Monday, June 05, 2006

ON TEACHING: "Final Grades for the Teacher"

Today I received my “final grades” for the year from my 8th grade students, and, surprisingly, I experienced a series of different reactions to them. Initially, when I first collected the confidential teacher evaluation sheets from the students, averaged out the scores they gave me in the various categories of teaching, and saw that my overall grade was somewhere in the ‘B’ range, I was fairly shocked. After teaching for over 40 years, I can still earn only a ‘B’ for my work? In some ways, I felt like that ‘B’ was really an ‘F’ – a suggestion that I had basically failed to be a good teacher. For about an hour, I felt pretty despondent, much the way a student who receives a failing grade must feel. However, as usually happens when I quietly think things through, I soon began to take a more positive outlook on my students’ evaluations. First of all, I saw that their scores were not an attack on me, which is what I was subconsciously feeling when I first read them. I reminded myself of something I regularly forget – that what happens in my classroom is not about me, not about whether I feel like a success or a failure as a teacher. What’s important is whether learning is happening for all the students in its most efficient manner. Too often teaching becomes an “ego trip” for teachers, and I don’t ever want that to happen to me. It’s not important whether or not I feel praised or loved or appreciated by my students. What counts is the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the learning in my classroom. What the students told me today is that they think I could make some changes in some areas of my teaching. I emphasize the word “changes” because I don’t think the kids were “attacking” my teaching or suggesting that I was a flawed teacher who had to make lots of “improvements”. Again, it’s not about me. They were simply suggesting some changes in the educational process, much the way you might occasionally rearrange the furniture in your living room to see how it looks in novel patterns, how it fits the family’s needs in new ways, how it helps company feel comfortable in a different way. They were saying, “We think you’ve been a good teacher, but maybe next year you could try being good in new ways . Maybe we could all be helped by some changes.” That last statement is very important. Teaching is not about me versus the students, but about me and the students together, working as a single unit to make learning happen in its most effective way. We don’t ever need to attack each other or even be critical of each other. What we do need to do is make suggestions for changes that will help all of us – students and teacher both – grow as learners. That’s what my students did today, and I should be grateful, not despondent, for their wisdom and kindness.

A final note: I should also be grateful because these relatively mediocre grades from my students present me with a wonderful challenge for the summer and next year. If I had gotten a solid ‘A’ for my teaching, that would have left me little to be inspired about or motivated by as I begin planning my teaching for the coming year. Instead, now I have a significant mountain to climb in the next 12 months, and, like a passionate hiker, I’m “up for it”! If I thought I was already an ‘A’ teacher, I’d spend the next year, so to speak, hiking flat, boring trails in my teaching. Now, though, I’m setting off on a seriously difficult and exciting climb, thanks to my honest 8th grade students.

Another final note, written the next day: Today I received my evaluations from the 9th grade classes, and they were better -- probably close to an 'A-'. I felt like a kid who had gotten his first high grade.

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