Thursday, February 9, 2012

Flunking the Brilliant Student

I am sorry for whatever experience you had with education that got you this upset ... — Jessica Lahey.
Let's start here. Many years ago,  I was in a high school English class that was studying Othello. I wrote a paper called "Iago's Death" that expressed my opinion that Shakespeare put Iago's death offstage (in contrast to every other Shakespeare tragedy in which every important character dies onstage) because by the end of the play Iago had evolved into a much more interesting character than Othello, and if Shakespeare had allowed Iago an onstage death he would have become the star of the show.

My English teacher said the paper was brilliant, gave it an A+, and told me that for the next paper he wanted me to expand on the ideas in the first paper. This was a very difficult assignment for me because I had pretty much said what I had to say in the first paper, and I didn't feel I had anything to add to it. However, I gave it my best shot, and after staying up all night, I managed to produce a longer version of the first paper.

My English teacher gave the second paper a C. He said it would have been an A paper from anyone else, but he expected more from me.

Was this a motivating experience for me? It was not. I decided that the game was rigged against me and I didn't want to play it any more. That was the end of my brief good-student period.

(This was in one of the highest-regarded public school districts in the country, by the way.)

I am beyond skeptical of the alleged character-building effects of bad grades given to good students, touted not only by Jessica Lahey in her blog, but by luminaries like the New York Times.

I've heard teachers say that they look for opportunities to give bad grades to good students because "it teaches them that it's OK to fail". Of course, they don't really mean that. No-one wants these kids to decide that it's perfectly OK to fail the occasional assignment — hey, why not the entire course? — and go to the local community college instead of a name college.

Nor will the occasional bad grade turn a previously grade-grubbing robostudent into an inwardly motivated free spirit (and again, nobody actually wants that result.)

Grade-grubbing robostudents are the natural product of a system that constantly grades students' performance, with the underlying threat that their future depends on their high school transcript. You can't cure them with the occasional personal reflection essay, graded by the teacher. You can't cure them with the occasional bad grade. Deep problems demand deep change.


  1. Giving a student an F in the circumstances she describes in that blog post (even if, in her mind, it is just "temporary") is an abuse of power, plain and simple.

  2. It's a complicated phenomenon that is not limited to high school. I recall being treated this way ("it's a B because _you_ could do better") in college. I believe that part of it is a genuine attempt at encouragement, although it universally seems unfair to the recipient. I was miffed, but I found my payback in a baroque fashion (showing my professor that he, also, could do better).

    I even did it once to a student of mine in college. He did not take it well, I felt horrible and mean afterwards, and I never did it again. It's true he could have done better, but his second-best was still better than the work of all the other students, and was probably delivered as part of a calculation of how best to allot his time among multiple demands. He deserved the A+ he had correctly calculated, instead of me demanding all of the attention and time he had given to other matters. The lower grade was in effect both discouraging and disrespectful.

    In high school, other factors come in. As you say, many teachers are bothered by the fakery they and their peers have produced. They have a peculiar compulsion to try to touch something genuine in their students (or, conversely seen, to invade students' interior space).

    Part of that compulsion is egotistical: they want to be the _special_ teacher who "makes it through" to the kid. Or they want to assert that they are bigger and in control of the student, no matter how bright the student. Undoubtedly part of it is jealousy. By and large, if they had been straight A students they wouldn't be teachers today. Some teachers simply resent kids who are certain to go farther in life than they did, and want to dominate they as they couldn't when they were peers.

    A good question to return to Ms. Lahey would be: "What bad thing happened to you that makes you want to dominate and humiliate your students?

  3. I was thinking about the jealousy angle too. Why else would Ms. Lahey say it was "entertaining" to give a 0 to her straight-A student?

  4. In my case, I probably couldn't have done better on the second paper, because I didn't want to write it in the first place. For the first paper, I was genuinely interested in this little theory I had come up with about Iago's death. For the second paper, I was racking my brains trying to come up with more verbiage, when I really felt that I had already said what I had to say.

  5. I think this conversation really demonstrates the incredibly difficult task that educators have when it comes to motivating students, because we're all so different. When I was a junior in college I got a C- on a paper in a class I really like. Even worse, the professor wrote some truly scathing comments about my work. This was horrifying to me because I had never received less than an A on anything I'd ever written and had never had a professor or teacher be so downright mean in his or her feedback.

    I took the attitude of "I'll show him!" and REALLY stepped up my game. I ended up a much better writer by the end of the course and, much later, also developed a good relationship with the professor.

    What motivates one person doesn't motivate another. This is a difficult riddle for the educator to solve.

  6. TeacHer, couldn't your professor have found a better way to motivate you than being mean and scathing? I just don't think this is a good idea, for either the teacher or student, even if it sometimes works.

