Pressure to Perform in a Broken System

Teachers all have them and them. I’m not talking about the students who sit in the back of the classroom, trying hard not to be noticed. Not the students who refuse to make eye contact when you ask a question, trying hard not to be called on.

I’m talking about the students who sit front and center, often at the edge of their seats, bouncing slightly with their hands raised, hoping to catch your attention every time you ask a question to ensure they get a good participation grade. I’m talking about the students who schedule a tutorial every time you pass back an assignment because they want to go over every point they lost. They want to challenge you on every deduction.

We have a name for them: grade grubbers.

If you’re not a teacher, you probably think this is the type of student every teacher dreams of having, but these are the students many of us dread. It’s not because the challenging of every grade is annoying (although it is); it’s because these grade grubbers are what remind teachers that students exist in a system that values grades over actual learning.

It’s not the students’ fault. They’ve grown up in a world that puts all of the proverbial eggs in the grade basket. They have been raised in a world that tests them at every turn. These students have standardized testing down to a science. They could probably do it in their sleep. (And I’ve seen plenty of them with their heads on their desks, eyes closed during high-stakes tests. We call them brain breaks, but really the kids are just exhausted from filling in 1.2 billion bubbles a year.) It’s normal for a student in high school to sit in the same room for hours on end taking test after test multiple times throughout the year.

They’ve grown up in a world where class rank rules, where GPA is everything. They choose their classes not based on interest, but based on how many GPA points they offer. They take five and six AP classes a year not for the challenge, but for the GPA boost. They jump from GT to AP and back again based on rumors they hear about which is easier. They call this “maxing out their GPA.”

Pressured by their parents, their friends, the colleges they want to get into - kids are constantly pressured to perform not because they are passionate about learning, but because they are passionate about outranking their friends.

As a teacher, it is my job to teach students skills, the skills that will be tested on the state test, or the AP Exam. It is also my job to assess those skills throughout the year. I don’t do this because I want them to pass the state test, the AP test, or because I want them to get into college. I do my job because I want my students to use the skills they develop in my English class to help them be successful in their lives no matter what path they take. I don’t assess and reassess my kids because I want them to have great GPAs, but because it is my responsibility to show them how far they can come if they work hard. It is my responsibility to help them find their passion, to help them find their place in such a big world. My responsibility to help them find themselves, and show them that we are never done growing.
My job and my responsibilities contradict each other, and my responsibilities clash constantly with the system. It is a constant battle with the institution of education to help my kids understand that there are far more important things in this world than GPA. The whole world tells them I’m wrong.

Do I love my grade grubbers? Absolutely. Do I worry about them? Constantly. Just as much as I do my reluctant learners.

I worry because the stress they put on themselves to constantly achieve, achieve, achieve keeps them from finding their passion. It keeps them from growing in the areas that truly matter to them. I worry because the pressure they put on themselves keeps them from truly enjoying the very last bit of their childhoods. Because that’s what high school is. The last years of childhood.

I often find myself looking into the eyes of a child, wondering when they will have their breakdown, knowing it could come at any time. I think about how many kids come through my room and consider themselves successful just to make it through the day without wanting to give up completely.

It happens everywhere.

This system is not set up to inspire learning. I’m not talking about my school or even my district. I’m talking about the bigger institution, the one governed (governed) by people who have never worked in a school. The system is set up to attach numbers to kids, numbers that are supposed to tell us so much about them, but the numbers don’t really tell us anything. The way we learn about our kids is by spending time with them, asking them what they care about and why. The system must not want us to do this; if it did, we wouldn’t have GPA and class rank, or more standards than we can reasonably teach in just 36 weeks. The system has not provided time for these important conversations.

But if that scares you, I have good news. Inside that system that is set up to harm our kids, there are teachers - living, breathing, caring human beings with the biggest hearts - whose passion is teaching kids, and I’m not talking about history or math or science or English. I’m talking about teachers who are passionate about teaching kids how to make the world a better place, how to carve their own path in this big world, how to find their voice, their purpose. How to learn from their mistakes. How to keep on growing.

These teachers are excellent at teaching their content, not because they are brilliant at Calculus or in European History (although they are), but because they are excellent at making their kids care. At making their kids know they are cared for.

Teachers know the system is broken, is working against us all. But the wonderful thing is that even though the people who have the power to change the system only keep making it worse, teachers are in the trenches every day, doing everything in our power to get the grade grubbers to see that there are more important things in life than class rank and worse things in the world than dropping an AP class. We work tirelessly to find the spark inside every student, grade grubber to reluctant learner, to inspire in each child the desire to become the best version of themselves that they can. To help them understand that every day gives us a new opportunity to grow and become better than we were yesterday.

Yes, the system works against all of that. But know that we are on the front lines every day, fighting for our kids.


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