Teachers’ second chances are about resilience, not academic coddling

Several weeks ago, I saw the results of one of my son’s math tests. Not bad, but I noticed that he missed one or two for silly reasons. “It’s fine, mom,” he told me. “I’ll re-do those for partial credit.”

I mentioned this to a relative (who shall go nameless), and he scoffed at the idea that a teacher would allow a student to redo this type of work. To be fair, the teacher doesn’t offer second chances on everything – although more often than not, she does.

When challenged, I defended my child’s right to the second chance – we learn from our mistakes!—yet I have to admit that, like my relative, I’ve grappled with the concept of second chances in an academic environment. Mostly, I think, it’s because as a student I was never well acquainted with the practice of second chances.

My experience as a test taker: Missed a few? Missed a lot? Better luck next time, sister.  Although the soundtrack to the movie 8 Mile came out long after I became an adult, Eminem’s One Shot somehow resonates deep within the test-taking me.

Still, as a parent, I was happy that my son had a chance for a little Chapter 9 math redemption. Yet my relative brought up questions like: Is my kid being coddled? Will my child be able to make it in the real world? And did loving the idea that my kid got a second chance mean I was an academic-coddling enabler or, worse, a perfectionist?

Amid this whirl of questioning, I recalled a conversation I had several months ago with Julie Posselt, an assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan who wrote “Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping.” While most of our conversation focused on standardized tests used for graduate school admittance, Posselt made a point that also challenged me. She said certain elite graduate school programs admitted only essentially perfect students. That is, the student who based on certain measures seemed exquisitely polished, proven, in need of nothing. To put it a rather crass way: the winners, the superstars.

Before speaking with Posselt, I’d never questioned this policy. Of course elite programs only let in the winners. (I hope if you’re an educator, though, you already see how ludicrous this is).

Posselt observed how offensive this philosophy should be to all educators. The point of education is to educate, so the student becomes more than he or she ever would’ve become if not for their education. The ideal student is really the imperfect one who has massive potential for growth and thus massive potential to add something great to our world based on what he or she learned.

Being imperfect and yet wanting more – whether that’s with something tiny like wanting to redo a math problem or something slightly bigger like applying for grad school even without a superstar GRE score—should be a tip off that you could be an educator’s dream. It’s a good indication that you have room to learn, want growth and will perhaps contribute surprising things to the world based on your new knowledge and abilities.

Much academic research and public debate has centered lately on the character of students. Paul Tough wrote about it recently in the Atlantic Monthly. According to Tough, researchers are focusing more on a constellation of personal qualities–referred to as non-cognitive skills or character traits – that they believe make students successful. Among the most studied traits are resilience and grit. These two traits are considered the most potent secret sauce in learning.

Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, two professors at the University of Rochester, have gotten close to unraveling the mysteries of grit and resilience. Deci and Ryan study self determination theory and how intrinsic/extrinsic motivations influence what we do. The researchers have pointed out that much of what students are asked to do daily isn’t particularly fun.

Learning almost anything – be it multiplication, spelling, how to play your favorite song on the piano or how to get the shading correct on a drawing – always involves repetitive practice. Deci and Ryan say that when teachers are able to create a certain classroom environment, however, students are more motivated to do this sometimes boring but necessary repetitive work.

As Tough put it in his article, kids become grittier when teachers create an environment where they feel a sense of belonging, opportunity, independence and growth. Yet for all our obsession with these noncognitive skills, though, we have yet to find a reliable way to teach kids to be grittier or more resilient.

But what if some teachers have? What if it has to do with the second chance? To me, a teacher who gives a second chance is embracing a child, showing grace, forgiveness and an opportunity for growth. And a kid who takes a second chance is accepting that opportunity for growth.

It’s not about coddling or perfection, thank you very much. A second chance is a demonstration–by the giver and the taker—of grit and perseverance, and should be doled out freely.

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Victoria Clayton

Victoria Clayton

Victoria loves research, reading, writing and talking to people. Her biggest asset as a writer is insatiable curiosity. She’s worked as a columnist covering parenting, health and education for MSNBC.com and many other publications. She’s currently an education contributor to TheAtlantic.com. Victoria’s essays have been published in The Midwest Review and Barrelhouse literary magazines. She’s completing her first novel, a family drama set in the Midwest. A child of working class poverty with parents who quit school before finishing eighth grade, Victoria is especially proud of her experience as a long-delayed graduate student and now a part-time professor of communication. Her husband and she have two sons, a middle schooler and a kindergartener. Victoria has been a parent volunteer at a traditional public elementary school in their far-flung suburb of Los Angeles as well as in a charter school devoted to whole child and social/emotional-centered education. Besides reading and writing, she's obsessed with yoga, cooking and Isaac, the family's 8-pound Chihuahua mix. She still believes, despite what some critics say, that education is the most powerful force we have against ignorance, violence and despair. Find her on Twitter @vicclay.

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