The Honeymoon is Over: How to Handle Those Ds and Fs 

 November 24, 2014

By  Laura Kosloff

I’ve had conversations about grades with three students over the past week. Each of them had at least one failing grade on their quarterly grade report. Each of them had “reasons” for the poor grades:

  • I didn’t know I really had to turn in assignments. I know you told me, but I didn’t think it would really matter.
  • My teacher didn’t tell me I was doing poorly.
  • I didn’t go talk to the teacher because I didn’t know that was OK, back home we can’t do that.
  • Back home I study for an hour each day, so I assumed I could do the same here. U.S. schools are so easy, everyone told me that.
  • I didn’t think being a few minutes late each day would be a big deal.

The Honeymoon is Over

U.S. government regulations require that high school exchange students pass all their classes. Students often think this will be easy; many of them have the impression that all U.S. schools are easier than their own. They are often genuinely dumbfounded when a progress report arrives at their host family’s home with a D or an F in a given class. The exchange programs take failing grades seriously; in rare cases, a student may face an early return to her home country if she cannot pick up the pace.

136222017 student studyingSome of them may be changing their perspective from “this is going to be the coolest year ever in my entire life” to, perhaps, “this is hard work . . . is it worth it? I don’t know if I can do this.”

The goal of those of us who work with high school international exchange students is to convince them that 1) yes, it is worth it; and 2) yes, they can do it. They are familiar now with their host family’s habits and general lifestyle. They know their town or city a bit, they know where things are at school. And despite those Ds and Fs – or maybe because of them – they better understand how the U.S. school system works.

The question now for the students I’ve spoken to this past week is not “what went wrong,” but “what are you going to do about it?”

Take Responsibility, Learn From Your Mistakes

So a message to students:

  • Failing a class is not the end of the world. For international students, it’s not unusual to have some difficulty in the beginning of the year. But it doesn’t make students feel any better to know this. Failing may make you feel embarrassed or even worried. But you can take control. Go to your teacher, your host parents, and your program coordinator and ask what you can do to correct the problem.
  • Own up to your mistakes. Then move on and figure out how to make things happen.
  • Talk about what is bothering you. If something is wrong – whether it be a problem at school, or a problem in your relationship with your host family — no one can fix it if you don’t talk about it. Are you having difficulty with the material? Tell someone. Are you having trouble understanding a teacher who talks too fast? Tell someone.
  • Your level of effort may matter more than your actual class grade. People will notice if you are working hard — and yes, your local program coordinator will notice, too. The U.S. government doesn’t want to send students home early – but it does want students to be ambassadors and representatives of their home country, and make a positive impression on U.S. students, teachers, and families.

Host Parents Can Help

As with our own children, communication with and information from the teachers and school contributes to a student’s success.

* Make sure your student’s teachers know he or she is an exchange student.

* Let all of your student’s teachers know you are his or her host parent and that you are open to hearing about how your student is doing at school.

* If your school has an online grading system, as many do these days, check your student’s account every couple of weeks.

* If you can help, offer such help to your student. Review his English essay, or offer some thoughts on the chapter he is reading about U.S. history.

* If your student needs extra assistance, talk to your program contact about having parents back home pay for a tutor.

If you know that your student is having difficulty in a class at school, you can better advise your student on what to do. Consult with your program liaison to see if he or she has some advice and together you can make a plan for your student’s success.

It Can Be Done

Of the students I spoke to this week, one understands now that spending an hour a day in study hall on homework isn’t enough. He also sees now that coming in late to class every day makes it hard for the teacher and disrupts class. Another has already talked to the English teacher to get some extra credit assignments. The third admitted she just thought it would be easy and so hadn’t really been trying very hard. Chances are they will all “get” it now. If not, we’ll keep talking. None of them are having difficulty in their host family or in adjusting to life generally. They just need to get over the hump.

Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com unless otherwise noted. 
  • My international student is from China. She (International student-daughter) told me that her mother was going to visit for the holidays. When I found out she was coming for a month, I asked my I.N.S.D where her mother was planning to stay? She said hotels and with friends. I extended an invitation for her mother to stay in my home at Christmas. She arrived on Dec 9th. I picked her up from the airport and she stayed here up until yesterday. How long is a “visit“supposed to be? Are there cultural differences that distinguish how long is acceptable? I was having difficulties articulating my boundaries. I am a single mother of two other daughters and had difficulties when she continued here stay after Christmas. I finally said something yesterday because it was January 2nd, the day, my I.N.S.D initially told me her mother was returning to China. My I.N.S.D told me that her plane was not leaving until Jan.5th now.

    • There are no absolute “this is the right way to do it” rules regarding visits. Personally, I think visits at the holidays are a challenge. I know a few people who have had their students’ families visit successfully, but I think that is the exception. Also, I’ve seen too many students become homesick after a family visit, which sets them back in terms of living in their host family.

      Your student’s culture may well have customs where a visitor can stay as long as they like. That’s not our cultural norm in the USA, though, and you should not feel guilty for trying to set appropriate boundaries. I can understand the difficulties; no one wants to upset someone else. Your student’s mother probably did not realize she was causing discomfort or offense, since it may have seemed normal to her.

      I don’t know from your note what kind of visa your student has. If your student is here on a J-1 visa and you have a local contact person, you should talk to that person about how you are feeling. Even if her mother has now left, you may be feeling as though you have been taken advantage of. Talk it through, so it doesn’t affect your relationship with your student?

      It sounds as though you have been quite gracious and receptive, and I hope you at least had some positive parts to the experience.

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