As a lecturer in a graduate school program at a major university, I’ve become pretty comfortable giving out grades. My graduate students have been selected from a highly competitive pool of applicants and most of them are used to getting A’s. My least favorite part of the job is when a student who has not received an A or at least a high B, comes into my office, bargaining for a better grade. Because I teach in a professional school, I care most that they know how to work with their clients, not just that they are straight A students. I’ve spent my fair share of faculty meetings rolling my eyes at stories of driven grade-mongers who have lost sight of the goal of attaining knowledge and fixated on the external reward of that big, fat, juicy A.
Well, I was recently reminded that I, too, am still that driven person, caring deeply about the grade and not just the content learned. I’ve started back in an on-line occupational therapy doctorate program. Suddenly I am the student again, striving for the approval of my instructors, seeking the highest recognition for my academic accomplishments. This is familiar territory. It is like an old, unhealthy friend returning and reminding me that I could still be sucked in by peer pressure to misbehave. In my first course, I relished the chance to impress my instructors with my insightful papers and to keep my classmates on their toes with my contributions to the (graded) class discussions. This was a world I knew how to control and manipulate. And it felt really good. The good grades weren’t the problem; the idolatry of them was. My identity was still clearly wrapped up in being a bright, accomplished student — one whom the professor recognized and applauded. All those years of life lessons around failure and weakness and identity in Christ seemed to be tossed out the window.
God is using this reminder of my struggle for external validation to bring me back to a place of compassion for my own students. I need to recognize that their struggle is a spiritual one, just as it is for me. Rooting our identity in grades is pretty tempting. How can I help them loosen their reliance on grades to validate their worth? How does one do this in a secular environment, where most of my students don’t know that they are deeply loved and valued by their Creator? I am hopeful as I re-enter the struggle myself, that new ways of being a shepherd/teacher to my students will emerge out of my own soul work. I feel God’s invitation to re-visit some rough places in myself that still need some smoothing out.
So what does it look like to be a student who doesn’t just work for the “A”? Is it possible to resist the academic culture of achievement and focus instead on the knowledge being gained? How have professors and teachers helped you in that process? I’d love to hear your stories.