B But Leave

I stormed into the classroom fifteen minutes late and fired up. I scanned their faces. We were halfway through the semester and their work was uninspiring. There was infighting. And, our standards for excellence were deteriorating. They needed a kick in the ass. They needed an ultimatum. So, I pulled a Zappos.

“I will give you a B to leave” I said.

“What?!” they clamored to ask.

“I will give you a B to leave; but you have to leave now, right now, and you can never come back” I said. The class erupted into a cacophony of confusion. “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes” I continued “So, make your choice. And, if you’re not here when I get back, I’ll know what you chose.” I stormed out as I stormed in and left my La Ceiba students stewing in their up-to-this-point mediocrity.

La Ceiba was not just a class. It was a microfinancial organization that my students and I founded in 2008. We provided small loans to women (and later on men) in Honduras. Our clients counted on reliable and timely access to our lending services year-round. Our operations could not stop for Parents’ Weekend, Fall Break or Homecoming.  So, during the semester, I needed my students to work. Hell, if I had had things my way, they would have dedicated all of their time to La Ceiba and La Ceiba only. Unrealistic? Yeah, sure. They did have other classes. But too many students in this cohort were choosing other classes too often. So, in an attempt to focus their attention on the choices they were making, I gave them a choice.

They could stay and remain a member of our community, do the work, and be graded at the end of the semester for the work they produced. Or, they could go right now, get a B and leave. No more coming to class. No more readings or assignments to complete. And, no final presentation. They got a B. Guaranteed.

No one took the B that day.

“B but Leave” was a screening device. I wanted a low-cost mechanism for sorting students into those who were committed to the work we were doing and those who were not. And, in order for “B but Leave” to be effective, I had to set the incentive to leave (the guaranteed letter grade) high enough so that those who were in the class for the letter grade and the letter grade only would leave. But not too high that everyone would leave. I considered setting the guaranteed letter grade at an A- (too high), a B+ (looking back, this might have been best) and a B- (too low). Ultimately, I kept it at “B but Leave”. And, moving forward, I formally integrated “B but Leave” into my semester-long feedback framework. However, instead of orchestrating a tantrum in class (which I am not above doing) and offering an ultimatum, I started sending out the following email sometime before the midpoint of the semester:

Hey LC.

La Ceiba is about making choices. And, once again, it’s time for you to make another choice: STAY or GO

Before making your choice, let me explain. At the end of the semester, you and I will sit together. I will ask you to show me your work. And, I will weigh your work in light of what others in this class have made and what those before you have made. At that moment, your semester’s worth of choices will be pulled together for a moment of judgment. So, looking ahead to that moment, I need to ask:

Will we marvel at your work, be satisfied or be disappointed?

Of course, we want to marvel at your work. However, you getting there by the end of the semester requires you making choices today. So, we’re giving you a choice: STAY or GO. If you choose to STAY, that’s wonderful! That’s what we want to hear. If you choose to GO then you will be guaranteed a B in the class; however, you will have to leave La Ceiba. You will no longer attend classes or meetings. You will no longer have obligations to your project or us.

Here’s the thing, we need to know who to invest our love, encouragement and attention into. These things are not in infinite supply and we need to allocate them wisely. Hence, the B but leave. However, before making your choice, let me ask a rhetorical question: Do I think you can you do this work? Yes, I do. But, will you do this work? I do not know. That’s for you to decide. Select your choice below and turn the attached sheet back in before our next class.

Thanks. – dr H

Here’s the sheet I attached to the email:

_____ STAY

I choose to stay. And, I choose to accept the consequences of this choice. If I fail to deliver, it is my fault. No one or anything else is to blame. Not my group. Not my parents. Not my past or lack of expertise or pedigree. I own it. And, if I kick ass, I own that too. But, I also know that my ass-kicking would not have been possible without La Ceiba, my group and the cohorts of students who came before me.

_____ GO

I accept a “B” as my final grade in this class. And, I understand that I cannot return to the class. I choose to leave La Ceiba.

Sign Your Name Below:

X____________________________________________________

No one ever took the B. They chose us over the grade. Which is what we wanted. We only wanted people who were committed to our community, cause and clients. We did not want anyone who enrolled for the letter grade or for the experiential learning credit they needed to graduate. We wanted those who were committed to the work, engaged and a good fit for our culture. Indeed, we would rather have someone voluntarily leave than remain in the class. Even if that meant taking on their workload. However, no one ever taking the B could have been the result of the incentive to leave being too low. Having said that, I did have a final sit-down with a student who remarked “I should have taken the B” and another in which a student mentioned how close they had come to taking the B. Who knows? Maybe a B+ would have been better. Maybe. But, I don’t think so. Because, while “B but Leave” was structure as a screen, its purpose was not to get my students to leave. If any of them would have left, we would have lost the opportunity to learn with and from one another. No, the purpose was to focus their attention on the choices they were making and emotionally prepare them for their Final Sit-Down. So, looking back, the B was just right.

+++++

You can learn more about my pedagogy by visiting Rewild School.

Thanks. – shawn

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