Grades and Empathy

My students are just finishing their last rounds of state-mandated testing. Many of them are burnt and fried. It’s just too much testing all at once, especially for the sophomores at my school. For my tests the results are mixed.

I fall under the auspices of something called Student Learning Objectives (SLO) under the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES). I have to create a test that is to represent a years worth of material and administer a pre-test and post-test to show growth. Since the test is practically identical, much of the material is new to the students. To encourage students to take the tests seriously, we are allowed in our district to use the SLO as an exam grade.

Without the threat looming of exam grades, the only consequence SLOs had was teacher evaluations. To put it another way, the test wasn’t necessarily a measure of student ability, but of teacher quality, or in the case of most SLOs, teacher test writing ability.

Most of my SLOs are completed and the grades are mixed. Overall though, I feel that they are too low to use as an exam score that would accurately reflect what was accomplished during the year. So why are the scores so low? I think there are three factors in play.

First, students just flat out forget a large quantity of the information they are presented with throughout the year. I have read psychology research, cognitive load theory, and numerous other theories as to why this occurs. I believe there appears to be debate about whether instructional practices or student attitudes account for this phenomenon, but either way it exists. Our students just forget so much stuff.

Second, so much of math instruction is perceived to be this, whether it actually is or not.

What happens is that students freak out and have borderline panic attacks when problems don’t match the memorized examples from class. Students who normally volunteer information and come up with some of the best ideas in class shut down when the assessed problems don’t match their memorized examples.

Third, my usual assessment format does not require to students to be as attentive to precision as they should be. The multiple choice format SLO I gave requires precision regarding negative signs and arithmetic. My usual assessment rewards creativity at the expense of precision.

So why are the scores so poor? The first problem, students just forgetting, I think that is something that is only minimally impacted by teachers. I can encourage, I can try and provoke, but if students won’t authentically engage with the material learning will not last. The second problem I think I usually do rather well with, or at least with the grade obsessed students. My reading through pseudoteaching has really changed the approach I use to the presentation of my lessons. I have adopted a less is more approach in my lesson presentations, emphasizing that the work done in class only illustrates concepts and that can be applied in many different scenarios. And I am pretty happy with aspect of my assessments as my students have become more flexible and adaptable in new mathematical situations.

But the third reason why I think the grades are low, the precision, is something I need to change. In the multiple choice section of the SLO, I noticed that many students had the concept down, they were just making procedural errors. That means, to some extent that the low scores are my fault. Every year I keep saying I will, but because my open ended assessment reward creativity more than precision, it is ultimately empty rhetoric. I don’t want to just dump my current assessment as I am happy with the outcomes. I was able to use the students attachment to grades to make them be more mathematically creative. I think I can do the same by using some multiple answer assessments throughout the year. It would force the students to become more accustomed to mathematical accuracy and lingo.

Now back to the original purpose of this post, curving grades. I have never felt the urge to curve grades like I have this year. I also never realized there were different ways to curve grades. In past years I have felt that the exam scores accurately represented my students knowledge of math. As I have interacted with these students over the course of one to three years I have a pretty accurate representation of their mathematical potential regardless of their specific exam score. This year I had a couple of students perform much more poorly than I expected and much of that performance is based upon my not training them well enough to handle the precision of a multiple choice exam, hence my urge to curve the grades. So here is a list of all the questions and dilemmas running through my head.

  • While I have sympathy for those students who engaged fully throughout the year and want to take blame for their poor performance, I have a handful of students that have so effectively tuned me out that I really don’t feel the need to curve their grades. In a way I want those students to suffer the consequence of lacking authentic engagement, which in this case would be a drop of a letter grade or possibly two. For clarification, none of them would be in danger of failing, just GPA reduction.
  • I thought about applying the curve to only those students who have shown effort throughout the year, but I revolt at that for two reasons. One, I despise effort grades. Two, if I pick and choose which grades to inflate it ultimately renders the concept of an exam mute.
  • I realize that much of my desire or lack of desire to curve is based upon which math class students are in. I have more sympathy in my required courses (Algebra 2) and less sympathy in our elective courses (Pre-Calc).
  • I have a couple of curve breakers whose scores are high enough that it renders the curve pointless for my low scoring students.
  • I really don’t want to put my students through another exam. I don’t want to take the time to make another exam. It rewards those students who didn’t take the SLO seriously enough the first time around knowing that there is potential for another exam.
  • If I give another exam it punishes the students who did well on the SLO.
  • If I let the students just keep the higher of the two scores, why stop at just two? Why not give the students three, four, or even more opportunities? And if I give them endless opportunities isn’t it really just like me determining their grades subjectively?
  • At the end of the day my students did well enough to help ensure my job security (met SLO growth targets). Well, most of them. I think there were a couple that really want to get me fired. Is it wrong that I want to somehow manipulate the grades in a way that either rewards, or at least doesn’t harm my students grades?
  • I really, really want their input. However, I want their input in a manner that takes into account more than their individual grade, which I feel most  are capable of doing. I do fear the implicit pressure placed upon me to “control” my class and that requesting feedback from students is empowering them too much.

