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Stand your Ground?

January 29, 2014

Up to Something

This morning I got to my office early and went through the daily ritual of checking my email and the email of each student waiting for scholarship results.  After days of waiting, George and Grace, my two strongest candidates, each had an email from one of the Canadian universities.


But not just rejected from the prestigious scholarship, rejected from the university and never even considered for the scholarship.  My heart dropped to somewhere below my stomach and, as I sank my head to my desk, I was grateful no one else was in the room yet.

“Failure to meet academic requirements.”

I knew it was a long shot, but to not even get considered?  That was something I, well, hadn’t expected.

But I tried to rally my mood because… what else can you do?  Keep moving forward.

I had a super productive day yesterday so I had all my grades done and was ready to post them.  So I opened my spreadsheet, hit print and posted them on the board in the corridor.

Then all those bad grades started hitting the fan known as student ego and I was sitting on the wrong side.

It was an ugly day, but the absolute low point was a student I’ll call Precious.  Technically she had failed, but I boosted her grade a few points to a 70 because I knew she’d worked hard and I wanted her to pass.  She deserved to pass.  Her friend had obviously studied more for the final and, as a result, ended up with a higher grade.  Precious was furious.  “Sis RB, I never expected this.  How can you do this to me?”  Grades, I told her, are not on me—they’re on her—and I wanted her to do better too.  “How will I explain to my bossman that you got 38% on my final but I sent you a B?”

“But Sis RB, I’m on scholarship.  This was the class I worked hard in.  My other grades are bad and I was counting on this one.  I guess I’ll just sit down from school next semester…”

Then she started crying.

I’ve had people cry and beg before.  I’ve had people scream before, but I’ve never… felt so devastated myself.  It was true she had worked hard.  She came into the Resource Room early in the morning several days each week and stayed for five to six hour until it was our class time.  Her writing skills are remedial but she trudged her way through every single one of my assignments.  Like I said, I wanted her to pass.

And now she pulled out every last stop.  She tried to pull her crying together (it’s pretty embarrassing to cry in Liberian culture) but she didn’t leave.  For almost 30 minutes she stood next to my desk silently.  This is a beautiful tactic I have often employed in banks and government offices.  It exploits the fact that someone won’t be so rude as to actually throw you out of their office so you just stay until they’re so uncomfortable they help you.

Finally I was about to cry, but as Jason always said there is no crying in teaching (although I would amend it to there is no public crying in teaching).  “Come back tomorrow morning,” I mumbled and, putting on my sunglasses, I went for a walk.

Part of me wants to help her by giving extra work like I did on the midterm, but the other part of me says to stand my ground.  As I tried to explain to her, before she started crying, I myself had to retake courses and she doesn’t even have to retake this one!  I took calculus three times before ‘graduating’ out.  I took it as a junior in high school and got a D.  Then I took it again my senior year of high school and got a mediocre AP score so I took another semester in college where I finally got my A.  If they had caved and passed me the first time I got a D I wouldn’t have fallen in love with calculus and gone on to get my degree in math.  I would have been too over my head!

But she hasn’t failed.  She doesn’t have to repeat the course.  The question is if her transcript says C or B and if she keeps her scholarship.  Is it unfair to allow such a big margin for make-up work when they come in with such disparate abilities?  She really did work her butt off.

My job tonight is to make a plan.  I think I have to do something for her—by telling her to come back I’ve already forced myself into that corner.  But it can’t just be a stupid assignment she can flounder her way through in an hour.  I’m thinking about making her have weekly meetings with me next semester to get extra tutoring and accountability.

I feel like I say this all the time, but why is this so hard?  What would you do???  (besides not cave in the first place)

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
― Winston Churchill

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrea permalink
    January 29, 2014 8:27 pm

    I remember when I was in junior high, my algebra class was my worst class (and I get it, for some people, that makes me a ‘math simpleton’…oh well). I would cry because I couldn’t understand the math and I went after school for help from my teacher. I remember asking her, ‘Can I have some extra credit assignments to get my grades up?’. She told me, ‘No, because that wouldn’t really be doing the work the first time around and wouldn’t be fair to everyone else who got their work correct on those tests and exams’. And she was right. It was a hard pill for me to swallow. I had to just keep working to study for the next few tests. Math in college wasn’t my strong suit either but I got through it.

