Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Motivating for Grades - Opinions Wanted!

Okay, I haven’t written anything in a while. Sometimes, I think of things that might make interesting subjects; but I hold back, thinking, “No, that’s stupid. Who would care about the minutia of my boring life?” Then, IT HITS ME! Writing about the minutia of my boring life is the very reason I started a blog to begin with!



So, here’s an important topic! If you read this, I would love your opinion – be it in the comments below the blog post, or on the Facebook post that brought you here.

Pax’s first year in middle school brought its typical challenges. He’s a smart kid (if I may say so myself); but he’s not so terribly organized. Consequently, he’d miss assignments, and struggle with the timing of studying adequately for tests. As the year went on, we experimented with different ways to incentivize him, so that he would take ownership of his grades. By the last quarter of 7th grade, we had found a system that seemed to work. More than anything in life, Pax loves his electronics (hereafter referred to as his “stuff”) – his Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS, iPhone, etc. Using his “stuff” as the carrot, we set up a sliding scale for his grades. As long as he had an A-Minus or higher in all of his classes, he could have his “stuff” as much as he wanted – after, of course, he did his chores and homework. At B-Minus and higher, he could have his “stuff” for one hour on weeknights, and up to three hours on each weekend day. If even one class got below B-Minus, our house became a “stuff-free zone.”

Each day, the first thing Pax does when he gets home from school is to traipse up the stairs to my office. Together, he and I log onto the school’s website, and check his grades. For each quarter after we implemented this program, his grades climbed higher. Finally, for the first quarter of this year – 8th grade, for Pax – the quarter ended with one A-Minus (Science), and six A’s. Susan and I were thrilled! This could be a system we use until he graduated from high school!
Pax - 8th Grade - One Handsome Dawg!
 So, Parent-Teacher conferences roll around for the first quarter, and we proudly go from teacher to teacher – excited to hear the glowing things they have to say about our clever son. And most of it was glowing! The common thread among all of the teachers was that Pax was a student who was actively engaged. Literally every teacher, independent of the others, mentioned how a day never passed without Pax waiting at the teacher’s desk, wanting to discuss a test result, an assignment score, an opportunity for extra credit, etc.

I almost got the feeling that Pax’s aggressive, proactive approach to his grades was an irritant for one or two of his teachers. They didn’t say anything directly, mind you – it was just my perception. Overall, Pax’s teachers seemed to sincerely enjoy him. I felt so proud of him that evening. It wasn’t just that he had achieved good grades – of course, learning how to be a good student will be one of the most valuable lessons he can learn in life. No, what pleased me even more was his persistence. I probably didn’t have the wherewithal in 8th grade to be that gritty with my teachers – to be that direct with any adults, for that matter. And I know that in the real world, that quality of dogged determination will be incredibly vital to Pax’s success – probably even more important than his ability to memorize facts for a test.

So, while still basking in the afterglow of an extraordinarily-positive parent-teacher conference, I was surprised when Pax came home the next week and told us about something that had happened to him at school that day. Apparently, one of Pax’s teacher’s assistants had pulled him aside, and said, “Mr. XYZ asked me to tell you to stop obsessing over your grade in his class. You’re doing yourself no favors by bugging him about it every day.”

At first, I was defensive – ready to have an angry discussion with the teacher, and the principal. But ultimately, I held back. Maybe the conversation had been exaggerated. Maybe it was taken out of context. Maybe there was just something I was missing. I had, after all, gotten the sense at parent-teacher conferences that a couple of his teachers had felt this way. So, I decided to investigate the situation a little deeper.  I sent an email to each of his teachers, explaining the incentive plan we had in place – and I asked them for additional feedback on Pax.

The response I received was almost entirely positive. Indeed, most of Pax’s teachers really did seem to genuinely enjoy him. Some said that they got a kick out of how on top of his grades he was – they found it refreshing. One said that she had originally worried that we might be “Nazi parents” – but that she felt a lot more comfortable after meeting us, and getting a little insight into why Pax was so “grade-motivated.”

There were two exceptions to this positive feedback. The first was the teacher that had allegedly been the source for the “stop bugging me about your grades” comment. He didn’t even bother responding to my email. Now THAT really DID raise my ire – let’s just say that I’m probably not this teacher’s biggest fan, at this point. The second exception was what has really gotten me perplexed – something into which I have really put a lot of thought, over the past several weeks. The comment was, “I wish Paxton would spend more time obsessing about learning the subject matter than he does about getting an ‘A’ in the class.”

I want to have an open mind about this.  I sincerely approached this whole thing with a desire to be a better parent for my student. In other words, I am not just looking for validation regarding my opinion. I want to understand!

Why would those two things (“getting an ‘A’ in the class” versus “learning the subject matter”) be mutually exclusive items? Wouldn’t you suppose that “getting an ‘A’ in the class” would automatically entail “learning the subject matter?” Outside of cheating, how could you possibly get an A in a class and NOT have learned?

