Evaluations: Is Satisfactory Enough?

Outstanding evaluation.  Red pen on evaluation, with "outstanding" checked.

According to Webster’s Thesaurus, the terms satisfactory and enough are synonymous. On an evaluation form, satisfactory generally means “meets minimum standards.” For some reason, that choice bothers me as much as unsatisfactory or “below minimum standards.” Maybe it’s because I know there is more in me than average. Maybe it’s because I spent my childhood and teenage years thinking I was average others saw me as average. Maybe it’s because I knew there was more, but didn’t have a clue how to get beyond the thinking that others saw me as average.

I did well in elementary school when I applied myself, and I had the support of educator parents who continually made me accountable. But I wasn’t the best. There was always someone better. In academics. At piano playing. At drawing. At popularity. At fitting in. At everything. (I’m sure there were some who were behind me at some of those things, and I suppose it’s a good thing that that didn’t make me feel better. I truly never wanted anyone to feel “less than,” as I did.) Consequently, I felt lost in the crowd. Average. Unexceptional. Unnoticeable. And, consequently, I frequently made choices that might make me noticeable in the wrong way.

A few things in my life made me feel valued. First, I was born into an exceptional family. I was the baby on both sides and was quite aware of how much impact my extended family were and still are. Second, my brother who was nearly six years older trusted me with the secret that he possessed a Carpenter’s album, carefully hidden under his clothes in a drawer, and discreetly played when our parents were out of the house. (Yes, I know some of you are shocked to know the secret, while others are questioning the need for a Carpenter’s album to be hidden. For any reason. It was my life, folks. Challenging to explain to those who had different experiences.) Third, my brother not only chose to marry a beautiful girl I already considered a friend, but they both wanted me in their wedding, and they both wanted my 14th birthday to be special – my first time at King’s Island, riding roller coasters and laughing at Chris’ antics. It was special indeed.

Less than three months later, my world changed drastically. The dynamics in our home were something akin to attempts at keeping a full glass of water from spilling a drop on a table with one leg significantly too short. Suddenly an only child, I was lost in a cloud of grief. I didn’t expect comfort from my parents, as they were experiencing more grief than most can handle. Somehow I survived by minimizing my grief, telling myself I wasn’t important enough to feel so sad. My grades dropped because my head wasn’t in the game. The feelings of “only average” became my automatic thoughts, supported by average grades and average standings as I graduated high school and continued in college until I quit after only three semesters. For twenty + years, those thoughts ruled my life and led me to make choices that proved them valid.

Until ten years ago. When I started believing in myself. And started back to college. I can’t say that I’ve “arrived,” but I gain ground each time I step forward and believe I’m capable of accomplishing, not just doing, what I want in life. And I remember a conversation from a few years back. I went to a movie with a much younger male coworker, for a break from studying. Somehow the conversation became an unexpected sharing with a trustworthy friend my struggle in feeling average over the years. When we parted ways, he said, “You are not average. You have plenty to offer.” I held onto that and had to start believing in order to be exceptional.

As I worked at being exceptional in obtaining my degrees, I encountered those who challenged my effort, telling me that as long as I got the diploma, employers rarely notice the actual grades. That could be true, but I can know that I did my best, and that is not average. (I was  actually surprised when friends told me they knew all along that I had exceptional in me.) And as I recently received my first evaluation on my latest side hustle of teaching college students, having challenged myself to be “better than I was yesterday” has proven worth the effort. Previously, I would mentally take myself to the proverbial woodshed each time I made a mistake. Now, I ponder what I can learn and how I can do better the next time. And I look objectively at constructive criticism. I’m not better than anyone else, but I strive to be above average. And I find it much easier to offer grace to others who aren’t at the same place in their journey.

Albert Einstein once said, (Vicky’s translation), “Try not to become a [woman] of success, but rather try to become a [woman] of value.” When I see behaviors in others that are less than complimentary, I want to give myself a check of accountability to prevent curb that behavior in myself. Satisfactory is NOT enough! My desire is to be exceptional. Not better than the next person, but my best self! I have a long way to go. It won’t be easy, but it is possible.

