Retired principal, Mrs Jenny Yeo, shares on the importance of valuing a child’s attitude, efforts and strengths, not just his academic performance.
“Your grades do not define you” said Mr Jack Cook.
That was Debbie’s defining moment.
Debbie, a perfectionist, always had the best academic results in her earlier years at school. However, when studying Economics at Junior College, she was thrown off balance. Despite putting more effort, hard work as well as getting extra coaching from her teacher, Mr Cook, Debbie just could not grasp the subject. She could not understand nor accept the poor grades she got for her Economics examination. She felt ashamed and guilty; so much so that she avoided her teacher and did not visit the school after graduation.
A few years later, when Debbie heard that Mr Cook was retiring and leaving Singapore, she plucked up her courage to visit and bid him farewell.
Mr Cook greeted Debbie with a big smile and warmly welcomed her. She asked him sheepishly if he remembered her as the only student who scored a ‘D’ in his Economics class. Mr Cook simply replied, ‘I hope that you didn’t let the ‘D’ define you.’ In that moment, Debbie learnt a valuable lesson on self-worth.
She realised that her apprehension and fears were unfounded and unnecessary. Her teacher remembered her well and fondly, not for her grades, but for her attitude, efforts and character.
“I was always pleased to see students return to visit and stay for long chats, especially those who supposedly did 'badly' at my subject. Like Debbie, it was the bane of their life,” said Mr Cook, “It meant that they don't hold it against me; but more importantly, they weren't holding it against themselves and moved on.”
“Many of the happiest, most fulfilled people I've met have had their moments of self-doubt and failures as students. That setbacks are there to be learned from is a terrible cliché, but true,” said Mr Cook.
This episode changed Debbie’s perception about herself and her values. She realised that her focus on academic excellence had set her up for failure precisely because she was so afraid of failing. Debbie learnt that people had different talents and strengths. The key was to accept and work on our weaknesses, and hone our strengths. She understood that it was more important to be resilient, enjoy learning and pursue it passionately.
Later, Debbie became a teacher and her experience shaped her approach. At a Secondary School, she noticed that a student, Dan, was struggling with Mathematics and Science but was incredibly gifted in Art. Debbie spoke to Dan’s parents during a parent-teacher meeting, encouraging them to recognise his talent and not focus only on his grades. She was confident that Dan could be a successful artist in future. Dan was encouraged because his teacher recognised his talent and did not penalise him for aspects he struggled with. Over time, he honed his artistic skills and was also motivated to do his best in his academic subjects.
Carol Dweck, psychologist and a professor at Stanford University, a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation, says, “Praise the process that kids engage in: their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement.” In other words, focus on the process, not the end result.
Just like Mr Cook and Debbie, we all need to look beyond academic success for our children. As parents, we must not let grades define our child but instead, should focus on their attitude, effort and strengths. Show them that we love them unconditionally, that we accept them for who they are, regardless of their grades.