Grades were due last week, and report cards mailed on Friday. I hate grading. I know assessments are important. I use them to determine whether or not my students mastered the skills in question. They help me refine lessons or even reteach to get the point across. Most times, they serve as a valve forcing students to do work they would much rather ignore. All teachers do it. The part I detest is the underlying judgment students attach to grades. I hate to join a chorus of past “not-quite-good-enough’s,” but, unlike some teachers, I do not hand out A’s like candy.
My grading philosophy seeks to reward effort, but does not confuse it with excellence. If students do all the work assigned both in class and at home, they cannot fail, no matter how poorly they do. My rationale is that practice leads to growth, and I want to encourage my students to try new things–especially in writing. I want them to move beyond the “censor,” that bird of self-doubt sitting on every shoulder questioning commas, and diction, and style. First draft essays rarely receive a grade lower than “C-” from me. It is the baseline from which we grow.
Most students accept this dynamic. Through successive edits (usually two), the work tightens; silly grammatical errors fade; verbs improve; and a clear voice emerges. Once deemed “wall worthy,” the essays are displayed in the room. Presently, I have over fifty papers on the walls, and students regularly stop to read the work of their peers.
Where I get into trouble is at the upper regions of the grading scale. I only give “A’s” for superior work, work that could survive scrutiny at any school. My AP English students, in particular, seem both challenged and annoyed by this standard. When they receive a high mark from me, they know they have earned it. But when they do not, they revert to form. After a history of receiving somewhat inflated grades, they can become attitudinal and sullen. This is especially true at report card time. To use their term, they become “pressed.”
Some rant; a few curse. I keep telling them to chase the knowledge and not the grade, but every time I say it I can see myself aging in their eyes. I provide all my students with a detailed listing of their marks on all assignments. If they failed to turn something in, they receive a zero. It is the only way to fail. The system seems reasonable to me. “Life doesn’t care if you stubbed your toe,” I say. “Life doesn’t care if you inherited a bad day.”
After grades disseminate, I always get email and phone calls from a few frantic parents. Their not-so-little-one always received the highest marks in English, they remind me. They want to know what we are doing wrong. I always stumble a little at that part. I try to explain that the student’s work is improving, but has not yet reached the standard I have set. I try to reassure them I have the well-being of their child or grandchild at the very tip of my mind and intentions. Sometimes it works; sometimes I am summoned to the principal’s office to explain myself.
What students and parents often forget is that, for most of us, high school is the last chance we get to have a boardroom of adults huddled on our behalf. My students take eight classes. If we assume at least five of their teachers care what happens to them, then throw in a counselor, or administrator, or staffer, and we have a group of seven or eight advocates working for their benefit. “Where else,” I ask them, “are you going to fiind a group like that in your lifetime?”
Excluding family (which usually wishes us well), adults are lucky if one or two colleagues actually care about what happens to them. Elementary school can be magical, but typically the number of teachers and other adults circling a child are few. Middle schools see the number expand with course offerings and specialization, but even there the mass of eyes hovering overhead is lower than that of high school, especially mine.
Ideally, the cadre of teachers instructing a student work hard to cajole and inspire, to delineate and demonstrate from a wide range of vantage points. From science to history to language, high schools teachers are the last ridge before the plunge into workplace demands or college anonymity. Rather than view us as co-conspirators, I urge my students to see teachers as useful guides whose real compensation rests primarily in their personal and intellectual achievement. We are psychiatrists, social workers, coaches, mentors, surrogate parents, next-door-neighbors, barbers, beauticians, and kin.
“I want you to succeed,” I say. “Not the way a stranger might wish everyone well. I mean you, in particular. And your other teachers want that for you too–even the ones you don’t like.”
At that point, many protest and lob a name or three, despite my known rule against criticizing any teacher other than me. There is always that colleague who seems meaner than required, or the one whose eye during instruction is clearly on the dismissal clock. Interestingly, they almost always include the one who gives high grades if they just show up and administers ten-question multiple choice exams. Even they know there is no profit in that.
When the heat of facing a disappointed parent dissipates, the students who threatened to leave my class invariably return. I like to think they do so because they know they are learning. But I know it is sometimes because switching classes this late in the school year is next to impossible.
I have no experience with suburban or rural schools, but I sense urban students are short-changed by the system armed to protect them. On the DC CAS standardized test, for example, students are not required to know grammar or language conventions, and the writing component consists of two, single paragraph responses. Too many of my students do not have to contend with teachers like my own who insisted we exceed the minimum in everything we did.
I wish someone had told me that way back in high school. I might have cherished my moments in class more if I had known that strange gathering of men and women poking my edges and assessing my work were not enemies, but champions whose whispered admonitions and rallying expectations would later sustain me on more than one stormy night without a cave in sight.