Why Collegiate Staff and Faculty Must Disappoint Students

For too long, today’s generation of adults (both parents and teachers) have unwittingly set students up for failure and disappointment.


As they grew up, we made statements to our kids without thinking of the long-term implications of our words. For years, we told them they were “Awesome!” and gave them a trophy just for showing up on a team—without thinking they might start expecting life to also offer rewards just for participating. It doesn’t.


For years we told them they could do anything they wanted to do in life, and they believed it. They decided to major in dance or vocal performance in college, thinking they could make a career out of it. But actually, less than one percent can do that—and only a highly gifted and tenacious person ultimately succeeds in making it a career. Oops. We left that part out.

We told them if they wanted to be successful, they had to go to college. All of them. In reality, that advice was really about stroking our egos—and not practical at all. Today, millions of Millennials are unemployed or underemployed and one big reason is that loads of them would have been better suited to attend a technical school or to learn a trade right out of high school, rather than attend a 4-yearinstitution. College grads do earn more in the long run, but only if the student was actually suited for college. Higher education is wonderful for many, but for another large percentage, employment opportunities lie in blue-collar work that often pays just as much.

Why did we parents say these things? In many cases, we just didn’t want to disappoint them. I see too many leaders, teachers and parents who are afraid to disappoint students with the truth. Ironically, our pretending can lead to their future disappointment.

The Game of Life

Hasbro has created a new version of The Game of Life. I remember playing this game as a kid. It was a fun way to introduce the realities of marriage, work, career, parenthood and the penalties that sometimes accompany the real “game of life.” The sub-title of this new game is: “Kids Have Spoken!” The game highlights kids choosing their careers (in a vacuum, mind you) such as: Secret Agent, Video Game Designer or Singer. Of course these sound fun to kids, but we’re finding that although an adult might say, “Hey, it’s just a game,” kids frequently borrow their future plans from the silly things they learn playing a game (even a video game) or watching TV. It’s an indicator of our times. We fail to lead our young well; we give them the hollow exhortation: “You can do whatever you want.”

Game of Life Pic

My question: Do we want to disappoint our kids now . . . or see them disappointed as adults later? It’s a tough question.

I decided years ago it was best to disappoint them now—and graduate students who dream, but are realistic about their dreams and ready to work at them as adults.

One faculty member wrote to me saying that students are entering his classes as “consumers.” They are resistant to learning and expect teachers to spoon-feed them during the education process. He feels the daily tension that stems from wanting to provide a Socratic learning environment full of questions and experimentation, while simultaneously knowing students won’t know what to do when the responsibility to learn is placed on their shoulders. He yearns to challenge them to engage in deep, transformational and self-directed learning . . . but finds students responding with: “Just tell me what to do.”

He continued: “If I provide too much structure and authority, I’m being inauthentic to my personal philosophy of leadership . . . yet, if I’m too ambiguous or democratic, my students don’t know how to engage and they feel lost or dissatisfied.”

In the end, teachers like this are presumed to be poor instructors.

Ron Heifetz once said, “We must disappoint people at the rate they can absorb.” This is a leadership principle we must employ with students. Effective educators know that genuine leaders push followers into uncomfortable territory. They create disequilibrium, allowing a problem to surface that has no quick or easy answer. The follower (student) must struggle to find the solution. This likely means they’ll feel seasons of disappointment now . . . but will be ready for life later.

I Believe We Should Disappoint Our Students Now If It Means . . .

  • We demonstrate belief that they can succeed eventually, with hard work.
  • We offer them a realistic perspective on what a certain major will require.
  • We can show them how our decision to not merely give them something they want will cultivate the ability to delay gratification as a young adult.
  • We encourage them to struggle and find the answer for themselves, building the capacity to labor, to wait and to become resourceful.
  • We furnish feedback that reveals we have high expectations of them.
  • We guide them away from destructive peers or “drinking buddies” who don’t genuinely care about their welfare.

My questions for you today are:

  1. Are you willing to disappoint your students today—to push them to grow?
  2. Are you willing for your students to not “like you” this week?
  3. Are you willing to endure arguments and conflict in the name of learning?

Why Collegiate Staff and Faculty Must Disappoint Students