I committed a cardinal sin while teaching in NYC. I taught an interdisciplinary course that compelled students to think before expressing themselves in a foreign language. Some of my students were unhappy about this, because they had been through years of foreign language courses in which they merely had to show up from time to time to get a high grade.
The administration knew the change in culture would ruffle students’ feathers. The principal actually apologized for not telling me in my interview that the school was replacing the entire foreign language department. (The root of this will be the subject of another post. It’s quite a juicy story.) In that conversation, I assured her that all would be well, but moving toward a culture of learning after years in a culture of tomfoolery would result in a poor showing first semester. Students who weren’t accustomed to learning in class would need a wake-up call to get the picture that they would have to show evidence of improvement to pass the course. The principal heartily agreed that we could engineer end-of-year assessments that would be a cumulative representation of the entire school year, so we’d replace the first semester grades with the second semester grades. I started the year with optimism and tried not to heed the teachers who spoke ominously of the administration’s poor track record of keeping foreign language teachers.
A week after I turned in grades for the first semester, I was summoned to the office. The principal and vice principal instructed me to bring my grade book, syllabus, and rubrics to a meeting to talk about “failing students”. Naively believing this would be a meeting to discuss how to help students who were failing, I lugged a crate of semester projects to the office, ready to get the kids on the right track to mastery. I didn’t consider the many semantic interpretations of “failing students”. It also, lamentably, didn’t occur to me that I should go armed with the union representative instead of the students’ work.
The administrators brought up Pepe, a brilliant student who (as all of his teachers and none of the administrators knew) did not think class time was time for learning or work. A senior in high school, he habitually skipped my class to write the papers that were overdue in other classes or hang out in the college advisor’s office. I’d talked to him dozens of times about the fact that he would pick up my content quickly with just a few classes, and he could do well if only he’d attend now and again. I’d talked with him, emailed his faculty advisor, called his parents, and even went to his friends to get him to come to class… to no avail. The administrators looked me up and down and said, “Pepe doesn’t fail classes. He’s a senior, and he needs to fill out college applications. How can you fail him? Are you aware that he might not get a scholarship because of you?”
I told the administrators of my conversations with Pepe. I offered to help him during lunch and after school. I offered him alternative assessments that would allow him to show mastery in a condensed time period. I asked him if he could afford a failing grade on his report card. In the end, he frankly told me that he didn’t see the value in my subject area, and he had no intention of coming to class regularly. He told me this in a personable, affable way. I couldn’t fault him for it, but neither could I submit a passing grade for him when he hadn’t shown mastery of the content and skills. I explained this to the administrators as I pulled out his final semester project, in which he’d started (but not finished) his idea catcher in English. There was no foreign language on his project at all. They refused to look at it.
When they openly suggested I change Pepe’s grade, I told them the same thing I’d said in other schools. (This is quite a frequent occurrence in NYC schools.) I said, “I reported the grade that shows his demonstrated level of mastery in my course. After I submit it, I have no control over it.” This was my way of saying that they could go ahead and falsify the grade I reported, but it wouldn’t be on my conscience.
For the rest of the year, I met weekly with one of the administrators to feign indoctrination in a culture of promotion for ownership of a pulse. The administrator tried to tell me that thematic curricula and interdisciplinary curricula don’t work, because kids already have a social studies class and shouldn’t be put under the strain of two social studies classes at the same time. That year, I started planning my departure from education. I painstakingly made sure that at least 75% of my students met (ever-lowering) expectations in my class.
Unable to change careers in the span of that first summer, I returned to the same school the next year. Of the team of three foreign language teachers, I was the only one left. I arrived to find that I was sentenced to teach seventh grade (a measure that effectively prevented me from employing an interdisciplinary approach). A teacher who had observed my classroom before entering teacher training two years previous was now the mentor to the third member of our team. (I wasn’t angry about this. She’s a marvelous teacher. I just felt badly that she’d have this on her plate and be under the scrutiny of the administration.) This was my punishment.
This is what I think of “failing kids” now:
- The system is failing kids by giving them a false sense of mastery. The system is setting them up for crushing disappointment.
- The administrators have forgotten that the grade comes from the students, not the teacher. We don’t give grades. We simply report representations of demonstrated mastery. Failing kids need help so they can learn from mistakes and thrive later on.
- Teachers who are failing kids are doing so by not assigning failing grades to them. Seriously. When teachers stop expecting great things from students, students won’t try to do great things.