Questions Not To Ask Your Teacher: “Is My Grade Going Up?”

Another teacher post, here.  I try to keep them from coming too often because I know that I have readers of all walks and I don’t want to alienate by writing too much about any one thing.  That said, sometimes it just has to be done, and the first day back from spring break brought with it an incident that my inner Id-Writer won’t turn loose of until I purge it.

Kids are lazy.  I get it.  I see it in my own two-year-old, and he doesn’t even know how to be lazy.  I shouldn’t say lazy.  I should say they are efficiency seekers.  Nature abhors wasted energy.  A tree grows only as high as it must in order to harvest the sunlight it needs to reproduce.  A pride of lions hunts only when they are hungry, otherwise they are basically enormous housecats looking for a patch of sunlight or shade to lie in, depending on the season.  So, too, do humans, and by extension human children, have a biological imperative to get as much for as little as they can.  I understand this.    It makes perfect sense.  The problem is, we are no longer driven by survival.  A child does not risk starvation if it does not complete its homework.  It will not die of exposure if it does not get its room clean on time.

The energy that would once have been devoted to survival is now (in a perfect world) devoted to making a child the best future human it can be, and that means enriching the mind.  The yachts and mansions and shiny red convertibles don’t, as a rule, go to the dunces.  They go to the smartest and then to the bankers and then to the politicians (the rest of us are just BORROWING their money).  So while academic achievement doesn’t benefit a kid in the immediate, (working hard & getting good grades would be “wasted energy” in a survivalist sense) it benefits them in the long term.

This leads us to selective laziness.  A clever future human quickly does the math and realizes that there is a balance to be struck between doing the best that you can (applying all of your energy) and doing only what you need to do in order to survive.  Of course, the risk-assessment portions of our brains don’t fully form until we are, I dunno, thirty or so, so it’s even harder for a kid (and let me clarify that I’m talking about any kid in government-sanctioned school age, which is to say, any 5- to 18-year-old) to grasp that “doing your best” in school might be a wise course of action.  Mom and Dad can push you in that direction, of course, but you can only fight nature to a point, depending on how big your stick is (anybody else out there get punished for bad grades?  Yeah, you can spot us pretty easily, we’re the ones not dropping out of high school in droves).  Incidentally, this is why a student’s grade in a class is not a good indicator of their intelligence.  Any teacher will tell you that the smartest kids in the class are rarely the ones with the highest grades.  The smartest ones are usually the ones barely passing.  (NOTE THAT I DID NOT SAY ALL THE ONES BARELY PASSING ARE THE SMARTEST.  WE’LL GET TO THEM.)  They’ve figured out exactly how hard they need to work to pass (and by virtue of passing, get their parents off their backs, and by virtue of getting their parents off their backs, how to do what they want to do, which is be a teenager, sleep in, eat pop-tarts, and play Call of Duty).  Selective laziness allows them to do this. I have a host of students — very nearly half — in my English class whose grades have hovered within a handful of points of 75 for most of the year.  They could do better.  Easily.  But they don’t.  They haven’t made the connection.  One day they will.  Maybe there will be regret, and maybe not, but the best I can do is to try and help them to see this situation for what it is.  A waste of energy, and a waste of potential.

Whew.  This brings us to the fun part, which is pointing out how dumb some of my students are.  I shouldn’t say dumb.  I should say lazy.  And this time I mean lazy, which is to say, they don’t want to do ANYTHING they’re not interested in, whether they pass or not.  That’s not selective.  That’s just, well, a failure of evolution.

I’ve got a handful of kids who are not passing.  It’s unfortunate, but in the majority of their cases, it’s what needs to happen.  They haven’t yet learned what they need to (and I’m talking about the ability to read, analyze, and make sense of what they’re reading — you know, the things you, dear reader, can do without really pausing to think about it) and they need to go back and try it again.

It doesn’t stop them, bless their hearts, from trying, in whatever ways are available to them.  Of course, hand-in-hand with this extreme aversion to work is an aversion to common sense.  Which brings me, finally, to the comment that set in motion my ramble for today.

The child in question has been failing since about the second week of the year, which is to say, since the time I put in the first grades.  His grade has been no secret to anybody, least of all him, and he has, since the end of the year is suddenly upon us and he has realized that he will be a senior again next year, finally taken an interest.  We talked briefly prior to Spring Break about his grade and what he needed to do to have a chance at passing for the year.

So he comes to me today (first day back) and asks me, “Is my grade going up?”

I teach over 100 kids.  It’s virtually impossible for me to know offhand what an individual student’s grade is off the top of my head.  Thankfully, there are apps for that, and we have wonderful technology at our disposal to garner this information at a moment’s notice.  Which I do.  I start logging in to systems and pulling files.  Then it dawns on me.  He hasn’t turned in anything since we spoke.

This I tell him.  He nods and says, “yeah, I just wanted to see if my grade’s going up.”  I look at him oddly, in much the way I imagine God must have looked at Adam (if you believe in that sort of thing) when Adam told God that, yeah, he had actually had some of the fruit from that one tree God had specifically told him not to touch, you weren’t serious about that, right, God?  (Did I just analogize myself with God?  I think I did.)

I ask him how he expects his grade to have changed when he has not in fact done any work, and he just sort of looks at me like I’m speaking in Latin.  They do this a lot when I move my modifiers around or use big words like “appropriate requirements” or “requisite amount of work”, which I do for the purpose of seeing them look at me like I’m speaking in Latin.

I am torn between feeling badly for him and his parents and the teachers that will teach him again next year, and being abjectly horrified at the amount of taxpayer dollars and man-hours that have gone into this child’s education only to bounce aside, as impactful as spitballs to a Panzer.  Dribbles from a spigot in his ocean of academic indifference.

Sidenote: Thanks to this post, I’m going to be calling all my students “future humans” from now on.