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Headmaster's Blog


Inevitable, Valuable Failure

September 12, 2019
By Jay Adams

It’s been quite a while since I posted anything here. We’ve been so busy in the office getting the school year going that I had to drop my writing time for a while. But busy in the office is a great problem to have.

An EA parent sent me an article this week about the struggle for perfection that places undue pressure on many of our students, and I thought it was valuable enough to pass along. You can click this link to connect to the article, which is well worth a full read. But if you don’t have time, I’ll hit some highlights here, and add my comments at the end.

  • ...Kids are coming to college “underconstructed,” ...because [they have been] protected from the uncomfortable and unacceptable state of being wrong. Focused on getting the grades or winning the game ...these children have internalized the pressure, and it’s morphed into a monster that paralyzes kids in their ability to take risks, screw up, find out the consequences and learn from their mistakes.
  • Trying something and how children learn and make discoveries about themselves and the world around them. ...Becoming autonomous gives children pride in themselves and their abilities, and makes them independent thinkers and doers who can cope with the ups and downs of life.
  • One of the biggest pitfalls... are the parent portal websites, with access to up-to-the-minute feedback about scores and grades. Lahey and her husband decided to forgo the parent portal for their older child. They handed the password over to their son, telling him he’d need to let them know if he was in academic trouble. Some of her friends were shocked, “as if we were defaulting on our parental duty,” she writes. “I disagree. Checking in on children’s grades is a type of surveillance, which is one of the forms of control and is often mentioned in the research as an enemy of autonomy and intrinsic motivation.”
  • Fear of failure destroys the love of learning.

Over the past 20 years in the classroom, I have observed every trend mentioned in the article. While I would never presume to know my students better than their parents do, and while I know that every child is different and every family works differently, there are a few general things I’d like to encourage EA parents to do:

  1. Focus on academic trends, not on a single grade. At the end of each quarter, we average all of a student’s work to arrive at their final grade. The reason we take an average is so that a single bad day (or week) in class doesn’t tank a student’s grade. Even Ty Cobb struck out every now and then.
  2. Don’t panic over grades, especially early in the quarter; until there at least two tests and several homework assignments are entered, there’s really no way to know what the student’s trendline in the class looks like. Panicking early is like assuming a kid will get no hits in a baseball game just because he grounded out in his first at-bat.
  3. Understand that GPA doesn’t actually matter very much to colleges these days. The ACT score is much more important, both for admission decisions and scholarship qualifications. A student is much better off making Bs their entire career, then scoring a 28 on the ACT, than they would be with a 4.2 GPA and a 22 on the ACT. In fact, we have had numerous internal discussions at EA about grade inflation and steps we can take to make sure that our grades accurately reflect truly deep learning, not merely compliance and effort.
  4. Insist that students own and embrace their own education. No magic switch flips when a student gets a high school diploma; if the only reason they made good grades in high school is because of parental pressure, then that’s also the only way they’ll pass their college courses effectively. 
  5. Instead of asking about grades, ask “What did you learn today?” It’s amazing how just this one question can spark conversation at the dinner table, and it drives home the message to children: We’re not focused on the number you get at the end of the nine weeks; we’re focused on the learning you’ve done.
  6. Since we have to use grades under our current model, take the time to understand how teachers think about them. Our assumption at EA is that a C is what the average student would score on an assignment, a B is slightly above average, and an A is well above average. Insisting that a student make all As on everything is essentially demanding that a student be well above average, across the board, in every subject, for 180 days in a row. That is a high burden to place on an adult, let alone a teenager. 
  7. Obviously, we expect more As at the elementary level, as students are learning foundational, basic principles. However, as students age, they differentiate themselves based on their interests and abilities, so we expect to see more Bs, Cs, etc. as students choose their own academic interests and begin to have control over what subjects they value most and where they feel their time is best spent.

I hope these general principles help you and your student navigate their academic courses with greater success and less friction. If you’re interested in reading more on the topic, I’ve attached links to a few books that have helped me. If you have questions or would like to discuss further, my office, phone, and email are always available.

As always, thank you for trusting us with your children.


How to Raise an Adult

No More Jellyfish

Parenting with Love and Logic

The Price of Privilege

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