First quarter report cards just came out, and I’m proud not just because the gang placed on various and assorted honor rolls, but because each guy gave it his best effort all the time. We set up expectations very early in the game with our boys: Grades aren’t what count in our household; what we care about is whether or not each guy tries his complete and absolute best.

I think in most cases it’s absurd for teachers to try to assess or “judge” the effort level of students. Up through middle school in our town, kids receive actual effort grades on their report cards. What’s the point of such a seemingly arbitrary, subjective score? I, for one, have two kids with educationally-significant hearing losses receiving mainstream education in our local schools. Even with their advanced technology, just sitting through one class and trying to absorb most of what’s being taught requires more effort than what their hearing classmates expend in a whole school day (or maybe week!), and there are obviously kids with equal or greater individual challenges to their academic day. For my guys, the sheer physical exhaustion at the end of the school day just from the act of listening—a reflexive act that most of us take for granted—is mindboggling. But when a teacher hasn’t ever personally experienced that particular challenge, how can he or she possibly determine a student’s effort? (Hands-down the most egregious and pathetic attempt at empathy for one of my hearing-impaired kids came from a teacher who said at our kick-off meeting: “I will definitely be able to relate to your son throughout this year. I have a deaf dog.”)

We’ve never, ever allowed our boys to use their hearing impairment as an excuse for a lapse in any kind of schoolwork, but it’s certainly something we take into account when we look at individual effort and what each guy is capable of. The gang knows that they are responsible and accountable for their work, and that we’ll gladly provide the tools and resources they need. But they need to drive their own motivation and level of effort. That’s something I can model, but I can’t instill in them. It can only come from within. I’ll happily drive you to school at 7 a.m. so you can meet with your chemistry teacher for extra help, but don’t rely on me to recognize that you didn’t understand that new unit that he taught in class yesterday or to set up the meeting.

What do we consider best effort to be? Pushing through uninteresting work earnestly and diligently even though you’d rather be sleeping/biking/shooting baskets/out with friends. Going above and beyond what’s assigned to enhance your learning and show passion and mastery. Advocating for yourself in the classroom. Recognizing that you need extra help, and rearranging your schedule or forgoing activities to get the help you need. Spreading out the workload judiciously rather than cramming or panicking.

One of my proudest examples of this recently was when one of my boys mentioned to me that he was thinking about dropping a time-consuming extracurricular commitment he adored because he recognized he was falling behind in his honors science class. My response was that the decision was entirely his to make and that I would be 100% supportive of whatever he chose to do, so long as he felt he could manage the work in his science class appropriately. Again, it’s not the grade I’m ultimately interested in, it’s the amount and quality of effort he’s putting in to learning the material. After mulling it over for a day or two, he decided to drop the activity to give himself more time to focus on the academics, and he was thrilled to find that his extra effort very clearly and immediately resulted in better understanding of the material and a significant jump in his final grade for the quarter. I was glad he knew his priority and his distraction.

However, in our house, you slack, baby, you lose. You’re watching Glee when you have a big assessment tomorrow, you better already know the material backwards, forwards and in Ubbi Dubbi to boot. You save a paper til the night before, and there’s no sympathy for the all-nighter you pull that makes you tired and cranky for the rest of the week. You blow off studying for vocab quizzes to meet your friends at the diner, don’t come crying to me when you figure out the difference between second honors and first honors came down to the total of those quizzes.

In life as in school, your best effort doesn’t always translate into the fabulous promotion or the highest bonus or the Oscar statuette (“It was an honor just to be nominated!”). But knowing that you approached the challenge with your all—did everything you could to overcome the obstacles, left no stone unturned, had no regrets—is the invaluable, reapable reward.

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