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Stop Asking About Grades (Lessons Learned Working with Teens)

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Let’s get this out of the way first - I’m not a parent.

But I’ve spent the last 15 years working with students ranging from 4 years old - 18 years old. Along the way I’ve learned that 16 year olds can act like 6 year olds and 5 year olds can act like 15 year olds. I’ve also learned that no matter the age, students crave the same things: feeling heard, valued and respected. What that looks like varies from age to age, but the desire for these things is pretty consistent.

WIT Teens @ WIT Pitch Night NYC

When I left traditional teaching to start WIT - Whatever It Takes, I went from teaching elementary age students to working with teenagers. While there are the obvious differences between working with those two demographics, what was also different was the focus. The focus on learning seemed replaced by a focus on GPAs, SAT scores, and college. These scores drove the decision to do either a fun extra curricular activity or take more SAT prep classes. I'd meet teens and they would often lead with the name of their school and the number of AP classes they were taking. The lack of enthusiasm on my face probably caught them by surprise. It was as if they had been trained to think that these “credentials” should make them more special or valuable in my eyes. The truth was, I just wanted to learn about them - What do you like to do? What do you care about? What do you do when you aren’t doing homework? The answers to these questions were the things that helped me learn about them, not the GAP, SAT or course load.

Here’s where I think adults need to do some “owning up”. Adults created these generations focused on test scores and college acceptances. The kids didn’t create the system, adults did. So, adults can undo it.

I once had a Pre-K parent book a last minute parent conference because she was so worried about her son not being able to write his name and the interview for kindergarten was right around the corner -

“Can you write your name?” I asked.

“Um, yes,” she replied.

“Do you remember the day you learned to write your name?” I responded.

“Well, no,” she shared.

Exactly. Somewhere along the lines we got it twisted. We started thinking that reading earlier than other children, writing your name in time for the kindergarten interview, acing all your tests, getting perfect scores on SAT tests, and juggling 6 AP classes, meant that you were a “good kid” or even a “smart kid”, maybe even “a great person”. Yet, we all know (adults I’m talking about us) that those things don’t even come close to telling the story of who were are as people and have no weight in determining our worthiness or value.

So my invitation as we head into a season of a lot of family gatherings and time together, is that we try on a new line of questioning when it comes to the young people at the table -

Let’s get rid of: Where do you want to go to college? What do you want to major in? What are your grades?

Let’s try on: What issues are you caring about right now? Studying anything interesting? What have you been doing when you aren’t in school?

Cause let’s be real. When we were bombarded with that first line of questioning as teenagers we weren’t totally clear on our future. We were just trying to appease the adults in our life. Plus, those questions are future-based. It’s often more fun, when you are learning about your child, friend, cousin, nephew, to ask them about the present - what’s happening in their life today.

Oh and if you really want to score big points with the kids, tell them about times you messed up, how you didn’t always know what you wanted to major in, that high school was tough for you, and that you still have goals/dreams you haven’t done, yet. Try being the adult you wish you had when you were a teen.

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