    But I know my teacher made the right decision. Because like life, you’re going to make mistakes and not always reach your goals…and there’s not always going to be the chance for ‘extra credit’ or ‘re-do’s. So for most of life, you’re going to have to work as hard as you can the first time or accept that you may have to repeat the whole process again.

    It taught me that I won’t always do as well as I’d like to in life (and it sounds like you understand that from your calculus experience) but that just means I have to suck it up and try again.

    Sorry for such a long reply, but this entry really hits home with me. I didn’t have the best grades and I didn’t always do well at math and science. But I made myself do it because I knew I would need it to do what I love and be in a health profession. I think it’s kinda funny that people talk about health professions as being ‘math and science heavy’ in terms of background and those were my worst subjects!

    Love to you and your students, Bekka. You are a blessing to this world.

  2. Blondie permalink
    January 29, 2014 8:33 pm

    “I’m thinking about making her have weekly meetings with me next semester to get extra tutoring and accountability”
    I think that is the best plan.

    A big part of my cohort in social work school had the ‘savior’ complex. Believing they were going to be saving people, when that gets them nowhere. Pluck them up and move them somewhere else sounds nice but if they’ve learned nothing from their struggles, they’ll end up in bad shape again. We need to teach them how to help themselves survive and thrive.

    So it’s one thing when I have a client who is impaired by illness or cognitive issues, that there are things the system expects them to do for themselves with resources but I’ll lend a hand [or in many cases, my prescence and hours of my time] to guide them through.

    Then there are folks who, long story short after much assessment, should be able to do a couple pages of a form themselves, make a call, etc. [and I’m excluding if someone is illiterate, etc, I mean a person who really can do for themselves but for so long, has expected others to do it for them] So I try to make a plan with them to accomplish the goals/resources they need. I’ll meet with them to provide support but emphasize its their journey to be invested in. To get things out of it, they need to put effort in.

    I’m glad that for the most part, my folks come through and invest themselves in the outreach/connections. The ones who have the same complaint yet won’t do the work, all I can do is remind them. There’s no magic fix and it’s satisfying when I see my folks who are surviving and thriving years later. Even if they passed, they had some empowerment with their decisions. And then cringe at the ones who seem to enjoy having something to complain about, so they won’t take any action at all. :-/

    Good luck B!

  3. Robert Dahl permalink
    January 30, 2014 11:06 pm


  4. Suzanne Hequet permalink
    January 31, 2014 7:38 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful blog entry. If you are open for a word, let me share a piece of advice I received years ago from a counselor at a high school where I taught. She told me simply not to put myself out on a limb…a metaphor that has limitations, but I’ve thought about that often, especially when I’ve had long days that ended with long cleansing walks!

    The grade you give must be as objective as it can be. The grade reflects performance based on standards–in both your case and mine, global standards. For me, the key is to clearly state objectives and evaluation criteria early in the course. I usually do this the first day. Students may yawn or cringe–usually both! But the standards set are specific, and I stick to them. 93% A, etc. And I use rubrics to grade, so that students know both what they missed and what they learned. Many assignments involve critical writing. Poor work may be rewritten once. Midterm exams can be retaken once. Final exams and papers cannot be retaken or rewritten.

    My point is that the courses I teach are 4 credit-hour college courses, and those credits must be consistent with university standards. When failure happens, (and it does) students face personal consequences, often loss of scholarships which often means leaving school. I work my hardest to help the student(s) understand the necessity of the standards. And then the option of retaking the class is offered. Usually, in meeting with the student, I suggest retaking with another professor, so that perhaps a different teaching style works better for the student. When the tears fall or when the anger flares (and that’s scary…) I ask a colleague to join the meeting. In the end–I’ve learned it is very important not to promise anything, but to offer options to continue with someone else as instructor. This is not personal–it is about standards. And those standards are critical, especially as your best students attempt admission in to other institutions.

    Finally–grading is as much an art as a science. I applaud your efforts, but suggest you not “go out on a limb.” That hinders options for both you and your students.

    Hope this is helpful.

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