Save That of Knowing I Do Your Will:
Grades Are Frightening Students Away From Mission
By Russell Fiorella (June 2017)
Although the past hides its true author, Saint Ignatius is considered the architect of the beloved Prayer for Generosity. Most who have walked the halls of a Jesuit institution have likely recited its simple but elegant lines:
Teach me to be generous,
Teach me to serve you as you deserve,
To give and not to count the cost,
To fight and not to heed the wounds,
To toil and not to seek for rest,
To labor and not to ask for reward,
Save that of knowing I do your will.
Since my days as a student at Canisius High School and Canisius College in Buffalo, NY and now as a proud religion teacher at a Jesuit school in metropolitan New York, this prayer’s message remains the same: Grind against the wrath of the world’s injustices with the valor of a soldier from Pamplona, with the humility and love of Christ limned in the four gospels. Reflecting on a rich first year leading my own classroom, Ignatius’ words invite me to look outward at my students’ formations. Jesuit schools across America continue to inform their students of society’s false precepts, its solipsism, and its injustices in a variety of ways. But are students able to discern the Prayer for Generosity’s meaning? It is a question worth considering. From what I have observed in my first year, how student learning is affirmed in the classroom is steering them away from Ignatius’ call to arms.
Teaching the Old and New Testaments has been thrilling: exotic cultures, slippery evidence, sacred texts, big questions, endless mystery. Accompanying somewhat sheltered teenagers into unfamiliar corners of the world on immersion trips and investigating their inner lives on retreats have been equally stimulating. The eclectic young men I teach share my curiosity for exploring religion, spirituality, and social justice issues. They are open to confronting challenging questions vicariously with peers and are willing to reflect individually in a fruitful manner. While most of my energy this year was expended designing lesson plans inviting students to discuss and debate, laugh and imagine, collaborate and create, and think critically and independently, I became gradually more interested in the obstacles impeding my students’ appreciation for their Jesuit educations.
After introductions were made on the first day of classes in September, I asked my one-hundred and twenty odd freshmen and sophomores to respond to the following questions, “What motivates you? What do you fear?” Answers varied from personal to humorous. But most responses contained more harrowing anxieties:
“I fear disappointing my parents, not getting good grades.”
“The thing that I fear the most is not living up to the standards that my family set for me academically. This is due to the fact that a large majority of them went to top colleges and have high-paying jobs.”
“As greedy as it sounds, money motivates me. I want all the lavish things that money can buy and I’m willing to put in the hours to get that money.”
“The thing I fear the most is becoming a failure, like failing at school, for example. My brother is very intelligent when it comes to schoolwork and he makes it look effortless.”
“One thing I fear the most is failing in school or failing someone. I usually do very well in school, so to get one bad grade makes me upset knowing that I could have done better.”
Reading one response after another, I came to a deeper realization of my students’ absorption in their own legacies, their materialistic muscle, their will to perform according to their parents’ expectations as well as society’s. What I hoped were typical individualistic freshmen and sophomore views turned out to be a shared sensibility across the student body. When speaking with junior and senior level teachers, I discovered students’ fears surrounding academic performance remains constant, reaching epic proportions when the college application window draws near. Fear regularly overwhelms our entire learning community at the close of marking periods when teachers tend to spray volleys of assignments their students’ way. The pressure is palpable and erodes students’ morale. Another point of tension ensues after grades are published:
“I’ve worked hard this semester and I think I deserve an A rather than a B.”
“I really need this grade to attain first honors and if I don’t get it, I might not get into the school I want.”
Bartering has no place in learning unless pertaining to a class discussion. In several cases when students’ desires are not met, parents get involved. Administrators, guidance counselors, and department chairs are ushered into the flaming stone circle with fear waving its crafty wand. Undoubtedly the anxieties in students’ hearts and the antics that follow are present at all Jesuit secondary schools, estranging students from Ignatius’ Prayer.
