Glenn B. Gelman, Psy.D.
Students often beseech me about how critical it is for them to get an “A” in my courses. “Dr. Gelman,” they implore at semester’s start, “I need an ‘A’ in your course. I have a 4.0 so far and I just have to graduate with a perfect GPA.”
A ‘perfect’ GPA is often a matter of personal pride or accomplishment. Some define it as a psychological victory; a vindication of self-worth or affirmation of having risen above life’s adversities. For others, absolutism is the perfectionist’s benchmark; nothing less will do.
A few wily students attempt to inveigle a gratuitous “A” out of me before they have earned anything (fair warning to future students: this transparent strategy does not amuse me). (Full disclosure to future students: I do not inflate grades, round up percentages or points, or offer extra credit. In my classes, students get good grades the old fashioned way…)
Whatever the reason, most students believe, axiomatically, that they must get top-notch grades to get top-notch jobs.
And to be sure, grades are important and they do imply a quality of consistent performance. “A”-grades help get students accepted to “A”-internships and training programs. They even predict a measure of success, albeit briefly, to prospective employers seeking the apparent ‘best of the best’ graduates.
However, I think this emphasis on grades is misguided, at least for those aspiring to become competent human service and helping professionals.
As a graduate student many years ago, one of my professors gave me a “B” in his course. A brilliant, world-renowned psycho-diagnostician, he was not merely an instructor. He was my mentor, the difference-maker in my fledgling career whose expertise and humanness I hoped to emulate. Well you can imagine that I was quite upset – devastated really, and my ego was all the more bruised because his opinion felt like a psycho-diagnosis about my worthiness. Also, I was sure I deserved an “A.”
So I scheduled a meeting with the godly doctor. “Alan,” I pleaded, “I don’t understand why I got an ‘A’ in your course. I did everything that was required, got high marks on all the assignments… I’m sure I earned an ‘A.’ This ‘B’ from you will lower my GPA…” Alan leaned forward, as a humanist does. “Glenn, he calmly replied, “Based on your performance, you do merit an ‘A,’ but I am giving you a ‘B’ because you need to learn a bigger lesson…”
A difference-maker indeed, although not the way I imagined.
In my 35+ years of working in the mental health field, not one patient has ever asked me what my GPA was. Rather, they want to know if I studied hard, trained well, was rigorously supervised, and how I continue to grow professionally and personally.
There will come a time in your professional practice (many times, actually, if you are so privileged) when you are working with a client who is teetering on the precipice of psychological life or death. You will be compelled to reach inside yourself - to plumb personal depths and private places you may not even know exist within you – and summon all your training, preparation, and personal and professional fortitude.
And in this defining moment, the once-sheltering 'holding environment' of your GPA and all the accolades and platitudes within which you heretofore found safe harbor will be betrayed as false gods.
As a difference-maker for your clients, your real "grade" will depend not upon a letter of the alphabet but upon who you are and what you do when "life happens."
Author Note: Dr. Glenn B. Gelman is a Clinical Psychologist and a Personal Mentor
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