When What You Want Scares You to Death

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Yesterday was the end of the first week of a new venture for me. Just over one year ago, I had to begin the painful experience of making student loan payments. They really cut into the budget when you complete an undergraduate and two graduate degrees. So I started looking into part time side gigs that would offer a decent wage as well as use my education and experience. I applied for related openings as an adjunct at a local community college. It took nearly a year before I received any communication at all, which was frustrating and relieving at the same time. I know I’m capable, but new things are scary.

I was nervous about the interview, just because I always am, I suppose. Something about second-guessing myself, wondering if the interviewer will “get me” and what I’m passionate about. Unexpectedly, it went much better than I imagined, and I had an appointment to complete hiring paperwork by the end of that week. It was a pretty awesome feeling. When I realized it was my responsibility to complete the syllabus beyond the skeleton of expected assignments, the panic started, since I still imagine that I’m expected to be perfect, as I wrote about in this post. I was down to the wire completing it for approval, waiting with apprehension for the response, but it passed with flying colors. (I’m hoping the first time is the worst time!)

Because I have a full time position that I love, it was just in the week before school started that I was able to drop by the school, pick up copies, and ask a few last minute questions. Last weekend, I gathered up and organized all my materials to be ready for arriving early and getting settled in the classroom. Of course, nervous energy had me in  somewhat of a frenzy on Monday morning. I arrived at the classroom just ten minutes before class was to start with a plan in mind to get acquainted with students and help them feel comfortable with me on their first class of their first day. They were very gentle and accepting, completing an icebreaker activity, and asking a few questions, so the class itself went relatively well.

However, when I walked out of the classroom and across campus to my vehicle, rushing to get to my other job, all I could think of was the mistakes I had made. The computer in the classroom only had a blue screen and I was unclear as to how to reboot it without completely ruining something. (Of course, on Wednesday, I remembered that computers are generally hearty enough or have built in protections to withstand the inexperienced user.) I didn’t remember seeing anywhere about how to complete attendance, and because I hadn’t been able to use the computer, I had not been able to investigate where that should be done.

As I left campus, I got a text alert about my account balance, and my fuel light began flickering, reminding me that I had planned to leave the house early to fill up. At that moment, this venture that I had pursued eagerly suddenly felt like a failure. Would I be in trouble with the staff for not completing attendance? Was I expected to know where? How? How can I expect students to start taking responsibility for themselves if I was not prepared? What was I thinking, believing I was capable of such a task? My own negative self-talk had me calling in and quitting.

Fortunately, I began thinking about my purpose in pursuing this kind of task in the first place. How could I encourage the love of learning and inspire students to not just start, but continue on this educational journey, if I quit when I just feel like I failed? How will they learn that success comes because of perseverance despite failure? I don’t want to only tell them, I want to show them that small battles will be lost, but the war can be won. And besides, the first day has to be the most difficult and traumatic. For teachers and students. It has to get better from here, right? Besides, I told too many people what I was doing to back out now. (Accountability is uncomfortable, but it supports consistency between words and action.)

So, I punched fear in the face. I asked questions. I learned more about how things are supposed to go. I went to class two more days. No students threw rotten vegetables at me. And many are asking questions and making strong efforts to complete homework, leading me to believe I didn’t scar them too badly. I believe I even related to them by being real.

The coolest thing about Monday was a role reversal that was unexpected. At the end of my day, after I made it to the gas station on fumes and addressed my low account balance, I made my way into the restaurant where my daughter works. She rushed to give me a hug, asked about my first day, and offered me a free iced tea! She assured me that it wasn’t so bad. And when I asked about the cheesecake special of the month, she bought the slice of Caramel Apple Cheesecake for her mom for my “first day.” (I can hear Carly Simon singing “Coming around again” in my head.)

I’m looking forward to this semester and many more. And I’m hoping the journaling of this experience continues to be a reminder that one perceived failure is only part of the growth process. Not the end of goals and dreams. Success is not free of mistakes and failures, but enhanced by them.