Isn’t it nice that grading is so simple.

Bell Curving My Students

There have been several questions on my mind lately, but a general theme has occurred on four separate occasions during the past two weeks.

  1. A student just blatantly asked if I actually like my students, as if his interactions with his teachers has lead him to believe that we teachers hate students.
  2. A student admitted that she feels like all of her teachers don’t respect her.
  3. In a conversation with a student I admitted that I will miss her after graduation.
  4. While planning reward activities at my school I get the distinct impression that some teachers do not want to interact with students outside of their academic comfort zone.

I don’t think I want to address each of the last four statements individually, but I would like to address the concept that is at play here, which would be, “how I think about the student-teacher relationship.”

Before I go too far into the details, let me say that I have always considered myself a generalist (though I have been failing at that lately). What that means for me is that the well-being and flourishing of the student should always come first, with math being the tool that I have been given to use. With maybe that being said, maybe this next part will be a little more comprehensible.

Since I am a math teacher let me bell curve my interpretation of the student teacher relationship.

Standard_deviation_diagram.svg The students that sit out beyond -3σ, that 0.1%, those students are the ones that I find truly detestable. These students are so few and far between that in ten years of teaching I can count them on one hand.

The students that lie between -3σ and -1σ, or 15.7%, I am a tolerable polite with those students.

One standard deviation in either direction, or -1σ to 1σ, or the vast majority of my students I am genuinely interested in their lives. I want to know how other classes are going. Are they looking for work? I want to know how the basketball game went because of this middle 68.2%, but my relationship with these students is strictly defined around school activities. The only thing that separates them is the mean of zero, which to me defines whether I initiate contact with the student or just participate with them after they initiate.

The 1σ to 2σ group, the 13.6% of my students, are the reason that I go to basketball games, musicals, concerts, etc. They are the reason that my date nights with my wife so often involve other people’s kids. Though I view my relationship with these students is still defined by a school environment, I view my compassion and caring through the lens of being a fellow human being more than that of a teacher and student.

Those students in the last two groups, the 2σ and beyond, the 2.1% and the 0.1%, those students are the ones that I want to become involved in their lives. I want to know where they want to go to college and how I can help them succeed. I want to know where they are five years after they have graduated. These are the students that I feel that I can wash away the line that demarcates the teacher-student relationship, to the point that I don’t have to worry about censoring myself. Being so connected to these is what allows me to be precisely the most effective teacher I can be.  These are the students that I will genuinely miss seeing them on a daily basis. These are the students that actually make me look forward to class. These are the students that I look back on with regret, thinking that I could have done more to push them to reach and surpass their potential.

But that last group the 3σ, once again a group that I could count on one hand over ten years of teaching, that represents the students that I miss or will miss the most. Those are the group that make me question the teacher-student relationship because that small group represents the group that I wish I could call friends, if not for the societal stigma of a teacher and student being friends.

So, after all that, back to the original list.

  1. Yes, I do like the vast majority of my students. It’s also the reason why I wish they would take more classes with me.
  2. I feel so empathetic to this student. It is precisely this empathy that usually starts to bridge a connectedness that makes the student teacher relationship so much more effective. I just don’t know how to address it in the middle of class.
  3. Well, I guess this student could figure out where she ranks in my hierarchy of students.
  4. This is why I like planning reward activities. It gives me a chance to hopefully interact with my students on a personal level, especially depending on which ones sign up.

Well, that’s how I think about my students. I just wish I was allowed the freedom to interact with them in a more humane manner instead of treating school like a gigantic information transfer.


Why I Hate College…in High School

The push for college has grown to epic proportions, even since the 15 years it has been since I have been in high school. We inundate our students with message after message about going to college. We show statistic after statistic about how much college degree holders earn. At the same time we hear more and more stories about unemployed and underemployed college graduates. When a student will take the step to be forthcoming and tell us what path through college they want to take we often will respond with, “what are you going to do with that?”

