What do you do when a typically A student turns in work that you know isn’t his or her best? This past week, Robert wrote into the WeAreTeachers HELPLINE! with this very question, sparking a lively debate among our community of teachers.

“If a child makes a 90% on a test, when I know and she knows that she could have made a perfect score if she were paying better attention, should I celebrate the 90% or push her to meet my expectations to do her best? What should I write on her paper?” Here are the highlights from the discussion that followed.

1. Remember, we’re all human.

“I have one of those 100% students, and mine made an 85% once. She was already having a bad day beforehand, so just as adults do, kids have off days.” —Amanda B.

“That is why it is called learning process! Let them grow and learn. Not all students will be A+ students!” —Luis V.

2. Find a happy medium.

“I would say, ‘Well done!! Next time make your goal 100%!!!’” —Joan S.

“I would keep it positive and challenging. To me, it’s about learning, not perfection. To get 90% and hear your effort isn’t good enough because it isn’t perfect seems harsh.” —Vanessa O.

“If it is just one test she scored lower than normally, let it go. If it is a repeat thing, then yes, something needs to be said. The sad thing is some of our brightest students are pressured for perfection so badly that to hear it from a teacher could be the worst thing ever.”  —Phil F.

3. Think in terms of the positive.

“I think I’d comment, ‘Good job! I know you can do better next time.’” —Nils H.

“Try: ‘You could make a perfect grade with a bit more effort. Work hard and you can do it!’” —Kelly H.

“Think of it this way. 90% means there is room for improvement, and that’s a good thing. That’s what your administrators look for when they evaluate you. There should always be room for improvement.” —Tuesday D.

4. Give constructive criticism face to face rather than writing it.

“Build a relationship. Talk to them; don’t write anything negative.” —Gary F.

“I wouldn’t write negative feedback. It comes across as a bit harsh. You don’t know the circumstances of that day and why she didn’t get a 100%. Maybe your student was ill? I’d take your student to one side and say gently that you were surprised she didn’t get the top score and that you hope that next time she might. Make yourself available for extra help if she needs it.” —Rachel B.

“I definitely wouldn’t say anything negative in writing. There’s no telling how it could be interpreted by the child, the parent, or your principal. Maybe you could make suggestions privately to the student.” —Janey B.

“If it’s carelessness, such as leaving an answer blank, I would talk to her about the importance of checking her work.” —Diana C.

5. Find inspiration in literature.

“Look up Taylor Mali’s poem ‘What Teachers Make.’ There is a specific line about that.” —Alexandra A.

“Read or search Mindset by Carol Dweck to find specific phrases to encourage student perseverance. Also, check out Classroom Habitudes by Angela Maires.” —Michelle W.

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