“Mr. Wolff! Mr. Wolff! Read mine read mine!”
I walked over to her desk, knowing all too well what I was about to read. Sarah (name changed of course) had been in my 9th grade English class for the last six months. She was a paragon of positivity, friends with everyone, and the first one to raise her hand when no one else in my 35 student class would. She was a joy to have in class.
She was also a horrific writer.
Forget the grammar lessons, forget the notes I scribbled all over her paper. Sarah wrote how she talked and spelled with shortcuts. It never changed.
My job then, as her English teacher, was helping her understand in the most supportive way possible how wholly horrendous her paper was. Easier said than done.
And — let’s pause for a second. Was that my job?
I went into teaching English Language Arts under the pretense that my job was to help young adults on their journey towards reading, writing, and thinking at a high level. But, if this is true, then why when I graded honestly and constructively was I the “mean” teacher who didn’t know what he was talking about? Why did I have to feel guilty for insinuating to Sarah (again, in the most supportive way possible) that her paper was a pile of garbage?
Because “I tried” culture is invasive.
Perhaps the wildly insensitive jazz instructor (J.K. Simmons) from Damien Chazelle’s film Whiplash said it best: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’”
No, I wasn’t one of those teachers who didn’t believe in ‘100s,’ nor did I maintain the same level of empathy as a brick wall. But I was someone who spent almost three years in an inner-city Chicago school, a school that was just one cog in the monstrous wheel of a big city school district. I watched the “I tried” mentality permeate the halls of my school like a toxic gas, and it broke my heart.
Believe me, it’s not fun to hand a red pen-riddled paper back to a sensitive fourteen-year-old. Then again, it’s less fun to hand a diploma to that same student four years later and release them into the real world when they can barely write a cohesive paragraph. And why would that happen?
Because “I tried” culture is invasive.
Our wonderful young people are growing up in a world where awards are given for mediocrity. The best has taken a backseat to pretty good and, the bigger the school district, the worse it is.
Many schools no longer have any sense of autonomy. They’re puppets strung up by their district puppeteers. Data has become the “answer.” Data and nothing more. The kids? “Pass’em and push’em through because graduation rates, people! Data! School grades! Money!”
As such, “I tried” becomes harder and harder to fight. And when teachers’ backs are against the wall, they ironically contribute to the problem. Maybe a grade or two is given for completion. For the fourteen-year-old, Christmas comes early. But for any self-respecting teacher?
It hurts. It hurts to fight the culture. It hurts to contribute to the culture.
On one end of the spectrum there’s the student who genuinely did try even though her work is still a wreck. On the other end is the student who genuinely didn’t try despite claiming he did. And then in between is everyone else. Kids who are being programmed again and again to expect rewards for half-baked work.
Unfortunately, this will only get worse before it changes. Our country’s youth need support from caring, empathetic individuals. But they also deserve to be given pragmatic and constructive training for the real world. It’s this that will break the “I tried” chain. Only then will we see “I tried” (but did you?) shift towards “I tried my best” (and actually did).
There’s nothing wrong with trying and failing. That’s life. There is, however, everything wrong with failing and expecting a reward for it.
To all the courageous teachers out there — good luck. May you seek solace in the efforts you personally exhaust each and every day to prepare our kids for the world that’s waiting for them.