By Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D.
As a result of last week’s commentary, I had many conversations about grading and zeroes. I’m genuinely humbled anytime something I’ve written sparks further reflection and dialogue. I was inspired to write further based on what I heard from others and talked about in the past few days.
One of the questions people raised with me was the idea of the “real world” regarding grading and evaluation. Some of the feedback I got was that this kind of consideration (giving someone the numerical equivalent of a failing grade instead of a zero) is not consistent with what students will face when they graduate and have a real job. I humbly disagree.
I don’t remember how old I was when I learned to ride a bike; I remember the experience. My dad would run behind me on a side street behind my childhood home, and after a while, he would let go. Undoubtedly, I fell many, many times, but I got back up on my bike and tried again. My dad would reset his position behind me, firmly holding the seat, ask me to start pedaling, and ultimately let go so that I could learn the correct balance. Skinned knees, scraped knuckles, and bruised ego aside, I can ride a bike today. I repeated those exact steps with my two boys and passed that life lesson on to them. They both can ride a bike, and I hope they will use the same method with their children someday.
Consider this as well: driving a car. I feel fortunate that I passed my driver’s test on the first try. The lessons came from my Driver’s Education teacher, my parents, and being in cars with others. Some of my friends did not pass their driver’s test the first time . . . but today, they are licensed drivers! How? When they failed their driver’s test, they were given precise feedback about the parts of the test they did not do well on. One of my friends, who struggled with three-point turns, asked his parents to take him driving and literally spent hours practicing only three-point turns. He maintained all the other skills he was proficient in and perfected a three-point turn, passing his driver’s test on the second try.
My final example is something we can all relate to paying taxes. If you fail to pay your federal taxes, the Internal Revenue Service does not give you a zero and asks you to do better next time. The IRS gives you a six-month extension, including a financial penalty, and expects payment by October 15.
The “real world” is full of second chances we experience as adults. I’ve had uncomfortable conversations with employers during my professional career when I’ve made a poor choice. The reality of any leader (educational or otherwise) is that having hard conversations with employees shows where the institution’s values are. The situation is a rarity when a single incident ends someone’s employment.
My favorite musical is Les Miserables; I’ve seen it several times and know most of the words by heart. When cooking, I like to put on the 25th Anniversary Concert edition to keep me company. Those who know the story know that the redemption of protagonist, Jean Valjean, comes from the altruism and kindness of a Catholic bishop, who lies on Valjean’s behalf.
Valjean had served 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his family. Upon his release, his “yellow ticket of leave” shows his employer that he is a former convict, and thus, Valjean is paid less than the other workers. The bishop shows mercy and invites him in for a warm meal and a bed. Valjean repays him by stealing some silver in the middle of the night. When caught by the local police, they bring Valjean back to the bishop.
The bishop realizes that the real injustice is the fact that Valjean lost 19 years because he was trying to aid his family. The handful of silver Valjean was caught stealing could not come close to making a difference for the years he spent in prison. In fact, the bishop gave Valjean two additional candlesticks in front of the police that Valjean “forgot” when he left. This fictional second chance would be the transformation Valjean needed, and he would pass that gift on to others throughout the remainder of his life.
Second chances allow us to pay it forward and make others’ lives better, even in the real world.
Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D., is the superintendent of East Greenwich Public Schools.