When Poor Grades Happen to Good Students

Report card pick-up / parent-teacher conference day: it is the bane of my existence as a parent of elementary-school children. And not for the reasons you may think.

My children are solid performers academically. They each, in turn, excel and struggle in their subjects. The Boy has strong critical-thinking skills and is curious, and enjoys reading, writing, and debate. The Girl is mathy beyond anything I’ve ever experienced; she has been using numbers, patterns, and codes since she could talk.  (#3 also appears to be good with numbers, but it’s too early to tell much about his talent for anything other than watching YouTube videos of Minecraft.)

But with report cards come honor designations for academic achievement, as measured by grades. In our school, these are honor roll and principal’s honor roll. The first earns you a certificate and your name on the wall. The second earns you both of those and a special breakfast with fellow designees, your family, teachers, and the principal.

I’m pretty sure that the principal’s honor roll was designed to acknowledge and celebrate those students who earn top marks across the board. My children have never made principal’s honor roll. This bothers The Girl immensely. She has been chasing this “dream” since she was in kindergarten and has never made it. She is an enthusiastic student who tries hard and enjoys the learning process. (The Boy stopped chasing the honor roll dream in 5th grade. #3 hasn’t begun to care.)

But she is obsessed with her rank. She wants to measure herself against everyone else, and more importantly, she wants to beat them. She considers herself a failure because she’s never been invited to a breakfast with the principal.

This saddens me. It also makes me dread each quarter end and the accompanying, inevitable meltdown. The Girl doesn’t have test anxiety, she has report-card/honor-roll anxiety. As a parent, it’s exhausting to manage. It’s also sad.

Her teachers are only partially sympathetic. On the one hand, they are happy to share with me/her what steps she needs to take to bring her grades up into straight-A territory. On the other, they tell me that she’s better off not getting the carrot.

Maybe they are right. I know that intrinsic motivation is more important than extrinsic motivators. However, the school has set up a system that rewards the very top, and sends the message that those aren’t at the top aren’t worth celebrating. This shouldn’t surprise me: the system rewards the very top.

Against such a backdrop, it is difficult for me to convince her that the learning is more important than the grades, that the process is the point.

To be fair, the school introduced principal’s tea a few years ago as a way to honor those students who embody or work toward achievement of school values each quarter. But for The Girl, this feels like a consolation prize. She is right.

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