Compassion for our students is very important. It is our kindness, our love, our understanding, that they will remember throughout their futures when they think of us, and it gives many students the motivation they need to work hard and succeed in our classes.
Compassion, however, must stop at the gradebook. A final course grade should reflect one thing only. Not whether we think the student did her best. Not whether we believe the student would have done better if his personal life had not been so rocky. Not whether we can see that this student is a good person and deserves a chance to succeed. But whether the student has shown mastery of the content of the course.
This is an important distinction, and not an either/or. We can be compassionate without compromising the integrity of our course credits. We can teach our students from day one that we care about them, but that their grade in the class will reflect only that they have or have not mastered the course material. We can help them understand that being unsuccessful in a class is not an indication that they are not good people, or that they didn’t try, but simply that in this particular semester, for whatever the complexity of circumstances, they did not master the content in this one particular course. We can help them to see that this is not the end of the world, that they can try the course again, and that they are special and valuable people, but the gradebook shows no compassion, no judgments, only mastery.
This matters, because when we give sympathy grades, we are contributing to the growing societal problem of unqualified workers. Employers see the student’s degree credentials and hire him, not knowing until later that the new hire is unprepared for the job and unable to perform it. We have done the student no favor in sending him into an environment where he cannot be successful. We have deceived the employer by telling him the student is prepared for that job when he isn’t. And, most importantly, we have done society a disservice, by not preparing the workforce to competently meet the needs of the public. That is our entrusted job.
Teachers, let’s be kind, yes. Let’s listen to our students and help guide them in dealing with all life’s difficulties. But the gradebook is closed. We have been entrusted as the credential keepers. To pass an unprepared student is to fail society. There is plenty of room in the classroom for compassion, but the gradebook is off limits.