“What grade did you get?”
I hear this too often in schools. And it pains me.
The grade delusion
Etched into several of my childhood core memories is the experience of being given back assignments by my teacher. There was a familiar pattern that I recognise now. The teacher, slowly walking around the classroom, hands back our workbooks so we can face our judgment. I can still feel the anxiety, the fear…the silence of the room. We would be given time to read the teacher’s written feedback, but there was no point – the grade mark said it all. And then the silence would give way to a storm in the form of a ruthless student inquisition. I can never remember exactly who led the inquisition, but I do remember the question everyone was asked: “What did you get?”. There was nowhere to hide.
Meanwhile, I’m guessing the teacher was probably delighted. All the hours of marking and writing comments for the students to absorb, reflect upon and determine their next steps of learning. #Worthwhile. And wasn’t it great to see all of the students peer-reviewing their work? #Outstanding.
In the time it takes for a class of students to line themselves up in order of birthdates, shoe size, name or height (yes, we’ve all done it… about 2 minutes), or for two teams to be picked by students for a football game (yes, done that too.. about 2 minutes)…that’s about the same amount of time it needs for each child to work out where they stand in relation to their peers. Those up at the front feel glorious, validated, and perhaps relieved. Those in the middle are often just grateful that they are not at the bottom. And those at the bottom have just been told, again (no words needed), that they are not very good at the game they are playing (school) – and they are not going to be hoodwinked by the words of encouragement that sat under the grade they were served. Maybe they will try harder next time?
What a delusional state of play!
Comparing ourselves against others seems to be a very human thing to do. There are lots of good reasons why we do it and I am not making the case against the utility. What I am suggesting is that we need to be aware, particularly when working with young people, of the consequences of comparison. We need to own them.
In society, when people compare themselves with others around them, they often identify inequalities. Take nurses’ pay in the UK at the moment. Many nurses feel that they are underpaid (I agree) compared to other professionals such as teachers or police officers. At the same time, teachers feel that they are underpaid compared to other professionals such as doctors. And NHS doctors feel that they are underpaid compared to their private-sector counterparts. We live with comparison; we find our worth in comparison, and we often find our self-esteem in comparison. Relativity is the key here. In my anecdote above, the ‘bottom’ student in one school could well be the ‘top’ student in another school – so the effect on students is the same regardless of their relative ‘ability’.
Like many, I have been reading around the subject of well-being, happiness, and belonging over the last few months. A consistent theme that comes up is around gratitude: how it provides a foundation for happiness; how it turns what we have into enough; and how it helps keep things in perspective even when things are not going so well. It has led me to contemplate and explore the notion of absolute v relative gratitude. One of which I like: the other, not so much.
Relative gratitude, I think, is much easier to cultivate and often takes the form of:
“I have X, which is so much more than that person has, and for that I’m grateful”
“My situation is bad but their situation is worse and, for that, I’m grateful”
Relative gratitude by its very nature and definition brings a comparative element into gratitude which, to me, steals the joy of gratitude. And would we really want to determine our happiness in this way? Is this how we should condition young people?
Absolute gratitude, on the other hand, is much harder to cultivate and it requires being in a constant state of thankfulness for whatever is in your life (the good, the bad, and the ugly) as every event, circumstance, person that you come across is presenting you an opportunity to learn, grow, evolve.
Absolute gratitude takes the form of “all is well”, “I am blessed”, “I am whole”, “I am fortunate”, “I am so lucky” without regard to anyone else’s lot or situation.
Comparison is the thief of joy
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “comparison is the thief of joy”. I haven’t always understood where he was coming from. But if all we do is compare ourselves relative to others, we may be left with feelings of inferiority or superiority – and neither is entirely desirable.
And that is why I don’t like to hear the words, “what grade did you get?”.