Dart to the Heart

courtesy Vanderbilt Universaity
courtesy Vanderbilt University


Every semester’s end, I hold my breath and wait. Another season of targets has ended with some bull’s eyes and some misses. At semester’s end I wait for the phone call to come, seeking answers. The questioner will be my supervisor, or a parent, or a student him or herself wondering about the grade I have assigned to indicate performance in one of my English classes. It seems no matter how much I prepare students for their final grades, some always profess shock at their allotted letter grade or at the fact that I have failed them.

The wording, “I have failed them,” is somewhat appropriate. Many students who fail my class assume little to no responsibility. Some will fight to have my decision reversed, always to no avail. In some ways, though, with some students I do feel I have failed them; I have failed to reach them, I have not been clear, I have not been a good teacher. Should I have said more to them during the semester? Were there warning signs I missed indicating a student was in trouble? My classes are not large by any means. Was I being prejudicial in any way? Had I not given them enough ammunition to succeed? Were my targets too high? All these things come into account the day I tally up the marks to discern the grade: over 90 gets an A; over 80, a B; and so on… 59 is a fail. I sweat the numerals; I inch students up who have made the effort and conversely fasten sloths to their anchor.

Every semester’s end finds me this way: full of second thoughts and doubt. I fear what could be confrontation, which could bring out my own insecurities on being a so-called expert. Mostly, it’s what happens afterwards, too. When I next see some of the students I have failed or have given a lower grade, which was expected or otherwise, there is a tendency on their part is to look away in shame. They lower their eyes and walk on by. It is like something ugly has transpired between us. It’s a painful dart to my heart knowing they feel this way. Walking by them I offer up little prayers that they see that they themselves are not failures—they simply missed the target.

Some eventually come back around and, even though they have their choice of professors, re-enroll in my class, which makes me care for them more than I should. But mostly to all those students who find at semester’s end their breath taken away by failure or lower than expected results, I want to say that I know how they feel — I failed a history of science class not once, but twice and finally asked for a “challenge exam” studied like crazy and managed a C.

I’ve gotten better over the years making sure students know what lies ahead, but some still engage in magical thinking that somehow missed assignments and poor quiz performance will somehow be expunged by me. They can’t be. I wouldn’t be doing my job nor would it be fair to those who did well.

I’d read recently that some find final grades “dehumanizing” for students, and I agree. It’s terrible to have to grade, to offer a letter in assessing mastery and effort. I wish some times I could simply write — well, you’re on your way or, okay, I think you need to spend a little more time on this before you move on. More civilized. Less heartache.