Are there any teachers reading this who would be willing to speculate – to offer some insight into this? Maybe I’m over-analyzing it? I would truly value your input – both on the comment itself; and on anything you might have done as a parent to motivate your child to take ownership of his or her academic performance. I hate the thought of trying to motivate my kids by simply hounding them until they accomplish something. What’s worked for you?


Wendy said...

I am a former middle and high school guidance counselor, and I am married to a teacher. I might have an explanation for you (remember I don't know the "offending" teacher). You asked if Getting an A in the class vs. Learning the subject matter are mutually exclusive. I think the answer is no, but there are some kids and parents who only see the grades, and not the process either. Many teachers are bombarded by students at the end of the grading term by students/parents who ask, "What can I do for extra credit?" Sometimes these kids didn't do their homework on time, or do as well on the tests. But it seems that the only time it matters is when the grades are due. They didn't care earlier. This can irk some teachers. The teachers like to put forth work for students, expect they complete it, and then they grade it. They do not necessarily want to come up with "extra point" options for students. I don't know if your son is asking for these, but that might be one reason. I agree, it is great that your son is willing to talk to the teacher directly about his grade, and in general I like your plan about him being able to use his "stuff" as long as he does well in school. But, do you think/know/feel if there is any internal motivation to do well? Just asking and wondering.
Those are my few thoughts. Good luck! It is great that you are an involved parent and encouraging your son to do well (whatever it takes!)

Karen said...

Ok Paul, Here is my 2 cents, which may actually be worth less than that. I do believe it happens quite often that a kid can earn an A in a class and not necessarily "learn" the subject matter. Grades are not nearly as important as effort put forth. Kids need to be challenged in order to really feel a sense of accomplishment. Having older kids who have graduated from high school and gone on to college, I can tell you that if your childs education is worth anything, there should come a time when an A may not be possible. I know a large number of kids who are quick to let you know that they have a 4.0 grade point average, but only scored a 20 or so on the ACT. Now everyone can have a bad day, and we all know some kids test better than others, but if you are truly learning the subject matter you should be getting a much higher score. I know so many parents who are so worried about grades that they allow their kids to take easier classes to keep the GPA up at the expense of learning. If a class is really challenging the A's may be harder to come by but the knowledge gained is invaluable. I have kids with a broad spectrum of ability and work ethic. My hardest worker by far, does not have the highest grades. Kids learn the system (especially the really bright kids, which Pax is) They know exactly the minimum amount of effort to put forth to get the grade they need. Cramming for a test when you have not kept up on the reading for example, may earn smart kids the A but does not allow them to truly learn the subject matter. I had kids who were getting an A in a class I had never seen them study for. Now while this may be a teacher who is not giving enough work, it may also be a kid where this class is just too easy for them. An A means nothing if you are not working your butt off for it. If you see Pax working HARD for his grades then you are on the right track but if those A's are a little too easy to come by, add some enrichment activites to help him really learn. He may find a real passion for a subject that never required any effort before. I would base the reward system more on his effort than the actual grade. Good luck! education is one of those interesting subjects when it comes to raising kids. No one thing works for every kid.

Karen Anderson

The G-Funk! said...

Hmmm. I'm no expert in this subject, but I'll pass this question on to a qualified friend!

Anonymous said...

Traci directed me to your blog, thinking that I might be able to offer some thoughts as a former teacher. If, under your motivational system, your relationship with your son is largely positive and he recognizes the system as being fair ( i.e., not arbitrary) and reasonable (i.e., allowing for the possibility of success), then it's a great system. You might investigate to ensure that he is earning his good grades by accurately completing his homework, turning it in on time, and performing well on tests and quizzes. In these circumstances, he is internalizing something, and you don't need to worry if one of his teachers feels that he lacks an all-consuming passion for a certain subject matter. (I managed to complete law school for very dispassionate reasons....) If, on the other hand, he is using a lot of extra credit or cajoling teachers into giving him extensions, exceptions, and exemptions, that is a problem. As to the teacher who is bothered by your son's frequent questions about his grade, I think you have two options, both perfectly fair. One would be to leave it as the teacher's problem. He could well be burned out. It happens. And he can't ding your son academically because of frequent grade-related questions. However, another approach would be to help your son understand that he can't always use a one-style-fits-all approach in dealing with people. He might do well to brainstorm a different way of monitoring his grade in this class and eliciting information from the teacher. It would be a good life lesson--one that he will be able to apply in dealing with future co-workers, supervisors, and even his own children.

Paul said...

Thanks so much for the comments, including those that emailed me directly.

And Traci's friend (that is your name, right?), thank you for chiming in. It was really insightful!

I do think he manipulates the system a little. We've really tried to transition this last quarter or two into less retests (I think they let every test be retaken at his school), and no late assignments. And I do think he feels the system CAN be arbitrary (that, I truly don't get - it seems so black and white to me). Whatever we settle on, it can't be static. Like this, we thought we had a great system, and have since found that there are issues with it.

