An Open Letter Re: Grades

An Open Letter to: Anyone who has any claim to, interest in, and/or hope for the education of modern school-aged people (Everyone). 

Stop. Checking. Grades.

Close your browser. Delete the app on your phone. Forget your login. Turn off all gradebook notifications. Enjoy the silence. As you sink into that silence just a little, notice how the silence of the gradebook, similar to social media silence if you’ve ever attempted to let it be so, screams at you to look – to wonder what the grade is – to see what assignments are missing, what assignments are due, how many points an assignment is worth, and oh my goodness why hasn’t that dang teacher put in that grade yet? 

Feel the pull? Hear the silent cacophony?

Now, a little meditation to drown out that unnecessary babble: 

Breathe in;  Picture in your minds eye, right now, the best moment of your day, breathe out. 

Breathe in, Picture the most fulfilling part of your day, breathe out. 

Breathe in; Picture the part of your day that made you smile. Breathe out. 

I’m going to take a quick shot in the dark and guess that the gradebook did not inspire these pictures. So, I will say it again. Stop. Checking. Grades.

Education-based software companies: 

Your technologically advanced solutions that address the school to home communication dilemma are extremely efficient. Obviously, a lot of research has gone into what needs to be communicated, to whom, and how best those people receive communications – however, I ask that you pull it back just a bit. Making education based software the school accepted equivalent of social media – as far as who wants to check and when, has been amazingly successful  – However, it has not helped to address the actual information that is being communicated. Somehow, the issues being communicated, have been lost in translation – now we have the knowledge, but not the motivation to, or recognition of the need to address those issues in ways that create self-advocating, responsible human beings who are well-organized and functioning; soon to be independent and successful members of society. Instead, we are creating a mass of people with access to information over which they feel no ownership. We currently have too many options to choose from in the education software industry, so unless your company is trying to combine some of these programs, please desist.

Teachers and Parents: 

I address you together because you play a similar role in a student’s life right now. It is your job to pass along the information and life skills necessary for a student to become an active, engaged, healthy member of this ever-changing society. You are collaboratively raising the next leaders, thinkers, and creators of your community. Lighten up. Stop blaming yourself and each other – we are all human here, parent and teacher, doing our best. As we start to work together toward a common goal, take a minute to think back to your own days in middle and high school. Realistically think about how often you knew your cumulative grade in a class. Unless you have very young children currently, the internet, smart phones, and really any digital technology was not the way your grade was communicated to you. Your grade was communicated maybe at a progress report, but definitely at a quarter or trimester – a time when the grade would actually be recorded on your transcript. This lack of specific knowledge meant that you paid more attention to each individual assignment. You turned in assignments on time, and when they were returned, you asked about how to get a better grade, about extra credit, and maybe whether there would be a test on the information later. In most high school classes, you filed the assignments in your binder, because it was likely that a teacher might lose a grade at some point and you would need to show proof that you turned that assignment in, or you might just want to use that paper again next year. Compare your experience with that of a modern students.  These students have the same social pressures (perhaps amplified by connection), same fickle emotions, same inexperienced fear of the future, same ability to learn. Yet, they are constantly overwhelmed by teachers and parents and devices telling them what assignments are missing, what grades are low or high, where they need to be in the next five minutes, etc. Most of these students are unable to recall what a missing assignment is due to the fact that there are so many assignments that they’ve lost any individual worth as far as actual learning goes, now those assignments are a jumble of points and missing directions.

Teachers: 

I know that you may have specific directions from your school administration that say how often to post grades, and I’m all for keeping track of a students progress, however, take some time before you put an assignment into a gradebook and think about what that assignment communicates to the student and parent. What progress are your tracking and how does it help the student understand his/her level of understanding? Does the assignment reveal knowledge? Mastery of a skill? Ability to follow directions? Participation? After this is decided, put that grade in. Be able to explain why each assignment matters to a student’s understanding of the subject, or to a student’s general ability to be responsible and engaged. Don’t use grades as a behavioral punishment – some kids do school better than others. Don’t tell them to check the grades themselves, give them a list – ideally printed – along with the actual assignments that are missing, so they have actionable steps to rectifying missing or late assignments – not just a multi-colored screen of assignments they don’t remember getting.

