The Child Behind the Grade

Teachers don’t generally like to come down to the office. In fact, most people (even as adults!) still have negative feelings about seeing the principal. They believe when they are in that space that they are ‘in trouble.’ This is a large reason why I like to engage with students and staff in their spaces as opposed to mine, and why I have attempted to make my office be more like a place to relax and hang out (treats, comfy chairs, kid’s art) than the seat of discipline.

However, there is always one point in the year that I have a steady parade of teachers, educational assistants, and early childhood educators waiting to see me: the week before parent/teacher interviews in the Fall. Invariably, they want to talk about where, how, and what to share with parents with regard to student progress and achievement.

I always begin with the same question: what do you know about the student?

The answers to this question tend to start with an emphasis on grades. Sometimes there is a reference to specific skills in core areas like Language Arts and Math, and then there is usually some commentary about Learning Skills, behavior, effort, and attendance, which might also include some thoughts on home support for the work being done in the class.

I always listen, without interruption or clarification, to the entire description. When they are finished, I ask them: what else do you know about the student?

I usually get puzzled looks the first time I have this conversation with a teacher. Looks that say—what do you mean? What else is there? It is as if we have become so accustomed to assigning grades that we have come to equate the student with the grade itself, and consequently that when we utter the number or letter that represents it we have both defined and described the human being who sits in our class.

If they have a child, I ask the teacher to describe them. Sometimes I describe my own children (proud chauffeur and chef to 3 teenagers!). The difference between the two descriptions is striking, usually, in that grades do not feature significantly (if at all) in the picture that is created. There is also a marked difference in the variety, quality, and depth of the observations.

I finish by asking them which answer they would be more comfortable with as a parent in a conference. As you might imagine, it is almost always the second version of describing a child.

Why is this? When did we become a system that was more interested in what arbitrary age-defined standard a child could demonstrate, than in the child herself? Or, perhaps more correctly, when did teachers become more concerned with the curriculum than with the learner?

I don’t for one minute think there are a significant number of teachers who would say that they value content over children, so how did we get here?

Let’s be honest, there is a great deal of pressure placed on teachers and it comes from a number of sources. The government, local boards, school administrators, parents, outside agencies, and even students all have expectations of teachers. Teachers have also, up until this point, not discovered how to cram more than 24 hours into any given day (though many have tried!) and time, or the lack of it, is a contributing factor when it comes teacher stress and decision-making. I believe that because of this pressure, teachers often choose a model of assessment and accountability that privileges standardization, limits choice, and conforms to a narrow definition of what is observable.

And so it with a great deal of compassion and understanding that I have these conversations with teachers. Teachers that I know have worked very hard to prepare lessons, support student success, provide extra-curricular opportunities, and engage with families in the best interests of the children they work with. Their stress and anxiety are understandable. But why do we maintain this cycle? Who is it benefiting? And perhaps most importantly, is there a better way?

The teacher’s role is to, in very simplistic terms, get the student from skill A to skill B. A teacher does this through the learning opportunities they create with their pedagogy, the tracking mechanisms they build in that inform their assessment, and the feedback they provide to bridge the space between where students are and where they want to go.

Good pedagogy in teaching is that which engages students authentically and enables them entry into tasks in ways that show us what it is they know and what they can do with this knowledge/these skills. It is flexible and adaptable, and it flows from our knowledge of and relationship with our students.

Consequently, good evaluation is a set of practices that allow us to see all of the elements of the processes generated through good pedagogy: what students know, what they can do, and what they need to grow. It is the triangulation of observations, conversations, and products. No one side of the triangle is privileged (finished products are not, for example, more valuable than a student conference), and a significant part of the art of teaching is being able to locate a child’s growth and progress relative to and in light of these points.

Good feedback is that which connects task and assessment. Feedback is what creates growth. It supports, challenges, refines, and enhances learning. It must be ongoing, timely, and relevant to students.

Oh, and we know that good feedback has absolutely nothing to do with grades. (See these articles by Dylan Wiliam or Arthur Chiaravalli for further discussion and explanation).

The point is, the most effective teachers are those who give the best feedback, and the best feedback has little to do with grades, just like the best descriptions of our students have little to do with grades.

But this is where you tell me that your principal doesn’t think the same way, and how could you possibly make the switch to a classroom where feedback and not grades are the norm? Your parents would go ballistic! Your students would be confused and wouldn’t know what to do without grades to motivate them! You couldn’t write report cards! You wouldn’t be able to survive a parent-teacher conference!

And here is where we return to my original question: what do you know about the student? I guarantee you that if you allow feedback to inform what you do and to support student growth you will have a richer and more holistic understanding of who your students are, what they can do, and what they need to know to improve. I also promise you that it will allow you to make better decisions about tasks and choice because you will understand what motivates, engages, and inspires them.

Because you will know your students better, you will find that parents, students, and colleagues will have more positive, precise, and practical conversations with you. It will be easier to work collaboratively and it will be easier to have challenging conversations (and they do happen) with parents, and students, and colleagues. You will also find it easier to complete summative reports and to speak to the achievement of students, and you will discover that students will pay more attention to what you say, what you do, and what you write because they will know that all of it is in service to their personal learning journey.

I said earlier that I believe the vast majority of teachers do not believe that content is more important than students, and I truly believe that the same is true of administrators. If you can articulate your practice, point to the triangulation (product, conversation, observation), and explain how these inform your conclusions, you will be supported (and cherished!) by us.

Making this change, to a gradeless classroom that emphasizes growth and feedback can be scary for some, and it may feel as if you are alone and isolated in your practice. Know that nothing could be further from the truth. The TG² community is made up of educators from all levels of education from all over the globe in all different kinds of roles. We are here to support, to share, and to celebrate. We work hard to model in our professional collaborations the kind of practices we want to see in our classrooms, and we all recognize that we are on a collective journey ourselves. There is no finish line in our work, just like there is no end point for student learning. I look forward to hearing your voices in our Twitter chats, to reading your blogs, and to learning from and alongside you.

Mark Sonnemann is principal of Holy Name Catholic School in Kingston, Ontario. Find more of his writing on Medium.

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