The Tortoise Wins the Race

By Gregory Keer

TortoiseHareimages (1)At my son’s middle-school graduation, my wife and I performed our finest rugby moves to fight for seats with 2,000 other attendees. We were there to see our child walk across the stage in his suit, a little small on him but still dapper, and smile for the cameras we told him would be somewhere in the sea of smiling faces. After two hours of waiting, we saw him up there for an instant, a fleeting moment of culmination after three years of homework battles, shifting friendship circles, and adolescent changes that felt like alien transformation scenes.

During the ceremony, a few graduates gave entertaining speeches and administrators provided some touching words before reading an endless parade of 600 student names. Aside from the proud chatter of the families in the audience, people whispered one sad fact of the day – almost 200 kids could not participate in the proceedings because of academic issues.

How is it that 25% of this public-school 8th grade class did not pass muster? My thoughts ran the gamut for reasons, including lack of parental or teacher attention, student learning or behavioral challenges, and the intervention of trouble-making gremlins who force children to play video games instead of going to class.

Then I remembered that, 28 years ago, only half of my own high-school class graduated on time.

It makes me nuts that there exists such a long-standing tradition of kids not finishing school. I have lots of ideas of how to improve the state of education, from smaller class sizes to more creative educational methods. I know this takes a lot of money, but I believe good education pays amazing returns for the society and its economy.

I’m such a big believer in education that I became a teacher. I did it because I love learning and wanted to share it with students. I also did it because I wanted to learn ways to guide my own children toward academic success.

For all of my first-hand knowledge about teaching, the most important lesson is that those students who work really hard get results that include graduation, but go far beyond that. Sure, we teachers take pride in those who come up with high scores and brilliant ideas, but not all of those students have to labor for terrific results and, sometimes, those same kids leave a lot of potential untapped.

What really impacts educators are students who slog away, who may not get an “A” or “B” every time out, but who never stop fighting through difficult or – dare I say it? – boring material. These kids come to class on time, participate, show up at office hours, meet homework deadlines, and ask questions. Teachers recognize effort and want to help the kids who appear to want it the most. All of this adds up to students who know that hard work leads to better understanding of the material and a lifelong sense of what it takes to succeed in the years ahead.

During my son’s last year of middle school, he often wanted to get through his work as fast as possible. Sometimes, hastiness had no ill effect. But often, as in the case of assignments that required more detail but not necessarily more cognitive challenge, he lost steam and his grades fell. He regularly got less than excellent comments on his work habits, which, of course, drove me crazy. In the meantime, other students for whom great grades did not come easily, kept at it, tortoise style, and the outcomes were much better.

So, after a lot of errors on my part to motivate him, I focused on the value of effort. I told him I didn’t care about the grade as long as he pushed himself through the process with greater care. For the most part, this worked and – not surprisingly – things improved. Sure, I was happy to see the nice letter grades on the final report card, but what really had me beaming with pride were the work habit marks of “excellent.”

As Benjamin begins high school, where grades and achievement are ever more important, I must continue to stress the value of effort above all else. I think it will help my son arrive on time at graduation day, but I also believe it will work for more of those kids who may somehow give up – or be given up on by others – before they reach culmination.

If I have any advice for parents as we all embark on new school years, it is this – find your own ways to reinforce the goal of getting E’s for effort. Real effort that sometimes causes frustration, tears, and arguments are worth the price. We all benefit from it in the end.

Adolescence, Columns by Family Man, Education, SchoolPermalink

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