At the end of the day the world judges you on what you deliver rather than what you are capable of delivering.

As we come to the end of the year, we tend to look back sometimes with a sense of fulfilment and at others, with a sense of regret. Some of us may remember unmet resolutions from 364 days ago and spend some time rueing time not well spent. But then we can brush it all away in the hope that another year is upon us and we have another 365 days to renew those resolutions and (maybe) actually fulfil them!

In a similar fashion, it may happen that we begin a new term with a similar resolve, to read, to meet deadlines, to attend classes regularly (does that sound like fiction?) and to participate actively in the academic life of our institution. And then before we know it, the term has gone by, a hundred distractions have intervened, and examinations stare us in the face. We are left wondering how we got here. We look back and see things we could have done differently, so that the outcome may have been better.

As a teacher, I experience this in a somewhat different fashion. When I meet a new group of students, there is excitement and anticipation. I see a group of promising young people, faces full of potential. As the term progresses, each one shows a different sort of spark, a different sort of energy.

This animates the classroom discussions and debates, and gives me a taste of what each person is capable of. And then come the assignments, tests and papers. I begin to see a gap between my expectations and the reality of the performance. There’s a yawning chasm between what I know they can do and what they actually do. For me, the hardest thing to take is the knowledge that someone “could have done better.” The hope that I felt at the beginning of the term ends up remaining unfulfilled, much like those New Year’s resolutions.

Now let me turn this situation around. You’ve been a good student all through your school days. You have scored high marks and are recognised as a high achiever. You end up feeling quite confident about yourself and your ability to do well in academics and in life, generally. You are also aware that other people understand what you are capable of. When you get to college, you find that there are many things that interest you and that you want to get involved in, and all this activity leaves less time for core academic work. Confident in your sense that teachers know what you can do, you spend less time and energy on those “trivial” classroom or homework tasks. After all, you think, you’ve already proven that you can do quite well when needed. The result? That performance gap.


So when I see poor work turned in by someone I know is capable of much more, what do I do? Do I assign a grade on the basis of what I know to be her capability, or what I see as her output? Am I judging the student or the work? However much one dislikes looking at “marks” as a measure of quality, the bottom line is that you need a transparent and even-handed measure of performance; it can’t be about “what you are capable of” but rather “what you have actually done.”

As you move into the workplace, you will find that the world does not judge people on the basis of potential and promise. It asks for what are called “deliverables”— something you can see and touch and hear and taste and smell. It asks for concrete evidence of this ability to do. Promise and potential can only take you so far. Of course, a lot of opportunity is granted to young people on the basis of this perceived promise.

The first or even second job, for instance, comes almost entirely on the basis of what you indicate (through your paper qualifications and letters of recommendation) that you can do. But once you’ve been granted that entry into the “real world,” going further depends on performance.

The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is editor of Teacher Plus,