If you are an administrator, teacher, counselor, student, or parent of a student at a Jesuit school or any Catholic school for that matter, set aside the tiresome arguments for or against grades. How can we expect students to understand the gravity and urgency of Ignatius’ impassioned call for women and men dedicated to giving their lives to others with fear pervading their classroom experience? How do students’ preoccupations with their individual academic achievement, which many hope will lead to an acquisitive lifestyle, urge them to be generous in the truest sense, to serve and toil and fight without worldly recompense necessarily in return? How is doubt pushing our students to take risks? How do grading systems predicated on comparison and envy cultivate community or facilitate his or her search for their identity? How can the inherently optimistic educational mission of Jesuit schools grow with negativity and punishment? How does education fueled by fear induce young women and men to love? After all, does not love require absence of fear and unremitting vulnerability? Speaking of love, where is God in all this trepidation?
Teaching theology at a Jesuit high school has taught me grades are not God. Discovering the wonders and struggles of the world and growing into a deeper understanding of oneself is a divine experience. A student’s edification ought to reflect that. The most inimical word in Jesuit education is “reward.” While the average student is conditioned to perceive education as a transaction, “If I accomplish this, I will receive this,” a Jesuit educated student should learn out of love. For learning out of love allows students to enter into a selfless, lucid and brilliant relationship with the greatest of wonders, the greatest of loves. As a result, students will have no choice but to act on their educational experiences in love’s name. The illustrious Fr. Pedro Arrupe S.J. summarizes this utmost point better than anyone:
Today’s prime educational objective must be to form men and women for others; men and women who will live not for themselves but for God and his Christ...men and women who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of our neighbors.
Finding God in one’s education should be effortless, humbling, limitless and continual. Finding God should be about broadening one’s perception of reality, using questions big and small as tools for insight. Finding love requires using one’s heart as a source of courage and a compass for discerning how to realistically make an impact on others for the greater good. Grades hamper this formational experience.
Jesuit educators ought to be honest about the effect grades have on the mission. The thoughts and questions posed are meant to stimulate an extremely challenging yet necessary conversation among learning communities, from students to parents, teachers to administrators. It requires a sizable amount of hard research, open mindedness, creativity, audacity, and a lot of time for contemplation, further conversation, and discernment. A starting point is untangling how words like “success,” “vocation,” “reward,” “desire,” and “failure” among others are understood in the context of Catholic Jesuit education. Such discussions could create a more refined and widespread understanding of Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity among students at the end of four years. What follows can only be great.
I have had tremendous success intentionally directing my students’ attention away from grades. Rather than pinning numbers and letters to their performance, I regularly serve my students feedback in detailed written comments or face-to-face consultations. At the end of each marking period, students take time composing reflective writing pieces. What they gleaned from their reflections helped them determine where they were in their journey and propose a grade. Instead of me judging their performance, the student and I came to a conclusion together. Out of over five hundred grades put forward by students, a mere ten were off the mark. Half of those ten lowballed. My students have responded to my less grade-centric approach to learning with resounding appreciation. At the conclusion of the year they celebrated how the questions, conversations, projects, writing pieces, the general investigation into the human experience made learning infinitely more meaningful.
No moment has been more inspiring than reading a final reflection from one of my quieter freshmen, Matt. He expressed how his first year had been difficult-there were problems unfolding at home, friends were hard to come by and so were good grades. Despite his forgettable struggles, my class proved a memorable adventure leaving a lasting impact:
“I truly looked forward to going to your class each day because it was so different than my other classes. It was challenging and fun and not about ‘getting the grade.’’ And although I wasn’t your best student, your class makes me want to look deeper into what we talked about this year. Thank you.“
Matt was certainly not the most intellectual student. But throughout he “learned to learn out of love” and will be returning for his sophomore year. Entering my second year teaching I continue to pray Saint Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity, hoping its words become real for students like Matt and all students enrolled at Jesuit schools. But I also pray Ignatius’ prayer as a reminder of my mission as a Jesuit educator: to form students empowered and inspired to give themselves away to others, for the love of it.