  7. Hello former student of Ms. Lahey's here. Though I'd jump in and comment on this because I was in the class that was posted about.

    First of all the student who got a 0, got a 0 with the understanding that this was totally temporary. I know this because I was in a similar situation, with a different paper.

    I think this is clearly a situation where you had to be there.

    It clearly had a positive affect on Bear, the student in question at his graduation from Stanford he gave Ms. Lahey "The Frederick Emmons Terman Engineering Scholastic Award", where "Each recipient nominates a high school teacher who has been most influential in the student's academic career."

    For what it's worth from a former student Ms. Lahey was a fantastic teacher and was so supportive of all her students. One thing that Ms. Lahey was great at was reading each situation individually.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Obviously, I can't say for sure if a softer touch would have had the same effect on me. But my instinct is that the answer is no. The harsh nature of the comments shook me out of a complacency that I didn't even know had set in.

    But I'm also not an especially sensitive person when it comes to a lot of things. I was raised by parents who taught me to be pretty tough and always take something positive away from bad experiences, which is something I'm really thankful for.

  10. ***
    For what it's worth from a former student Ms. Lahey was a fantastic teacher and was so supportive of all her students.

    Well, that's sure not the way she comes across on her blog. What do you make of this remark?

    Middle school students don't like opening up and exploring who they really are, so I particularly love to watch them squirm through this one.

    That doesn't sound supportive to me. Nor does her comment that it was "entertaining" to give a 0 to a straight-A student, nor her description of the look on his face when he saw that 0 for the first time.

    1. She's saying that she liked to watch her students think outside the box.

      "Nor does her comment that it was "entertaining" to give a 0 to a straight-A student, nor her description of the look on his face when he saw that 0 for the first time."

      Entertaining because she knew that 1)Bear would do better, and 2) that he was so totally confident he would get an A when he could CLEARLY do better.

  11. Back to the previous discussion, let's try a business analogy.

    Suppose a boss said to one of his employees "if anybody else had performed as well as you this year, he would have gotten a bonus. But I expect more from you, so you're not getting a bonus." I think he'd be sued.

  12. "Some teachers simply resent kids who are certain to go farther in life than they did, and want to dominate them as they couldn't when they were peers." Bingo. And this is EXACTLY why gifted kids are given five times more homework than General Education ones. I figured this out a long time ago. There simply can't be another explanation.

  13. I'm upset by the snarky tone and personal attacks of this blog. I came in search of nice people who care about their kids's education, but instead found a bunch of sarcastic wolves bent on mischaracterizing and misquoting a blog by someone who sounds like a dedicated teacher. Of all people to attack, a good teacher whose students have given her awards and who defend her here against you. You should be ashamed.

  14. Again, I do not understand people who are more concerned about FedUpMom's "tone" than about the substance of what she's saying. For crying out loud, not every criticism of someone's *practices* is a personal attack.

    Anonymous: do you agree or disagree with FedUpMom's (or the other commenters') criticism of what this teacher *did*?

  15. Both substance and tone matter.

    Re substance, I think each of these techniques sound like the tools of a great teacher if used judiciously: asking students to step outside their comfort zone, assigning personal reflection essays, and giving the rare temporary low grade as a motivational technique to talented students. As evidence, c.f. TeacHer's comments above and the fact that the student Ms. Lahey wrote about named her one of the most influential teachers of his career. Certainly teaching is not a one-size-fits-all activity -- c.f. FedUpMom's comments at the outset of this thread re how a bad grade affected her -- but we should not assume Ms. Lahey is a one-size-fits-all teacher. In fact, the evidence suggests otherwise.

    Re tone, despite the relative anonymity of the internet, we should treat people with civility. Accusatory, sarcastic remarks directed at hard-working, under-paid teachers who appear to be cherished by their students seem particularly invidious - isn't it obvious they are not the problem with our educational system? And yet there's been an intermittently derisive focus on one beleaguered teacher here that I find distressing and counterproductive. I for one would be psyched to have a teacher like that for my son. And were my son to address his teachers the way people here have addressed Ms. Lahey, I would attempt to teach him about manners, tact, and class.

    Best of luck to you all.

  16. Anonymous, PLEASE do not post the exact same comment after multiple posts. I will delete repeated comments.

  17. I also think that negative remarks directed at Ms. Lahey have been excessive. FedUpMom and the other commenters are getting overly wrapped up in some of the word choice she used when writing the original post (about being entertained at the kid squirming, for example….this comes across as being a little bit sick, but in reading the rest of her blog it's very obvious that she's not a twisted person) and using this as evidence that she's a terrible teacher.

