Friday, July 18, 2014

Whose Failure Is It?

I’m guilty.  Guilty of failing students.

Oh yeah, I’ve said it many times in my teaching career, “You earned those grades.  I didn’t give them to you.”  At the time, I thought I was right.  Students did the work, I checked the work, and assigned the grade accordingly, but I didn’t give the student a grade. In my mind, they earned the grade.  Whether it was a good grade or a bad grade, the student earned it by the quality and timeliness of the work s/he turned in.

In recent years as I have reconsidered teaching and grading practices, I have come to realize how flawed my position I was.

I chose my grading scale.  For the most part, I used the 100% scale, which is how most of my own school work was graded and how most of my colleagues graded.  At some point, I began to use a point system, assigning points to each assignment according to the value or weight I believed it to be worth.  Each class and each term differed in the number of assignments and points available.  I controlled this; my students did not.  Their job was “to do the work.”  In terms when there were many grades available, a low grade affected a student’s average less than when there were fewer assignments. 

Like many teachers, I believed in the worth of my assignments and in the veracity of the grades entered into my gradebook.  Some earned high marks; others posted low scores.  All were an accurate picture of a student’s performance in my class each quarter. 

Hmmm.  Really?  What a terribly supremacist view of teaching and grading practices!  Arrogance, no less.

Thankfully, I’ve evolved from that flawed perception to realize that teaching and grading is not a one-size-fits-all operation. 

Perhaps my grading practices were satisfactory for those who earned passing grades, though I recognize that there is significant room for improvement with every aspect of my grading. But looking at some student data this week has drawn my focus to the failures.

Failing a student is relatively easy and far more common than I once realized.  Just give assignments, take up and score the ones students turn in, and assign zeroes for those whose papers aren’t in the stack.  When the work is of poor quality, assign poor grades. You can even ask the student multiple times to turn in the missing assignment.  Then teach the next lesson and repeat the assignment cycle.

I have failed many of my students. 
I failed to recognize their individual needs.
I failed to differentiate my teaching so each one could learn the material most effectively. 
I failed to offer an alternative assessment method to allow each one to demonstrate the depth and breadth of his/her learning.

Instead, I grouped them all together, taught them the same lesson at the same time in the same way, assigned them the same assessment at the same time, and expected that each individual would achieve his maximum potential. After all, there’s only one way to teach and to assess, and that is my way, the teacher’s way.  I trust you hear the sarcasm in my voice in that last statement.  Yikes!

Therein lies the problem – we trust our own selves too much!  So much so that we assign zeroes to those who don’t turn in the work and we assign low grades to poor work.  And then blame the students for not studying the notes we gave them, or for being unmotivated to do schoolwork, or for ….

Sadly, failure becomes a cycle, a downward spiral, often unrecoverable. 
Failure damages a child’s reputation with other teachers & administrators.
Failure damages a child’s relationship with his/her family.
Failure damages a child’s social status with classmates and friends. 
Failure damages a child’s self-concept.

Yet, we teachers don’t just allow failure, we sometimes cause it and perpetuate it.

OUCH!  That’s a strong statement and one that is difficult for a teacher to swallow.

I, along with many teachers, deeply care about students and try repeatedly, often unsuccessfully, sometimes successfully, to change the course of a students’ performance.  I also know that sometimes we give up the fight, for our efforts seem fruitless or the year comes to an end and the student moves on.

I generally believe that students who come to my class desire to succeed.  They may not express that desire in the same ways as some of their high-achieving classmates do, but deep inside they want to please their teachers and to succeed in school.

Some students fear failure.  A common mindset these students adopt is that it is easier to look lazy by not doing the work than it is to look dumb by doing the work incorrectly.

Some students lack relationships.  Connecting with students individually opens the door to better understand their behaviors.  What makes this student tick?  What interests does s/he have that I can link to our coursework to stimulate his motivation to learn? How does this student react to feedback?

Of course, there are many things we can to do build better relationships with our students, to get inside their hearts and minds to better understand their motivation (or lack of), to increase their academic skills, to teach better and to assess better.

For now, we need to take a critical look at how we assess our students.  Are we using a one-size-fits-all, my way or the highway, assessment protocol?  How valid and reliable are our assessments? Are our gradebooks truly reflective of students’ performance and mastery of the content in our courses?  What are we doing when students fail?  Have we answered the question of WHY is this student failing with a response deeper than “he doesn’t care” or “he won’t do the work”?

If the answer doesn’t involve working individually with the student to determine the root cause of failure, establishing a plan of action to remedy the failure, following through, or reassessing & revising the plan until the student has learned, we have failed the student.  If we do not design instruction and assessment in multiple ways to meet the varying needs of each student in our class, we will fail our students.  That’s our failure.  Not the student’s. 

As we approach a new school year, let’s endeavor to fail no more.

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