With the exception of parenting, there isn't a harder or more underpaid job than teaching. I have enormous respect for the profession and I have always said that teachers are cut from a different cloth than the rest of us. I have almost never met a teacher I didn't respect tremendously. Teachers seriously rock and my two daughters have had some of the best.
But I have a gripe.
I get frustrated and upset when my children, who are mostly A students, consistently get a "Go for the A!" comment on progress reports whenever they slip below an A average for that class. I celebrate that my child got a B. To me, the B shows that they have balance. Rather than focusing exclusively on academics, they are also finding time to enjoy other aspects of their lives: family, friends, outside activities, and FUN. Or maybe they received a B because it is a challenging class, and this particular subject is not their strength.
When teachers write "Go for the A!" on a progress report, they mean well. The intended message is "I believe in you. You can do this!" I love this about teachers; they are always wishing their students the best -- always believing in them and their ability to do even better. But this message of "you can do even better," also implies that you aren't yet quite good enough. Close, but no cigar. Keep trying, you'll get there. This well-intentioned message often lands differently on the student than the teacher intends. The message kids often internalize is that they have disappointed the teacher. Or, worse, that they have disappointed their parents. Simply put, they're not living up to their full potential. But you know what? Living a bit below your full potential is deeply underrated. We can't actualize our full potential in every area of our life at every moment. I know I can't. Can you? And saying "Go for the A!" to a nearly straight A student sends the message that the teacher wanted even more from them, that perfection is the goal, and they aren't quite perfect yet. This is a very dangerous message and it is wreaking havoc among our young people today.
The pressure to perform at an exceptional level in everything at all times places a heavy burden on our children and it seems to be getting worse. It's like a runaway train going downhill. How do I know this? I know this because my practice is full of frightened parents whose children are depressed, anxious, suicidal, on drugs, and enraged, and the waiting room has only gotten more crowded over the years. Many of these families have always "encouraged" excellent grades, great attitudes and behavior, top-notch sports performances, wonderful manners, perfect organization, and the list goes on and on. Just as the teachers encourage "even better," this is the definition of "good parenting" in most social circles also. It's what parents "should" do. It's what we expect good teachers "should" do too. No wonder kids are struggling so much with anxiety and depression.
The arguments I typically hear in favor of encouraging ALL students to "Go for the A!" reveal more about parental expectations, fears, and societal assumptions than they do about the desire to raise independent, healthy, self-sufficient children. The most common rationale is that children need straight A grades to get into the best colleges. But you know what? There are thousands of colleges. Not everyone can go to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. Society is filled with wildly successful and productive people who went to all types of colleges and universities, and many who didn't go to college at all. And most are doing just fine. Attending a top-tier college has many benefits, but it is not the only pathway to a successful and fulfilling life, nor is it a guarantee. I've worked with many brilliant, academically flawless students who attended highly competitive, top-tier universities, only to come home for mental health issues.
Another argument is that we live in a competitive world and this "Go for the A!" type of messaging prepares students for the "real world" where jobs are scarce and corporations only hire the "best" and demand perfect performance. But is this really true? Performance, like most human behavior, is a bell curve, and people with a variety of interests and abilities are needed to make our economy run smoothly.
We make mistakes as kids and we make mistakes as grown-ups. We will all veer off-course from time to time. That comes from taking chances and trying new things. It's a function of our humanity. Should we only stick to what we know we can excel in and never take a chance in fear we may not be perfect at it? Of course not. We must leave room for error. Trial and error is how we excel.
How about we offer a similar level of slack to our children? Encouraging and working with a student who receives a D seems reasonable, even kind, but telling a "near perfect" student to "Go for the A!" every time they slip into the B range is a risky practice that sends a message of inadequacy. How about we replace "Go for the A!" with "Great job!" or "You're doing terrific!" and other encouraging words of acceptance and love? At our core we know we are imperfect, so we must stop asking for perfection from our kids. In doing so, we are killing their spirits. If they can't ever please their parents or their teachers, they'll stop trying. It happens all the time.
In the city where I live there have been a number of student suicides at a local top-tier university recently. Conventional wisdom points to depression as the cause. I don't doubt these students were depressed, but I also don't doubt that they became overwhelmed by the pressure to perform and meet others' expectations. We often don't realize it, but these types of messages teach kids that if they are not perfect, they're not worthy. Let us remember that we are worthy because we were born, not because we get perfect report cards.
Robin Kevles-Necowitz, is a licensed professional counselor and parenting coach in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania. She has been in private practice working with adults, couples, and families for nearly twenty-five years and is the author of Go Take a Bath!: A Powerful Self-Care Approach to Extraordinary Parenting which has been garnering rave reviews on Amazon. She is the More 101 FM parenting expert and has written parenting articles for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Bucks County Courier Times, and the Huffington Post. She lives in Yardley, PA with her husband, two daughters, and dog, "Nugget Necowitz." Find her on FB by friending Parent Assist or follow her on Twitter @RobinNecowitz