When I was a senior in high school I had a kick-ass English teacher who, to me, was an icon, a goddess among people. She was sharp-tongued and quick witted, and she worked our know-it-all asses off. Most of my classmates hated her. I wanted to be just like her.
One of her best-known quirks was her adamant refusal to “give” points. If you earned a B, you got a B, never mind that your B was the highest possible B, a mere half point from an A. You didn’t earn an A, end of story. I never had a problem with this rule; I always made As in her class, as did my best friend Meredith (who is now reading this blog–hey Mer) and our friend Susan. We were the top three graduates in our class (I was 3) and we didn’t need free half-points. Hell, our classmates probably hated us, too, but that is so not my point.
My point is points. Grade points, to be specific. I always admired teachers who gave the grades their students earned. I became one of those teachers. I used to begin the school year by giving my students a cut-out paper A. I explained that it was the only grade I’d ever give them–they would have to earn everything else, good and bad. When students ask me about extra credit I have to work hard to keep the sneer off my face, and I reply, “Let’s try earning the regular credit first. If you don’t turn in what I assign you in the first place, what makes you think you have time for ‘extra’?” Don’t get me wrong, I give kids chances to succeed. Lots and lots of chances. If it’s clear to me that they don’t understand something, we approach it another way. If the majority of a class bombs a test, we retest (with a different test, of course). I work with my kids to make sure they are learning. That’s what teachers do. But I don’t give grades.
At least I didn’t until the fall of 2004. Can anyone guess what happened in the fall of 2004? Why yes, you there in the front, that’s when Principal came to my school and we fell headfirst into the flaming pit of hell. Quite literally. Heh. (Ahem. Sorry. We joke about the fire now. What else can you do?) When Principal came to my school, she started changing grades. Occasionally a 92 became a 93, an A, but mostly lots of 68s and 69s became Ds*. I hated it, and after I ended up looking like a fool who told students one thing and then had to explain why the grade on their report card was higher, I upped their chances at success. I–gulp–even gave the occasional extra credit.
All of that is a preface to this story: On January 31 a teacher workday marked the end of the first semester and the beginning of the second. We are on the block schedule, which means new students and new classes for the rest of the year. Thank God. Because I am a nice person (read: because I didn’t want the hassle of redoing what someone else would have done wrong) I spent a few hours at work that day finalizing first semester grades. It was much easier than I had anticipated, as my third sub in 4 weeks (did you catch that? THREE people could not handle my job! THREE!) did not record any of the grades she took in my gradebook, which I left for her, nor did she leave HER gradebook for me. I could have made up grades, but I’ve never been good at writing fiction, so my students got the grades they’d earned as of my last day (the day Christmas break started) plus their exam grade.
I should tell you that in the three weeks before break, I gave my students so many chances to pass that I should be sainted. I didn’t give them grades, mind you, but I did throw my beloved deadline rule out the window on their behalf, and many of them rose to the occasion. Many, sadly, did not. I should also tell you that I taught honors freshman English for 10 years, only to be handed three low level reading classes at the start of year 11. The curriculum for the reading course is canned and so, so easy, especially considering that in a class of 25, only 8-10 students really had reading problems. Thus, everyone should have aced this class, especially given the numerous opportunities I allowed them back in December. But because they are freshmen, which is Latin for “humanoids whose skulls are filled with donkey excrement,” several of them failed. Eleven, to be exact. I know this so certainly because the day after the grades were submitted to the office, I received this email at home:
“We have 11 kids fail out of your Strategic Reading classes. Is this right? We had 4 that were in the 60s. I just want to be fair to them. Thanks.”
Bet you can guess who it was from. I almost ignored it, but I couldn’t help myself, I just had to know what she meant by “60s.” So I asked her to send me the names of the students in question and their questionable grades. One of them had a 67, and she probably passed him. But the other three–they actually had 60s! Six-zero. That was their final grade. Please, somebody explain to me why it is not fair to a kid to give him a 60 when he earned a 60! It’s not like they were a half, or even a tenth of a point from passing. We are talking 10 points. TEN! And she wants to know if that’s fair. Damn right that’s fair.
I did reply to that email. I could have authorized the grade changes and seemed “fair,” but instead I told her I recorded the grades the students earned. I never got a response, but I know what happened. I know she changed those grades. I’ve seen her do it time and time again. I complain about my job, but in my teacher’s heart, this is what’s driving me away. What lesson does a child learn when he fails two quarters and the final exam and ends up with a D? It isn’t that I’m a grade fanatic and care more about the number than I do the kid. Far from it. I care enough about the kid to have high expectations, and let’s face it, no matter how many inspirational teacher movies tell you otherwise, there are some kids who will not meet those expectations. Not even when they get lots of chances. And not even when we lower our expectations.
Perhaps the worst thing about Principal is that in her mind, should Lifetime ever make a movie of her life starring Meredith Baxter Birney, she would be portrayed as a positive force who helped her students rise from the ashes (again with the fire jokes) and inspired them all to get good grades and go to college. And some kid who graduated under her rule would see it and say, “Hey, I know that lady, yo. She was so nice, and she helped me pass, and then I got to college and those professors were trippin‘, man, they won’t give a brother a break. Talkin‘ ’bout how I can’t write and shit, and how I was on academic probation. That’s why I said ‘Screw that, yo,’ and I got me a job at Bojangles, ’cause I don’t need nobody tellin‘ me what to do. Man, don’t they know I was number 6 in my class?”
*We’re on the 7 point grading scale.