The “F” Word


The mark teachers are becoming too afraid to make,

Paul Vigder, Staff Writer

A little whining was all it took before my teacher caved. Moments after she had announced the next large assignment we had, the class had changed her mind with a chorus of wailing and groans. “Fine,” the teacher said, “we’ll just discuss it as a class and have the rest of the period free.” I couldn’t believe how easily the teacher had been convinced to let us waste time and get by without putting an ounce of effort into the class. After further reflection on this experience and the rest of the years I spent in classes like that, I recognized a pattern of teachers trying to teach students as gently as humanly possible. God forbid a student should be required to actually work in a class or even consider the possibility of failing before they succeed. Kids are always sick of hearing their parents tell them how much worse they had it when they were kids, but in an age of hand-holding and coddling at school, their parents just might be right.

The shift towards making high school easier seems, in theory, to be in the name of helping kids succeed, but is success all it’s cracked up to be? Where B’s and C’s were once considered adequate passing grades for your average studious high schooler, A’s are now the only acceptable grade. Rather than students being pushed harder to reach this higher standard, the bar has instead been set lower, making it more achievable with less work and therefore more meaningless. I have even experienced being told I should switch to an easier class where I might get an A rather than just working a little harder in the class I was in or even just accepting the B I had earned in the class. The idea that students should be encouraged by their school to succeed is admirable and beneficial, but when this goal is achieved by making success easier to get, it backfires. Students lose all incentive to strive for success when it is handed to them by the adults that are supposed to be inspiring them.

Students at DHS are often encouraged to transfer to lower-level courses in order to protect their perfect GPA at the expense of their individual growth and passion for learning. Now a senior, I continue to see a movement following behind my grade to get rid of the class level system, which met students at their individual needs, in favor of protecting kids’ feelings—again, at the expense of their success as a student. This “defanging” of a system that effectively promoted success for kids at any level seems to be more in favor of pleasing parents who are more interested in not seeing their child placed in low-level classes than actually promoting their wellbeing.

Another way education has become gentler is the way schools find new and creative ways to break the news to students that they did not succeed in something. A rule was once incorporated at Deerfield High School in which teachers weren’t allowed to grade papers with red pen because it was too intimidating towards students. Colors like green and blue were encouraged to rebrand the image of what failing looks like. This rule didn’t last long at Deerfield, but the idea remains. For example, In more recent years, the infamous “finals week” was renamed “summative assessments week” for unclear reasons, likely in an attempt to make it sound less threatening. In exchange for lightening the blows of these difficult aspects of education, teachers are withholding from students the opportunity to experience failure in a safe setting where they can actually learn from it. The result is young adults who will continue on into a world unprepared to face struggle and failure and with no motivation towards the satisfaction of triumph over these things. A major part of high school is stolen from students when their failures are disguised and padded in the name of sheltering their feelings.

There is one more truly detrimental result of the childproofing of modern education: fear of failure. I never thought, when I arrived in high school as a freshman, that I would regularly see peers cry because of a grade they received on an assignment. Retrospectively, it seems like an obvious outcome. Coming from standards-based grading in middle school where a “meets standards” was acceptable to high school where a B meant the end of the world was a shock for students who had been coddled until then.

The expression of this fear of failure can be seen plainly in how students pick their courses for their next year. They are encouraged to pick classes that they are confident they will get an A in by this system. These students who are supposed to be benefiting from a structure in which it is hard to fail are so scared of that dangerous F word that they won’t even try. It is with this fear of failure that the proliferation of gentle education has failed itself.