Grieving Low Student Achievement
In his article “The 4-Stage Response to Low Student Achievement” John Lemuel describes the range of responses—a “grieving process” of sorts—that academics experience in response to the underachievement of students in their undergraduate classrooms: “First, shock at appallingly poor results, soon followed by . . . dismay or guilt . . . [then] contempt [and] acceptance.”
The first three are primarily passive responses which often lead instructors to fault their students for being products of a questionable K-12 education system, for being inexperienced at the self-discipline and study habits required by college, or worse, for being “stupid”—non-productive attitudes at best.
However, Lemuel argues, the fourth—acceptance—is “active and constructive” and “involves recognizing students’ limitations and trying to work with them, around them, or in spite of them, to produce a better-than-predictable result.” His examples involve “going the extra mile”–for example, not merely sending an email to the entire class, but also following up with phone calls.
There’s an old anecdote about a man and his child walking along a beach after a storm, where the sands are strewn with thousands upon thousands of starfish. Approaching them is an old man, who as he walks, occasionally stoops to pick up one of the stranded creatures and then tosses it back into the waves. When the three walkers come abreast, the father asks the old man, “Why do you bother? There must be a million; you can’t possibly make a difference.” The old man bends to pick up one whose slight movement catches his eye, and throws it back into the ocean. He replies, “Made a difference for that one.”
While college students are not stranded starfish (and neither are all professors old men), the analogy holds true in this way: our job as educators is not to rescue every student from themselves and the challenges they face—we are to do our best to help those we can. We may not always recognize any “slight movement” indicating which are the “live ones.” But by our consistently spelling out expectations, clearly communicating consequences—both positive and negative—and occasionally showing mercy we would appreciate receiving, we will enable some to succeed.
I am only one, but I am still one; I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. Edward Everett Hale
***A small but salient post-script*** For any of you who have not explored the comments sections of the Chronicle of Higher Education articles like the one above, DO SO! The discussion that follows is often as valuable as the original piece of writing.