Traci's friend (that is your name, right? It just never gets old!), if you see this, I'd love to know if you ever saw "systems" that really worked? We aren't looking for something easy, necessarily. We just want to motivate him so that we get the best out of him. I would love to say that he loved learning, for learning's sake. Maybe that will happen someday. It certainly isn't reality right now. So, short of that, my main thing is that he takes ownership - that he cares, for whatever reason. The problem is that I do see him doing some of what you described - quite a lot of it, actually. Maybe there's no perfect way, at this point.

Anyway, every post here has made me think, and I truly appreciate each one of them!

Cristine said...


Did you know that some first graders chew their pencils nervously during their exams because they are so afraid of not being perfect? Instead of six year olds being carefree and eager to show what they have absorbed..... Their worries now are "am I perfect enough?"

Pax is in the seventh grade, a grade that in the records really are meaningless. I believe Jr High is an environment where children get to learn how to work in groups, think for themselves, contribute to their world, and explore what they want to learn about. Young children in Jr High are reading classics such as "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "To Kill a Mockingbird." They are studying higher levels of Mathematics, beginning science projects,  learning about other countries and their own bodies.

Pax is right now focusing on just himself; his "stuff," and the things he needs to do to get what he wants regardless of how he approaches the tasks at hand.... That, in my opinion is why two of his teachers might be concerned with Pax not actually "learning" but merely earning the necessary grades so he can have what he wants. 

And unfortunately, that's not how life works.... When we get our careers and we become "perfect" at our skill set does that mean that no matter what we won't get laid off? Or if we are the best sales person, are we doing what's best for other people as well? Or are we only worried about our bonuses?

If Pax is only concerned with this specific grade he might begin having problems with: working in a group, respecting his teachers and finding his way into really being interested in learning. 

Working in groups: if Pax needs this certain grade & is adamant that he gets it, do you feel he will be okay with not being the team leader? Or respecting another student's viewpoint? He might even go so far as doing the team project all by himself, leaving the other students feeling bad about themselves, all because he knows how to get that special grade. This isn't how teamwork should be, we all need to learn how to work together and we've all have been around that one person who has to be the boss so it's "perfect." Teamwork is really about learning to give and take and create something diverse. If he gets a B- because another student didn't proofread his or her part of the project, how do you think Pax might feel or react? Would it be fair that he doesn't get an A- because his group project was a flop yet he contributed A-quality work? We all need flops to learn how to do things better! :) In your church, repenting is a strong aspect, right? :) 

Respecting his teachers: if Pax feels that it's okay to continuously ask for extra credit or retake a test or disrupting the teacher's lunch break because he needs to make sure he's in track in grades.... Is that acceptable? Probably not the best way Pax is to practice patience, humility, or how good work is received.  If an employee of yours were to ask you everyday if they were doing well, not going to get fired, get overtime.... Etc., wouldn't you be slightly frustrated and feel they aren't understanding the bigger picture? 

 It is important for Pax to learn that each teacher's personality  is different, has different standards and that sometimes things aren't going to go the way he may want them to. Imagine if he lost respect for Teacher "A"  because he/she gave Pax's only B-? He might even blame him or her for his grade and the consequences.... Losing out on his precious stuff. 


Cristine said...


And then what happens if you or his Mom gives  in and let Pax have his stuff even if he got a B-? Would that question or devalue your authority (and your honesty) in Pax's eyes? Would your integrity be at stake? 'You know he tried his best but that Art project just wasn't that big of a deal...... '

This scenario happens and Pax learns that people don't follow through.... So, why should he?

Pax, you and his mom (Imho) should discuss together the reasons why students should try their hardest without expecting perfection, why it's not always important to be the leader, or to have the best grades but instead be accountable for himself.
I would tell Pax that he is starting to become a young man and needs to ask himself if he has done all that he could in his studies, working in groups and respecting the Teacher. That these special years are about trying, falling down, getting back up and trying again. :) Seminary doesn't start until high school, right? 

Also, ask Pax to make a list of subjects he is interested in and if you want to have "incentives" maybe have family home evening incentives where he studies something at home for a month and writes a paper about what he has learned and shares with a oral report or creative way like teaching the family what he has learned.  I think he might really like it because it sounds like he is definitely a smarty pants. So, maybe he just needs extra learning at home? 

And for the record in my humble opinion....

B-'s are NOT the end of the world! :) It's still above average. D's and F's are grades to worry about/set incentives/ seek help from teachers. Junior high was a challenge for me but I ended up in advanced classes throughout high school and could have graduated a year early. I ended up on the honour roll, academic decathlon team and because of my terrible athletic skills (darn you P.E!)  I graduated with a 3.8gpa.... 

I didn't get a 4.0 but I'm very proud of my 3.8!