My Son Is Working Very Hard, So He Deserves Higher Grades

Jul 17, 2020

Parent: Can we talk about Jeff’s literature grade?

Gibbs: Of course.

Parent: He’s been putting so much time into your class. He works so long and so hard on these essays for you and he’s discouraged by the fact his grade on this upcoming report card is probably going to be a B.

Gibbs: Why is he discouraged?

Parent: He just doesn’t know what he needs to do to get an A.

Gibbs: I’ve given him feedback on the essays he’s written thus far. Was the feedback not clear?

Parent: No, I don’t think that was the problem. The problem is that no matter how hard he works, he still might get a B.

Gibbs: What would you like me to do?

Parent: I don’t want Jeff to feel like the work he’s putting into your class is pointless.

Gibbs: If he got an A on his next report card, would that make Jeff feel like his effort was worthwhile?

Parent: It would certainly be an encouragement to keep working so hard.

Gibbs: He’s got an 87% in my class right now. Would you like me to just bump it up to a 90% so he feels better about himself?

Parent: I’m not asking you to do that, but I am saying I think it would do a world of good.

Gibbs: I don’t mind raising his grade 3 points, but I would have to tell everyone in his class what I was doing and why I was doing it.  

Parent: You would not— wait, why would you have to do that?

Gibbs: For the same reason the fellow working the score board in a basketball game would have to explain why he suddenly gave one team 3 extra points, even though that team hadn’t put the ball through the hoop. Everyone would want to know where those 3 points came from. They would be especially interested if those points were added just to make one of the teams feel better about how hard they had played.  

Parent: But a basketball game has winners and losers. With school, everyone applies to different colleges.

Gibbs: So, I could give Jeff 3 free points on his literature grade and give every other student 10 free points on their literature grades?

Parent: No. That would be like taking 7 points away from Jeff.

Gibbs: And giving him 3 free points would be like taking 3 points away from the other students, which is why I would have to tell them about it.

Parent: Look, I’m not asking you to change the rules. I’m just saying that Jeff has been working his tail off in your class and he’s not seeing results. I’m asking you to make a rather small exception.

Gibbs: Which is fine, as long as you don’t mind other people knowing about it.

Parent: But this is a sensitive subject. I don’t suppose teachers at this school openly discuss their salaries with one another.

Gibbs: That’s true. They don’t.

Parent: The fact that some salaries go up at the end of the year and others don’t isn’t unjust, though. It’s just one of those things you keep to yourself.

Gibbs: Your analogy doesn’t hold water, though, because raises are based on performance. In the same way grades match performance, salaries match performance. What you’re asking me to do is unrelated to performance. You want me to raise Jeff’s grade so his feelings won’t be hurt.

Parent: That’s not true. His performance this semester has been tireless. He works long and hard on the essays you assign, even though he often gets low B’s on them.

Gibbs: You believe teachers should assign grades based on the claims parents make about how hard their children have worked?

Parent: There’s a lot of work students do at home that teachers never hear about. I’m sorry for thinking you cared about that sort of thing.

Gibbs: Where does Jeff do his work?

Parent: In his room.

Gibbs: Do you watch him do his work?

Parent: I check in on him from time to time.

Gibbs: How do you know he works long and hard?

Parent: I mean, he tells me he does. He goes to bed late because he’s up working on these essays for you.

Gibbs: So, you want me to raise Jeff’s grade because he claims he’s staying up late in his bedroom working hard for hours and hours on short essays he’s given weeks to write, even though you haven’t actually witnessed this hard work yourself?

Parent: I trust my son. He’s got no reason to lie to me.

Gibbs: Should I lower the grades of talented students who write excellent papers in an hour or two?

Parent: I thought this school cared about virtue. I thought this school rewarded virtue. I thought you’d like to know that one of your students works really hard, even though you don’t see it, and that you might be inclined to show a little mercy and grace to a student who is trying very hard to do well.

Gibbs: You’re asking me to raise your son’s grade so he feels better about himself, not tell anyone about it, and my refusal to do this indicates I don’t care about virtue?

Parent: I’m asking you to not break a bruised reed.

Gibbs: Your son is going to be broken because he gets an 87% on his report card? How is he going to respond when fate deals him something truly difficult?

Parent: Like what?

Gibbs: His girlfriend dumps him. His best friend renounces the faith. He breaks his ankle and can’t go on the senior trip to Italy. He gets an 82%. What you’re asking me to do is not terribly uncommon. Parents regularly ask me to raise grades. When they do, they do not say, “My son’s work is actually better than you give him credit for.” Instead, they talk about hurt feelings, hard work, the need for scholarships, and so forth. They are not much interested in competency.

Parent: Isn’t virtue more important than competency?

Gibbs: Perhaps. But virtue is more important than hurt feelings and what Jeff needs now is courage, not flattery and self-esteem. He needs the courage to admit he’s a decent literature student, but not an excellent one. He needs the courage to admit that other students have talents that he lacks, and this means he has to work harder for B’s than they have to work for A’s. This is simply how the world works. If you go to a restaurant and the food is no good, it doesn’t matter how hard the chef worked to make it, you won’t go back. If a certain politician works tirelessly to improve the economy, but everyone remains jobless and broke, you won’t reelect that politician.

Parent: But if you don’t give students incentive to work hard, they’ll become defeatists and cease to work hard.

Gibbs: Money is not the incentive to work hard, though. Good work is the incentive to work hard, then good work is rewarded. If hard work is rewarded for its own sake, there is no incentive to do good work. Good work can’t be faked, but hard work can. You can tell someone else, “I’ve been working all night,” even when you haven’t. It’s much harder to fake a brilliant essay, though. The proof is in the pudding.

Parent: But a little early success drives people to try harder.

Gibbs: And Jeff has had a little early success. He has a respectable grade in this class.

Parent: Yeah, he’s not thrilled about it.

Gibbs: I’m not thrilled about Jeff’s essays. They’re decent, but not thrilling. He has a grade which reflects that. If I inflate his grade just to make him feel good, where’s his incentive to keep trying hard? The lesson he will learn is not that hard work pays off, but that hurt feelings trump the need for honesty and humility. You're asking me to give Jeff a false image of how the world works. When he enters into his career, he can't tell his boss that he needs a raise because his salary hurts his feelings. He'll have to point to results that prove he's worth a raise. If he someday asks a good woman out on a date and she says, "Why should I go out with you?" and he responds, "Because you'll hurt my feelings if you don't," I would hope she'd laugh in his face. I care about Jeff, but I care far more about him having a happy, productive adult life than I do about preserving the safety of his teenage self-esteem.  

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches online classes at GibbsClassical.com. He is the author of How To Be UnluckySomething They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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