At the end of a long day -- Jessica teaching middle school and Tim teaching medical students -- we settled into bed and began trading war stories.
In between teaching Latin and English, Jessica had tried to calm an upset parent whose daughter got a C+ on a test. The parent's many emails and phone calls bristled with accusations: This low grade would harm her daughter's precarious sense of confidence and self-esteem. Her daughter was smart, unused to getting such low grades, so what went wrong? In the end, the mother's message -- both to Jessica and to her daughter -- was clear: This low grade must be Jessica's fault and the mother was going to do what she had to do to fix it.
After treating patients with sepsis and other infections, Tim ended the day comforting a doctor in training who crumpled into tears after he politely critiqued a mistaken decision. Instead of talking about how to do better for the next patient, Tim and this young doctor had spent an hour discussing her fears that she wouldn't be able to get a good job. Didn't Tim know how stressful this all was for her? Wasn't it clear how hard she was working?
We love teaching and spend most of our time feeling bowled over by the talents of our students. They are idealistic and bound for bright things, and we feel lucky to be able to help them along the way. But when we talk about difficult situations like the ones recounted above, a common theme emerges: The most challenging students (and families) are those who expect success to be automatic, a birthright, something they should achieve just by showing up. To them, education isn't about learning, or about sharpening skills or broadening horizons. It is about the acquisition of straight A's and trophies.