Mr. Robertson, my high school art teacher would give me between a 70 to 80 on my assignments—always. Occasionally I’d get a 68 (ouch) and sometimes I’d get an 85 (yay) but generally I sat squarely in those mid-marks. Those were my best grades in high school, Art and English (and occasionally Social Studies). Every other subject was a wicked up hill battle. Today I’m a published author, an artist and a high school visual art teacher.
Those marks, my best marks in school, led me down a path directly to where I am now.
I had no sense of entitlement. I didn’t think I deserved better grades. I never felt like Mr. Robertson was out to get me either. The marks were real and fair. What I put in was what I got. That’s how it was. It was truth.
Times have changed
In my current classroom I typically ask students to raise their hands if they cannot draw. Just under half the class in the freshmen and sophomore groups raise their hand confessing that they feel inadequate. My response to those insecure raised hands is this: Good! Now I a job to do. I get to teach you. Would you take a French class if you were bilingual in French? No. You would not. So why would you take an art class if you already know how to draw?
What I have seen, however, is that students have a misaligned sense of what success is. Today a 70% feels like something I should apologize to them for when I evaluate their work. “Hey, Jake, here’s your assignment. Yeah, you got a 74%. So sorry. Please forgive me. Don’t be mad. Here’s a concise list of reasons why I came to that number and a graph on current market and classroom trends to justify this 74. Yes, I know you only took three hours to finish it. Yes, I understand I gave the class 8 in class hours. Sorry.” Jake looks up at me frustrated and I sit on pins and needles waiting for a parent to call and complain.
The numbers mean more to them than learning does. So, I go ahead and I tell them the story of Mr. Robertson and my average marks and how, by some miracle I still became an artist and an art teacher, an international award winning published author, and an adult. Miraculous. Although it wasn’t really a miracle, was it. It was a journey of work and learning. Still their expectation is strangely off. It’s frustrating. Someone told these sweet humans that they need to be perfect and way way way above average when they’ve barely got life behind them at fourteen or fifteen years old. What parent said this? What parent said “you must come home with 90+ grades or go and live under the bridge!” It’s the wrong message!
The number isn’t always an indicator
I also tell them about the class I took in University that was so difficult but so satisfying. It was a Theory and Criticism class for short stories in English, taught by a nun. I was kicking the ball out of the park by the end of my time in University with good grades in my classes (85+) but this class ended with a 68%. However, this 68 was like an Olympic medal or an honorary medal of valor or something equally impressive. When I got my final grade I felt like I was crossing some finish line covered in sweat, the ribbon hanging from my chest, arms stretched in the air! I. Did. It.
Why was I so excited about this mark? Well, first the counsellor who was helping me pick classes said that I wasn’t going to be successful in such a class as I wasn’t a good writer based on what he had seen in the art history classes he taught me. Challenge accepted you dufus. I took the class. I did it to prove that I could take it and that I wouldn’t fail. I also learned to analyze, critique and write. I would underline every single word I didn’t understand, look it up, write the definition in the margins just to be clear, really clear. I would edit. I would meet with the professor. I would edit again. She would be sharp but she would be helpful. And I learned. A lot.
I’m still not outstanding. This is why I have an editor who is. But, I have learned to appreciate growth, work and the process.
What’s a 100% for
If we’re already excellent there’s no room for growth. What can we learn at 100? If we look at Olympians the bronze medalist is always the happiest. Whoo-wee I just made it on to the podium! They squeal! They’re in. They have room to learn and grow, to compete again. They have space for plans and more hopes.
I wish that when I said the words “I assure you, there is a joy in learning.” that the students really heard me.
This is why average is worth it
If we fall into an average category there is still so much to learn and experience, to work towards. Isn’t that why we’re here, to learn? Learning is so thrilling. It’s the opportunity to become intelligent. If we were already excellent there would be no discovery. Let’s say that again. There would be no discovery. Wow.
An average (and brave person) asks questions. There is a realization of how much is unknown. There’s lots to lose in this life by not asking questions, missing out on the perspectives and answers because you already have it —the knowledge. And worse, if the goal is simply to see 100% the thrill of learning or the challenge is not even on your radar. Knowledge has just been appraised with an irrelevant number. It’s just a frickin’ number.
Let’s shake the measuring of pleasure and knowledge and growth with such a distinct number and seek out instead a more personal and interesting way to feel successful.
*The photo was taken climbing Mt. Olympus. Discovery. Exhaustion. Success. No number.
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