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Meeting the Right Needs: School is Not “The Real World”

The other day, my daughter came home from school with a paper in her hands. Her teacher had offered the class a spelling pre-test, and those students who spelled the words correctly would not have to take the actual test a few days later. My daughter was excited about her own success, but then she got quiet. “My friend got all the words right,” she said, “but the teacher gave her a zero because she forgot to write down her name.” I felt compassion for this child, who did everything right except remember a small detail that all of us have, at one point or another, forgotten. I also felt indignant: does this teacher, who also puts her own name on tests for students to spell and then grades their accuracy, put intention into discovering what kids really need to know? In schools, we see grading for behavior rather than mastery justified by what students may be accountable for once they launch into what is inaccurately called “the real world.” Instead of bringing that reasoning into how we assess students, think about what students really need to know — and whether or not we are helping them along that journey, or just providing more confusion.

Mastery, Not Motivation

Several years ago, I sat down with a teacher in the department I supervised to discuss the 50 percent failure rate in her class. As we combed through her assignments, quite a few of them were warm-ups that had an unclear purpose in connection with curriculum goals. What transpired over the conversation was that the process of giving students an activity as they walked in had little to do with anything other than settling down the class and getting them focused. The problem was, when all these warm-ups were combined, they made quite a large dent in the grade book. Many students were late to class, missing warm-ups on a regular basis. Some did the warm-up and then forgot to turn it in, and the classroom systems were not set up efficiently to collect late work. I pointed out that students were failing in large part due to a behavioral intervention, and that the assignment itself had little worth toward achieving learning outcomes. 

The importance of ensuring that grades reflect mastery of standards and not student motivation cannot be a place for compromise. Our job as teachers is to build student skills in our area of expertise so that they can continue to grow and achieve; applying punitive measures in the grade book only moves students, as well as our own methods, backwards. As a suggestion for practice, encourage teachers to look carefully at all assignments recorded in the grade book and to highlight assignments that connect explicitly to course standards. Any outliers from this exercise can be looked at more critically to determine rationale, and whether the grade reflects mastery or motivation.

Keeping Emotion at Bay

Teaching is personal; there is really no way to take ourselves out of the equation in terms of our classroom style. However, it is not our job to bring our work with students into a place that meets our emotional needs rather than theirs. I recently observed a teacher make what was clearly an emotional decision. Students were being a little rowdy at the start of class, and then one student asked if the material being discussed would be on the test. In what was clearly a spontaneous decision, the teacher said, “How about we take a test now? Put away your books, everyone.” Clearly, this action reflected personal frustration stemming from the behavior in the class rather than any sound instructional purpose. As the class continued to unfold, the teacher walked back the spontaneous “test” so fully that it was not even collected. In that initial moment, however, the teacher was applying a grade to try and fix a management issue, and it backfired. Students did not get any calmer; in fact, they were more worked up.

While it is easy for us to let emotions interfere, we have to meet instructional needs as demonstrated by the course, not by the way we feel. When students are not behaving as they should, it is necessary to examine our classroom structures. Do students have enough choices in what they are studying? Have we clearly framed the learning and explained its purpose? From a practical standpoint, are there opportunities for students to get up and move, or are they sitting down for too long without speaking to one another? The ultimate question we have to ask ourselves is whether we are acting out of a lack of trust. When we trust our students to learn and create routines that support a degree of autonomy, and when our learning goals are clear, other pieces tend to fall into place. As for our emotions, sometimes we just need to pause and breathe.

Coping with Lateness

Late work is probably one of the biggest banes of teacher existence, especially as the end of a quarter looms near and students begin handing in everything at once. Many teachers I have worked with refuse to give late work any degree of consideration. Their frustration is understandable, though it can be a bit hypocritical in view of the fact that as someone who has supervised teachers, I have chased down many an adult to turn in late paperwork, such as a timesheet or end-of-quarter IEP documentation.

We are all human, and we all engage in behavior that is less than ideal. Do we want the focus of our interactions with students to stay in that negative arena, or do we want them to know transparently that our priority is to help them succeed? Instead of turning away late work, even if there is no time to grade it as intended, read it over. Underline one area of content mastery on what the student hands in, give them some credit for what they have done, and follow up with an in-person conversation. Start positive by sharing what they did well, and how they could grow on their learning with better habits because (and this is the part that must be emphasized), our job as the teacher is to help them succeed, and we want to see them do well.

While many people will argue that teaching responsibility is part of the job of a school, think about where that should occur. If student behavior truly needs to be shored up, then collaborative structures should be in place to help that student, not to penalize them. Administrators, school counselors, and case workers are just some of the people who can support student behavior needs. In our classrooms, let’s put the focus on learning, where both our expertise belongs and where students can stand to benefit the most.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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