A Number Does Not Define You

Dear Students,

There are so many qualities that I admire about you and your generation. One of the most overlooked is that you really care about your grades. You might get portrayed as lazy, apathetic, and undisciplined by the media and those outside of the classroom, but those of us who see you every single day, for who you really are, know differently. We see the drive. We see you constantly worrying about whether or not you are going to get into the college of your choice. We see you coming into class tired each and every day because you were up all night studying or completing assignments that may or may not have any significant value. We see you stressed to the point of tears. We see you stressed to the point of self doubt, anger, self-loathing, and, sometimes, even worse. It feels like that “sometimes” is becoming more common.

And, it is all our–the educators–fault.

We have made this culture in a misguided attempt to get you to strive to be your best, drive you to get into the competition that is the college selection process, and to put you into position to have the very best future.

All three of those goals are virtuous. You should always strive to be your best. You should want to work to go into the college of your choice. And, you deserve the very best future. The thing is, though, you would’ve done all that work without our system. You are the type of people who put your all into everything you do. You create. You explore. You work long hours. You find creative solutions to problems that were unimaginable. You stand up for yourselves. You didn’t need our system that places a number value on you to get you to do those things. You do those things in spite of our archaic system.

I admire that work ethic that you rarely get credit for. Your reward for working hard and getting into the most rigorous classes schools have to offer is “more”. You get more homework, more busy work, more lectures, more everything. I admire the drive it takes to get through your classes, go to a club, a sport, or a job, get home at night, and then do hours of that “more”. You do it all, even if it doesn’t always make sense, because you care. And, sure, you may not always take the long road to get the work done; the internet offers a ton of shortcuts, even more when the Teacher actually gives an assignment found on the very same interwebs. But, those shortcuts aren’t a reflection on your drive and your desire.

Instead, they are a reflection of a culture that we, the educators, have created. We have created this culture of number chasing. We have told you that the very best students get grades north of 97, 98, and even 99. We tell kids who work hard, study for hours, and put off exploring their passions that if they get a grade that starts with the number eight, it isn’t good enough. What once represented pretty high achievement is no longer considered a success. In fact, a 90, once the standard, is now not good enough.

Colleges won’t take you. You need those extra 10 points. You have to be near perfect every single time. It is the culture we have established. When teachers wonder why some kids aren’t as passionate about their class, why kids are looking for ways to get points, why kids and parents are obsessed with the online grade book, or why some kids may try to circumvent the system in order to get those points, they don’t have to look too far to find an answer. We are the problem. We’ve made this culture. And, it is up to us to fix it for you, our students, as soon as we can.

We’ve put a number as the goal. We’ve put a grade as the most important thing in the process of education. We have put into a place a system where doing your best and actually learning the material isn’t as important as the number at the end. As you can tell, I am against this type of thing and I am trying to raise my daughter to know that it isn’t about the number. It’s about working to the best of her ability and actually learning. The attitude in our house is that if she works hard, prepares, and tries her best, we are happy. Fourth grade has gone pretty well. Her grades have been great. But, one day, she came out of school visibly upset. I knew something was wrong. She got in the car and started to tear up. She got an 86 on a vocabulary test and was so upset. When we looked at the test, she saw her two mistakes.

My reply was to celebrate the 86. She worked hard. It was awesome. I don’t care if the grade was a 70. She worked hard and knew those words. But, for her, even in our house where the number doesn’t define her, this was a bad grade and a sign that she wasn’t good enough. She vowed to do better the next time and obsessed over the weekend about that “bad” grade. It took some time, but she finally moved on. Now, some may say that this motivated her, but it didn’t. She already had the drive. She already knew the stuff. But, the number was driving the conversation, not the learning or how those words will make her a more powerful writer. And, this is just 4th grade.

Because of our number culture, more and more kids are seeking counseling. I have a feeling that many more are in need. It’s why more kids are finding teachers to cry to, why a fifth grader would think about ending her life, and why, each day in the United States, there are more than 5,000 attempted suicides by kids in grades 7 through 12.  Yes, there are certainly other factors, but I have seen far too many of you upset over grades, upset over a number that wasn’t quite “what it should be.” None of this makes your generation soft; none of this is a negative reflection of you. This is all a result of a culture we’ve created in schools. We’ve allowed behaviors to exist that push people to their limits and make them feel alone. And, we’ve created a culture where only certain numbers give worth. It is our fault.

On behalf of the system and what I’ve done in the past to perpetuate this culture, I apologize.

We need to do better.

You deserve better.

Our system and culture is wrong because of one simple thing.

A number does not define you.

It never has. It never will.

Yes, in the real world, jobs expect you to produce. There are consequences when you don’t. But, this number culture that we established isn’t preparing you for the real world. In fact, it is hindering that preparation. The education system needs to change to allow you to realize that all of this–education, the real world…life–is about the experience, the process. It is about learning lessons, applying them to our life, becoming better versions of ourselves, and then trying to help others do the same.

That is essentially what a classroom is about. What you will eventually learn–once you get out of the education system–is that the number didn’t real mean much. You won’t even remember that number. You won’t even remember those tests that drove you crazy, the insane question packets, or all of those busy work extra credit assignments you did to chase the number. Instead, you’ll remember those moments in the classroom where the crazy teacher said something that sparked a conversation. You’ll remember the project you made with group of friends. You’ll remember that great lesson on To Kill A Mockingbird that made you want to become an English Teacher. You’ll remember moments. You’ll remember the lessons that made you who you are.

Why will those things be the ones to sit in your consciousness? It’s simple. That’s what life really is. Your life will never be about a number. Ever. Life is about a collection of experiences that help make you want to stand up in the world. It’s about taking those lessons learned both in and out of the classroom and applying them in your life. It’s about improving each day, doing better than you did the day before. It’s about learning, evolving, and finding your way to your passion. A number didn’t define me; it never will. My parents didn’t let it. They wanted me to do my best and I usually tried to do so. If a number defined me, my AP English Teacher would’ve extinguished my passion for writing, my passion for the subject. If I had let that happen, I wouldn’t be here, with you, today. A number does not define me. My experience, my successes, my failures, my shortcomings, and the lessons learned from all of that define me.

So, we have to change our culture and change it soon. That doesn’t mean we don’t have high expectations or will just give you things. It doesn’t mean that what we are teaching isn’t important or that you shouldn’t care. And, it certainly doesn’t mean that we think you and your generation are soft.

Instead, it means that we won’t hold grades over your head as if your very existence and future depend on them. Instead, it means that we will place value on the process of learning, value on working hard, and fight against an unfair number system that doesn’t even accurately measure progress. Some of us are already standing up and making a change. You know who they are. They are the ones you are confiding in, asking them to allow you to sit in the book room and cry for a bit. They are the ones whose office you walk into and start with the sentence, “I’m stressed and failing at life right now.” We are there. There will be more of us. We will create a culture that values the process and doesn’t hold the end, meaningless number over your head. That culture will get you to the college you want. That culture will allow you to get the life you want and deserve.

In the meantime, do what you’ve done in every other area of your life. Let your generation be the one that puts an end to the obsession with the number. Follow your passions, realize that the learning, the process, and the improvement are the things that will not only help you in your life, but the only things you will really remember in your life. You will get into the college you were meant to go to. You will find success. If you are putting in the work, learning from a place of passion, and always looking to improve, you are getting the most out of your education, no matter the number.

A number can never define you. Don’t let the system or anyone ever make you feel otherwise.