Last week, one of my students committed suicide. There are a million things that I could say about this student, but the family is grieving terribly right now and they have asked our school not to mention the student’s name or the manner of the student’s death. So I won’t talk about the student at all here, other than to say that I miss my student, and that it is hard to see that gap in the roster every single time we hold class (for me and the kids both).
I’d like to talk instead about something that we don’t talk about very often in the context of teaching: love.
When I was in school, even as late as graduate school, I felt an odd mixture of love and fear for my teachers. I wanted desperately to please my teachers, but I also sometimes saw them as gatekeepers to something I wanted: an A, a letter of recommendation, a signature on my dissertation title page. Dealing with this suicide has made me realize that my students think of me the same way. I am the person whose approval they desperately want.
Some of them want my approval because they respect me and they want to make me proud, but some of them want my approval in the form of an A on a paper or in a class because they see this one small A grade as piece in the puzzle that builds toward their future success. I know these kids, because I was constantly trying not to be one of them when I was in high school. I know the patterns of their thoughts: “This A paper will lead to an A in the class, which will lead to a 4.0 transcript, which will guarantee my admission into an Ivy League school, which will enable me to gain prestige and make connections that will pave the way towards a good job, which will lead to power and success in my adult life.” It’s like having a pressure cooker inside your brain. Your whole future depends on each and every assessment, and it is simply overwhelming. It is not a healthy way to think.
Some of them want my approval because they are coming to the OHS (a school for advanced students) because they were not challenged in their old school, and they always got As without even trying. To them, being an A-Student is a marker of identity and getting something lower than an A is an affront to their sense of self. It’s not that they feel entitled to an A, but that they don’t know who they are if they don’t get As anymore. Getting a B or a C on a paper is tantamount to an identity crisis, and it is paralyzing for them. They are thinking, “If I can’t get an A, maybe I am not ‘gifted’ after all.” That leads into a spiral of thinking that everything that they know about themselves is “wrong” and “false.” Such students often shut down in the course completely, preferring to preserve their sense of self by “choosing” to fail the course.
Of course, there are students who are entitled and spoiled and think about education as something that can be bought, but my experience has been that there are actually not that many students who fall into this category. Most of the students who freak out about getting an A fall into the categories of either putting too much pressure on themselves or tying their sense of self to the grades that they get.
I don’t know why my student committed suicide. If there was a note, the family did not share it with us. Of course, I am horrified by the thought that I contributed to the suicide in any way; however, the thought is natural because Palo Alto is known for being the type of place where high school students commit suicide over grades. I gave my student a C+ on a paper the day before the suicide. What if this student was thinking in one of these destructive patterns and, therefore, saw the grade as a sign of either 1) future cataclysmic failure or 2) my condemnation of his or her very person?
The truth is, I was actually incredibly proud of my student’s C+ paper. The student’s sample essay, which was used to gain admission into my course, was not a very good paper. I would have failed that paper and worked with the student to rewrite it. While it evidenced an empathetic and intelligent mind, the paper didn’t seem to grasp the genre of expository writing. Endearingly, my student was trying to draw life lessons from literature instead of simply considering how the literary objects worked to create meaning. The paper that earned the C+ in my class, however, was absolutely an appropriate paper on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but it contained a local misreading of the play. I was planning on asking my student to rewrite the paper, correcting that factual misunderstanding. I saw a lot of promise in my student’s writing and I was actually excited, because I saw a young writer who was just on the brink of turning the corner and making major improvements. The C+ was not at all an indication of failure, nor was it a condemnation of the student as a thinker or a person. It was, quite simply, an indication that the paper was good but flawed and needed some reworking. It was a call to improve further, a challenge to grow.
How do we, as teachers, communicate what grades “mean” to students? How do we let them know that a bad grade on a paper is actually just an invitation to develop, and that it’s not an indictment or an attempt to “ruin” their lives?
Over the years, I have started to see grading as an act of love. It’s easily the worst part of teaching. It’s not only time-consuming and tedious, but it also risks putting strain on the student-teacher dynamic, which is the best part of the job. In the English classroom, teachers work really hard to establish an environment of trust. We want to make a space for our students to feel safe to try out new ideas even if they aren’t thought through all the way yet. If we ask a question about interpretation, we want our students to explore new ideas, and if they don’t work out so well, then it’s no big deal. Very simply, some ideas will work and some won’t. But with papers, there is more risk. If the ideas in a paper are haphazardly supported, or if they are actually counterfactual, then the paper will earn a low grade. It’s not a zero-risk assignment the way that discussion should be. All the work that goes into establishing the classroom as a safe space for intellectual risk can evaporate if students don’t understand why they have gotten the grades that we give.
But grading is also where we push our students to become better thinkers and writers. It’s the way that we give them our “tough love.” Without us challenging their ideas, they won’t grow to become more sophisticated thinkers.
There is a reason why teachers so often talk about their students as their “kids.” It’s because the role of the teacher and the role of the parent is similar: we have to balance discipline, rules, limits, and expectations with love, kindness, tolerance, and support as we guide our young people into becoming sophisticated, self-reliant thinkers. Parents have a more global project of helping their children to become good people, but we are doing a similar job that is specifically connected to a student’s intellectual growth.
And for whatever reason, we don’t tell our students “I love you” enough. Many of the students get this intuitively, but not all of them. I worry that the discipline and expectations are all that gets communicated to the students, and that they don’t hear us saying that we rejoice in their successes and we share their disappointment when they miss the mark. I am not sure that students always get it that we have sympathy and compassion for them. It sounds so cheesy to tell our students, “I love you,” point blank, but I don’t think they hear it unless we spell it out in no uncertain terms. And of course, there are other reasons that we are afraid to tell our students that we love them: fear that they will try to take advantage of that or fear that “love” will be misinterpreted as something inappropriate.
I wish there were a better way to let our students know that we think that they are wonderful people, that they bring our lives so much joy, and that we care about them as thinkers and as people. I was able to share this with my students when we met for the first time after we got the news about the suicide, but at that point it seemed too late. I am still struggling with this—I haven’t managed to talk about the love that teachers have for students outside of the one section where there is still that hole in the roster. Part of this is because I have to honor the wishes of the family and not mention that the student’s death was due to suicide, but part of it is because I don’t have a strategy for telling my students how much I care about them. “Love” in the classroom sounds touchy-feely and silly, but it’s true and it’s vital; we wouldn’t expect parents to do their jobs without telling their children that they love them, so why do we try to do our job without telling our students that we love them?
We need some kind of strategy for communicating this feeling in our profession, especially to young people who don’t quite have the tools for picking up on it intuitively.