    It's fine to have an intellectual disagreement about the merit of a personal reflection essay assignment - I'm a certified English teacher (but teach social studies right now) and I would personally not give this type of assignment. I just don't see the value and I think my students' time could be better spent elsewhere. But the comments here are making it sound like the assignment - and Ms. Lahey - is in some way abusive or damaging. As usual, what started as a perfectly legitimate conversation about an educational issue has turned into a matter of life or death. Or at least that's what one would think, based on some of the comments here.

    This is why teachers get fed up, too. No matter what we assign or how we conduct our classrooms, we're going to hear about how horrible, thoughtless, condescending, shortsighted, or generally inept we are.

    Oh wait, I forgot jealous. That's one I've never heard until this thread, but add it to the list!

  18. For the most part, I don't think teachers are the problem with our educational system. But being a teacher does not render you immune to criticism, or raise the degree of politeness that people have to use when discussing things you do. Some people are angry about how kids are being treated in schools, and there is nothing wrong with those people expressing their anger. (Welcome to the blogosphere!) Lahey wrote (bragged!) about what she did on her *blog*, after all -- it's not as if FedUpMom cast the spotlight on her against her will. I stand by my statement that what she did (by giving the student a zero on his paper) was an abuse of her position of power over a student, and exhibited an attitude I hope none of my kids' teachers exhibit.

  19. I've had former students tell me I was the best teacher they ever had. But I'm not going to pretend they all felt that way.

    Ms. Lahey had at least one student think she was the best, and probably had at least one think she was the worst. That one is much less likely to call her years later to tell her so. You win some, you lose some. Some students take what you have to offer, some don't.

    Getting all in a pother about someone's feelings being hurt because not everybody agrees with her is juvenile. If teachers don't have the stability and equanimity to handle criticism without anger, they're in the wrong profession. Teachers are models of emotional maturity for their students, and should be examples of successful adulthood rather than failed adulthood.

    As to why Ms. Lahey deleted her post, I imagine it was not because of a flood of negative comments (her comments are pre-moderated) but because of the consciousness that her apparent enthusiasm for cruelty might make her look bad to parents, students, and administrators who found her blog. Maybe the commenters here aren't the best teachers for her, but one can hope she learned a lesson anyway.

  20. No human being is beyond criticism. I don't think it's useful to treat anyone with exaggerated reverence. That's how people use to treat priests, and you know where that ended up.

    As to whether Ms. Lahey is a wonderful teacher, I really don't see it. I can see that she thinks she's wonderful, but that's not the same thing. From her blog posts and her article in the NYTimes, she comes across as unsympathetic and blithely unaware of the power imbalance in her classroom. (For instance, in her article she reports that she asked her class whether they needed homework, "and they all said they needed the practice!" Well, these are high-achieving kids in a situation where she's grading them. You think there might be some pressure for them to say what she wants to hear?)

  21. Back to the kid who got the 0: if the situation is really temporary, why give a grade at all? Why not just say to the kid "You need to do this over", and then explain why? (Although I still don't think it's OK to tell a kid that his essay wasn't revealing enough.)

    And if even if you have to give a grade, a 0 seems like such an insult. The kid went to the trouble to write an essay, and you're telling him his effort is worth exactly nothing.

    1. The 0 was temporary understood by both parties to be temporary, a pre-grade. Not the final and a do over.

      Again, I think you just had to be there. You're also missing the part where that very same student gave Ms. Lahey an award for being influential in his academic career! So clearly Ms. Lahey and this experience was a formative and positive one for him.

    2. Lahey wrote: Imagine his surprise when I failed him (temporarily, and I have to admit, it was more than a little bit entertaining) and told him to start over.

      She characterized him as surprised; which directly contradicts your claim that "both parties understood." If you really believed she was so wonderful in this instance, I doubt you'd feel the need to make stuff up about it, as you have. Yes, we understand it wasn't the student's final grade, nevertheless whether you call the assessment a pre-grade, mid-grade, super-sticky-grade, last-chance-no-looking-back-now-grade,
      she gave his essay a ZERO.

    3. "Yes, we understand it wasn't the student's final grade, nevertheless whether you call the assessment a pre-grade, mid-grade, super-sticky-grade, last-chance-no-looking-back-now-grade,
      she gave his essay a ZERO."

      For all of 24 hours.

      You're very hung up on the 0 part of this and not the outcome.

      Again: clearly this experience was a positive one for the student in question he gave Ms. Lahey "The Frederick Emmons Terman Engineering Scholastic Award", where "Each recipient nominates a high school teacher who has been most influential in the student's academic career."

      You can say he shouldn't have received a zero...maybe he shouldn't have, but, it clearly worked in this situation. Should it work in every situation? Of course not. What makes a good teacher is someone who challenges their students and can read their students on an individual basis. Ms. Lahey is that kind of teacher.

  22. I can only speak for myself, but my point was that the criticism of Ms. Lahey seems excessive, not that it shouldn't be happening at all.