Last week, a student finally finished a test he had started awhile back. He's been working on it periodically, pausing the test for a day or two so he could brush up on some concepts or get tutoring. Clearly, math is not his strong suit and I've known that from watching him work on problems in class. This week he finally finished his test and, though he knew he blanked on two of the problems, he wanted me to grade it for him right there. So, I did. Now aside from my testing process, I grade a bit differently as well, more in line with a philosophy in the book Ahead of the Curve. I could tell from his work that he wasn't a superstar with the material and where his learning gaps were, so his score turned out to be quite accurate: a 65%. Having seen his prior work I was actually okay with this grade. This is a student that has little interest in my class, a very active life outside of school, cares for people in need, and spends his efforts on community engagement for young people who have been cast aside from their homes for a variety of reasons. He is a funny guy, and a loyal friend. He's charismatic and I've never seen or heard of anyone behaving negatively toward him. I also know that algebra isn't a high priority for him.
When I showed him his grade he seemed a little down about it. But then I said something that gave him pause. I explained how much of an improvement he had made, and then followed it with "this grade is not who you are. You are not a grade on a test. You are not a grade in a class. You are much more than that." He said he had never heard anyone say that to him before and was very appreciative of the kind words ("inspirational" is what he said). He's a beautiful kid with much to offer the world, much like every other student I see, and I want him to know that his potential is limitless, not defined by whatever mark I put next to his name. I think I'm going to say that to more students.
And then I think about my colleagues. We are in a "teacher accountability" system that places the threat of our livelihood in the center of our "job performance". Now, our "job performance" is measured by:
- 50% from student test scores
- 50% from administrative observations. For the average teacher, these observations constitute around 1/2 of 1% of our total instructional time with students. These observations are both formal and informal (whatever that measures), and can be conducted by multiple administrators within an at-best consistently subjective framework. When all of this is said and done, we get a score. The score is what determines whether or not we can be re-hired, whether or not we receive an increase in pay or the amount of pay increase, and how we are viewed by administrators and the school system. We allow ourselves to be defined by these scores (and how CAN'T we? This is our lives, our profession). The problem is: good or bad, those scores are not who we are. We LET them define us, because the system defines us by them. The students do the same thing: they define themselves by the scores we give them. But good or bad, the scores are NOT our students. We have to check ourselves to make sure we are not judging students the same way the system judges students, or the same way we are judged. They are just scores on mastery over a specific content area, not holistic interpretations of worth. Unfortunately, our accountability system DOES INDEED find scores to be holistic interpretations of worth. A student is only as good as their GPA or more accurately, their high-stakes test score. A teacher is only as good as their evaluation score.
As professionals, we KNOW that these scores do not accurately reflect who we are as people or how well we perform as teachers, yet it is a constant struggle to ignore that. These scores do not take into effect how we can finally reach a student that can recognize an author's intent, or finally teach a student exactly what an intercept is on a linear function, or being there with a hug when a student's mother passed away. Those are not reflected in the scores, yet those moments are what defines us. Those are the moments we live for. Those moments are the reason why we do what we do.
In moments of clarity and defiance, we think "evaluate that!" when we inspire a student. When a student shares with us their excitement over learning something new or getting a letter from Princiton or saying "thank you" for being there in a time of need, then they walk out of the classroom. In the quite of a temporarily empty room, we reflect on what just happened. And we wipe a tear away. That is who we are. Let's always remember who our students are. Let's fight to remind everyone else that wants to label them. We are not our grade.