Parents: 

Teachers are human beings who herd a mess of anywhere from 30 to 250 students per day (depending on the grade and subject taught). When that lovely education software sends you a daily report on your student’s progress, it’s likely not always up to date. We teachers are not wonder-people, and we try really hard to have some semblance of a life outside of school. This means that it may take a day, or a week, or even two for every student’s grade to reflect exactly what a student has mastered. Punishing your student for a missing assignment is annoying. Not only to the student, but to the teacher who has the student asking daily to have the assignment fixed. Please take a moment and breathe. If the student says an assignment has been turned in, give them the benefit of the doubt – These are your children whom you should be able to trust – give it a week and check in with them to make sure. Stop checking grades – and while you’re at it, turn off the daily notifications.

Finally,

To the most important stakeholders in this business of education: 

Students: 

A small secret that I think, as a teacher and a parent, I’m probably not supposed to just tell you: your grades don’t define you. Grades don’t show that you are a good or bad person; don’t reflect your ability to think or create, or imagine or believe. Your grades are a number, or a letter, that tracks whether you have done what you have been asked to do. Sometimes, if your teacher is discerning – your grade also reveals whether you are displaying an understanding or mastery of information expected for someone your age. In the grand scheme of your life, grades matter for a very short time – long enough to provide a shred of data to another academic establishment about whether or not you do school well; long enough to show a nosy employer whether you follow directions well. Stop checking your grades. Looking at a grade doesn’t change it.

As a teacher and as a parent, I want you to do well. I want you to not only feel successful, but I want you to be successful. There is a huge difference. In this life, success is not a trophy that everyone gets – not a one size fits all plan for child to adulthood. In this life, success is a feeling and it is entirely dependent upon your own goals for the future. As you grow out of being a professional (albeit compulsory) student, you have to have some self-efficacy, to believe in yourself, to be motivated to become responsible and to strive to display your best understanding of whatever information you are mastering. Education is ongoing in the sense that you will learn for the rest of your life, however, for most of your life, no one will tell you what you need to know in order to do well. Take advantage of the people around you right now: the teachers, parents, coaches, and administrators – people who were once students themselves and who, as adults, have chosen the profession of trying to pass along what they know about life to you. Ask them questions and listen to the answers. Choose someone you trust and strive to impress them – not with your grades, but with your want to do well. Do your best – your absolute best. And really, Stop. Checking. Your. Grades.

Sincerely,

A concerned Parent, Teacher, Friend, Colleague, Human

One thought on “An Open Letter Re: Grades

  1. Oh Rebecca, you’re so spot on. If only people could hear this wisdom. I think that I gave up in my last few years. I went along with the grade checkability, always striving to get everything in Aries once a week, always trying (halfeartedly at times) to get my English learners ready for the next timed evaluation.. Now I look back on it, I see that so many of those assignments were just markers. A place to see that a student was present and on task, more or less. They didn’t reflect genuine growth or learning. If they had honestly been valuable assignments, I think they would have taken longer to do and longer to evaluate. It all makes me tired!

    I remember when I designed everything my students did, and the work felt challenging and growth-producing. It always felt as if the students and I were on a voyage of learning and figuring out new things and new, tangible ways of demonstrating what we’d learned. Then came the canned curriculum, the benchmark exams, and the annual exams, and I feel like all learning went out the window. What really needs to be learned can’t be tested with bubbles or the article-reading followed by an essay, all done within an hour or so. No discussion or thoughtfulness involved, just pressure. I couldn’t teach to that, and my students couldn’t figure out what to do with such a meaningless short little window of time to produce something that would prove to the world that they were competent and equal in ability to everyone else. Something so important has been lost since we were told (and some convinced) that we can measure a student with numbers. I makes me so sad to think about it.

    I don’t think I remembered how difficult all that was until I read this piece this morning. Thank you for being a teacher who sees and remembers what counts. Much love to you as you continue this so difficult journey. You are a gift to the world of education.

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