Picabo Street I'm Not

By Joanne Huybensz Ph.D.

"Are you terminally intermediate?" the ski magazine challenged.

Oh, no, you were supposed to say, higher and steeper is my motto-onwards to the expert and competition level.

But let's be realistic. I am a middle-level skier. When I watch the Olympics, the downhillers, slalom and bump skiers seem to be participating in a different sport. But has this dashed my self-esteem? Not at all.

Questions of self-esteem do not seem to arise with gifted and talented students: their grades and higher track placement reassure them of their superiority as students. And while their parents are frequently concerned about their grades since "colleges require A's," these students know that their parents are bragging about their successes to neighbors and relatives and anybody else who will listen. It is the average or below average student whose parents voice concern that poor grades lower self-esteem.

But what is self-esteem based on? Undeserved grades given to students who know that they are not the best students in class, who know that others achieve much more and do much better work? Grades given for shoddily done work, or work that demonstrates lack of interest or understanding?

The first essential for building self-esteem is to set reasonable expectations for the student. Very few students have the Picabo Street level of talent; many are capable of becoming extremely proficient, the vast majority can become accomplished intermediates, but a few will remain at a beginner level or even drop out. While the opportunity to advance level by level must be kept open, students will plateau eventually, and to expect them to make great strides and increases in competency is cruel. The student himself knows that he is unable or unwilling to master much more.

It may seem like heresy for a teacher to advocate taking the pressure for grades off the weaker student, but frequently the emphasis on grades is injurious to the student and to the student-teacher-parent relationship. A grade is merely an end product. If instead we look at the process of learning and its component parts, we can see reason for rejoicing over the partial successes and skills learned. For me as a skier, each time I pointed my skis down a steeper slope, even one that was still at beginner level, I had to surmount my fear. And each time I was delighted to learn that I had courage. I didn't become a great skier, or even a very good one, but my self-esteem never faltered.

I learned a great deal about teaching and being a student that year. I did not need a lot of praise, (verbal A's), just encouragement. Nor did I need harsh evaluations-my own bumps and bruises told me of my deficiencies. Competing with better skiers did not spur me on; instead I took heart from the success of my fellow flounderers. Even with all the falls I took, skiing remained fun. I have continued to learn and enjoy the sport. Let us hope that even the ungifted academic student can continue to learn and enjoy the subjects we teach them, and that artificial demands for high grades, to enhance the student's and parent's self-esteem will not destroy the learning process.

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