl, growing up in a family that considered grades the paramount indicator of success. The pressure started young, and it was intense.
Sure, I wanted to acknowledge my daughter’s A’s as a reflection of good behavior, listening to her teachers and following instructions. But there would be no celebration, no special reward and no suggestion that she is in any way better or smarter than her fellow classmates.
“Did I do good, mommy?” she asked. Knowing that she’s highly motivated by praise, I was calculated in my answer.
“Yes, A’s are good,” I explained. “But so are other grades. There’s more to being a good student than the grade you get on your report card. What matters most is that you always try your best.”
Come on, you might be thinking. Don’t you think you’re over analyzing? What’s wrong with teaching your child to strive for the top?
As my first child enters her fourth month of kindergarten, I by no means claim to be an expert on elementary school grades. But what I can speak to, quite confidently, is what happens when these grade school kids go to college.
During the nearly 10 years I have spent teaching in higher education, students have become increasingly fixated on their letter grades — explicitly obsessed with the “A” — and willing to do just about anything to get that perfect 4.0.
Cheating and plagiarism are not uncommon. Nor are confrontations between student and professor.
“You know, you’re the only person to ever give me a ‘B,’” one student assertively challenged me. My response? “I didn’t give the grade. You earned the grade. But besides that, what is so wrong with a ‘B’?”
“I don’t get Bs,” another student declared in my office, her nervous laughter unsuccessfully covering the stern undertone of her charge. “Just tell me what I have to do to get the A.” She was serious, and she meant business.
So yes, I apparently slashed these shining stars’ dreams of graduating summa cum laude. But that left me thinking: Since when is a “B” such a bad thing? According to most grading scales, a “C” represents average and a “B” above average. Yet to Gen Z students, C’s are the new “F” — to get a C is akin to failing, a mentality undoubtedly linked to the everyone-gets-a-trophy convention.
There is a fine line between students respectfully questioning a grade, and insistently arguing in an overbearing manner. From a faculty standpoint, I’m a firm believer in the relevance of the bell curve of standard distribution.
With so much emphasis put on the “A,” I want my kids to know there is value in the “B” and even in the “C.” While not passing a class comes with its own set of detriments, and low grades do impact grade-point averages, this quest for perfection is setting young people up for failure in the real world.
I often ask my students this: Is a future employer going to care that you got an “A” or a “B” in this course? Maybe. Maybe not. Realistically, probably not.
What employers seek is dedication, resilience, hard work. They applaud teamwork, can-do outlooks, positive attitudes and good communication skills. Some of the most marketable graduating students are the ones who have expanded their horizons through volunteer work, extracurricular activities and leadership opportunities, regardless of the letters on their transcripts. I have never had a former student tell me they were asked for their grades during a job interview. Whether they earned straight A’s in their classes is irrelevant.
With such an extreme focus on flawlessness, I can’t help but wonder how this generation will survive in the workforce. The fact of the matter is that mistakes happen and they serve as learning experiences. Further, it’s acceptable to not excel at everything — mediocrity does have its place in the world. School is a chance to discover not only what you’re good at, but also what you’re not so good at. And doesn’t that provide a valuable insight into developing a better understanding of one’s self, as well as carving out possibilities for the future?
As a parent, it seems irrational to expect my child to shine in every single subject. When my daughter brings home her next progress report, it will serve as an opportunity to discuss her feelings about school, learning and navigating the world of organized education. As she grows, and as the awareness of letter grades undoubtedly increases, I hope to remain less focused on grades and more so on intention and energy.
My sweet girl already exhibits perfectionist tendencies that often make me cringe. So soon? Yet when we work side by side on tasks for school or otherwise, I am hyper-conscious to praise effort over excellence.
“I can’t make it perfect like you!” she recently cried, after crumbling up several half-drawn Christmas trees.
“That’s okay, honey,” I tried to soothe her. “Sometimes things are tricky, and you’re not always going to be perfect at everything. Your tree looks beautiful to me and I love it because you made it.”
When it comes to assessments in classes, I plan to have conversations about work ethic, character and perseverance that will set my kids up for adulthood. I want them to know that school is important and should be taken seriously, but it is not only measure of success. Striving for continuous improvement is a highly valued trait.
The child who works hard and receives A’s in my family will be just as praised as the child who works equally hard and receives C’s. “I’m proud of you” goes a long way in the eyes of our youth, and celebrating life’s achievements — and shortcomings — will reach much farther than the grades on their report cards.
Jennifer Craven is an instructor of fashion merchandising at Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania.