Why I Believe We Need to Banish The Hard-Ass Grading Teacher to History
“Your mom was the only teacher who didn’t give me an F.” My adult daughter came home some years ago and shared this with me, a report from a co-worker of hers, a former high school student of mine.
I guess I could have taken this in as a pat on the back, but I did not because the reality of the situation startled me:
This student had done extremely well in my tenth grade college prep English course, then suddenly disappeared. I asked around about her whereabouts and no one knew anything. After about three weeks, I received a note from a counselor explaining that the student was in the hospital. You see she had almost died. She had one day, simply drifted into a diabetic coma and was rushed to the hospital. She would stay in the hospital a full month (recovering and learning how to survive this dangerous, new ailment) and her father sent a request for an independent study for her. I obliged him and wished her well.
The Grading Treadmill
Over the remainder of the semester, my mailbox filled with her work. She did not complete everything I assigned, but had satisfactorily completed what I concluded she could. I ended up giving her a C. She would have undoubtedly earned an A had she not taken sick with a disease that now demanded so much of her attention. When my daughter told me that all this student’s other teachers failed her, I could not believe the rigidity, nor the heartlessness. Her C was easy for me.
I teach English and saying so does not conjure images of long nights, pen in hand, sweating over student grades. Not at all, I imagine. But the hard truth is that teachers of all subjects, even those quantitative subjects like Algebra and Statistics know the emotional sweat often produced at the end of a term, over a grade for one or several students; grades that just don’t sit well. For years I dreaded this grading exercise like I dread running on a treadmill. But today, after years of wrestling with how to fairly assess student performance, that “grades due” date rattles me as much as a walk around the block might—not at all. And to get here, I had to develop and practice a system based in principle. My earlier anxiety made sense as the product of my own personal murky position about grading. Strands of rationale influenced me; but I needed a clearly articulated foundation.
The Numbers Matter
One caveat, I teach what I am supposed to teach and much more. My students have historically improved their individual standard testing scores and have also improved departmental and school-wide testing outcomes. I spent two years as English Department Chair learning how the testing system works to impact school culture and image within the wider community. In other words, I take seriously, the numbers.
So I listened, researched, consulted other instructors and came to an understanding between myself and the students who walk through my door, an understanding that has freed us from the western tradition of grading in anguish. I have refined my approach recently, more sure than ever about my goals as an educator. Gone from my repertoire are the teacher moves meant to inflict “survival of the fittest” pain upon my students.
Nurture, Don’t Weed Out
I decided against replicating the negative models of my learning experience. Teachers who graded with a coldness that often hurt and angered me and made me want to quit trying. I wanted to synthesize and use the rare grading models that invigorated my learning and empowered me toward owning my progress. I especially chose to invigorate and empower students as a means of countering the status quo that insists on pushing many students out (weeding), rather than pulling all students in (nurturing). Two countervailing examples served me well.
The first, a grade I received as a freshman college student in a history class. It was a WF dispensed by an instructor in a class I had never attended. It was the 1980s before email and before cell phones and I ran to campus on the drop deadline to find the teacher not in his office hours. He was the department chair, so I had no one to report to and question about what to do next. I caught up with the teacher the next day and asked him to sign the withdrawal form and he ended up giving me the WF, which functions as an F on one’s transcript. I later found out the instructor could have given me any grade he chose, but he decided to punish me for my 18-year-old display of irresponsibility. Though I retook the course the following semester, the grade was never changed nor ever dropped and to this day, even after completing three graduate programs with an almost perfect record,, affects my academic choices. Unfortunately, my appeals to have the grade changed went unheeded because by the time I gained enough worldliness to know I could appeal, the professor had passed away.
I had a completely opposite experience at the same institution as a senior, however. At the end of the course the instructor challenged us to write an argument to justify the grade we believed we deserved. I had performed exceptionally in this course and thereby argued for my A. I waited, excited, for my grades that summer and what do you know, the instructor believed me and accepted my proposal. Nothing in my educational experience engendered more trust, appreciation or respect for teaching and learning as this simple gift from that experienced instructor. I have never forget my experience with that instructor. That class showed me how beautifully student assessment can actually work. Just the other day, I assigned a written argument for students in my community college English class: refer to your rubric and write a proposal justifying a fair grade for your research project. And at a time when our society is so destructively bifurcated and hurt, do we not need more humanity within our institutions, especially environments meant to foster growth and understanding? Over too many grading periods, I perpetuated the status quo, the punitive grader carrying out the mandates of an outdated system.
Assessment that Propels Students Forward
The classroom, as a mechanism of the status quo, has traditionally worked to keep power in the hands of some while keeping it out of the hands of others. Grades impact society. In “A Practice of Freedom: Self-grading for Liberatory Learning” Vicki L. Reitenauer (2017) invokes the lessons of Paolo Friere, bell hooks and Adrienne Rich:
If ever there was a time when we need mechanisms through which students may be activated to ‘claim an education’ (Rich) and to operationalize ‘education as the practice of freedom’ (Freire; hooks), that time is now, given the social, political, and economic injustice and instability that shape our students’ lives. (61)
After fifteen years of dispensing grades that reflected the authoritarian values of the institutions for which I worked, I began to appreciate more fundamentally the nexus between teacher assessment and societal outcomes. I made the decision to grade according to my own sense of justice. I decided to serve as a foil for the punishing, sadist teacher model I had witnessed in my own education as well as in my teaching practice. I decided against cruelty and pain. I wanted my assessment to propel students forward. I wanted to affirm student humanity. I imagined my students at home, logging in or stripping the perforated folds of their grade envelopes, reading the news and nodding in agreement with the grades I dispensed.
Grading is Power
Grading is power, after all. Some might argue it the greatest power an instructor possesses. A grade, unless some malfeasance or fraud is present, can never be altered by anyone but the teacher who issues it. And it lasts a lifetime. Whether we recognize it at the moment we hit “enter”, the grades we submit have the power to determine a student’s life trajectory. The question then arises, what do we want for each of our students?
Joshua Kunnath’s (2017) rare study of grading and assessment practice showed that teachers grade in an idiosyncratic and subjective mode, a method largely influenced by “teachers’ personal learning and beliefs about the topic,” balanced “with classroom reality and external pressures. McMillan and Nash (2000) explained that the tension created in balancing these three influences leads to varying grading practices within and across classrooms.” How can this obvious subjectivity not influence the final grade for students on the cusp of a B or C or an A or B or a C or D or a D or F?
We make these decisions repeatedly over a teaching career and under the influence of our personal value systems. Which leads to a relevant point about the students who walk through our doors. Do we see them as empty vessels or do we recognize what the skills they arrive with and build upon those to meet agreed upon standards?
All of our credential programs teach us that our students’ gifts should be recognized, respected and rewarded. The idea that our students are in deficit when we meet them and therefore must be treated harshly and punished into shape is also a bias that has implication for gender equality, racial equality and cultural inclusion.
As teachers, we have so much power. So why not start tomorrow with a vision that rewards successes and banishes the hard-ass teacher to history. Maintain high standards; but encourage and teach them instead of torturing them out of students.
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