We tell our students anecdotal stories about how pointless general education courses are in college. Why should I have to take X if I am going to do Y? We also hear how some of the general education courses can cause students who are capable of becoming productive members of a profession to drop out of college altogether. The only logical reason for general education courses for many students is to rationalize them as a sort of categorizer. We rationalize that the purpose of general education courses is to weed out the weak minded.

Some communities apply pressure to their children to get into the right school. They are worried about the brand that is attached to a degree.

Students in my community are under a different kind of pressure, cost.

Students chasing brand schools sacrifice happiness, and even health, in an effort to obtain that label. They want to be able to say, ” I am a Harvard graduate.” They want that elite label without having to be concerned without embracing the qualities that made that institution elite in the first place. Money isn’t the object here, it’s status.

I get the distinct impression that at my school students aren’t chasing the brand so much as the label of being a college graduate. They seek out the path of least resistance, usually in terms of lowest cost. Best case scenarios would be a path that would allow for the lowest cost and lowest effort. Our society has created an economy that has credentialed out many middle income professions to high school graduates. As more students enroll in college to gain access to decent paying jobs a gap in academic skills was noticed, which then led to the ever increasing push to have ever increasing academic standards since good jobs required college.

Those standards increased to the point where we as society felt that wide swath of high school students are adequately prepared for college and that spending extra time in high school doing busy work was unfair, hence the rise of College Credit Plus (CCP). CCP allows students to obtain for college classes which are taught on campus, online, or at the high school by qualified teachers. I see many detriments to CCP. The main selling point behind CCP is that students will save money when they eventually enroll in a four-year university because of all the general education courses they have taken. While I will freely admit there are students who would benefit from this program, I feel that there are far too many variables involved to broadly advertise CCP to the entire 7-12 student population.

As a teacher, since I am not qualified to teach CCP, I feel pressured to become qualified so that students would could take more math classes at the high school rather than taking them online or on campus at the local community college. Right now my schedule includes teaching upper level math, math that would normally be college level in content, but because I can’t offer college credit to students, they might choose to take their advanced math at the community college and get the credit. No one has ever directly stated that I need to go get CCP qualified, but when students are encouraged to take math else where that means that there are fewer math students for me. And if my classes can’t be filled I become unnecessary and can be let go.

In my upper level classes, Common Core provides leeway on what specific topics get covered. Because the upper level maths don’t have a state mandated end of course exam, I have the freedom to widely adapt the pacing to my students abilities. When it comes to the process of teaching I have to worry about local evaluations and OTES, but I have been allotted professional discretion when determining the content of my class. If I were to become CCP qualified I would lose the last vestige of my control, the content. My cooperating college would determine the pacing and assessments. As much as I want to the job security of CCP, I don’t know if I am willing to sacrifice my autonomy for it.

What really bothers me though doesn’t have to do with CCP, it is about the students. Every time students chooses CCP over my class they are essentially telling me that I have nothing left to offer them. Best case scenario, a student that takes CCP over my class is telling me that they are willing to sacrifice my class to potentially save about $600. In other words, students that sacrifice the college credit are telling me that whatever it is that I offer, it is more meaningful than $600.

I know not every student is going to like me or want to take class with me. That should be a given understanding of anyone who takes up the teaching profession. I do not have an issue with a student who wants to take math someplace else simply because of a personality conflict.

Where CCP is concerned, it forces students to make an economic decision regarding my value as an educator.I am worth about $600. My identity as an educator is being prostituted. As the deadline for my CCP application draws near I feel like I am caught in some horrible sting operation.

I feel so dirty.

Hit By a Student

I have a bruise on my arm right now. It is a small bruise, not very deep, barely any coloration. Probably will be gone in a day or two, but it is still there.

Why am I so excited about a bruise?

Because it was given to me by a student.

I am the kind of teacher that is happy that he was hit by a student. This blog started as a place to be reflective, and I think it finally has had that effect. My post from a couple of days ago lamented that I have lost the solidarity that I used to have in class with my students. Losing that solidarity made me a worse teacher. I vowed to try and get it back. Though it has only been a day, I believe I did a good job creating that solidarity today. How do I know?

I treated my students like human beings today. I relented some of my pressure and allowed them to dictate the pace of class to some extent. There was down time. There were moments where they were off task. There were moments where I was off task. There were moments where we were both engaged in learning. But for the first time in a long time, it felt like the engagement was authentic rather than some sort of complacency. I have difficulty describing the intricate details between authentic engagement and complacency, but I can vouch for the difference in feeling between the two.

And there’s that bruise. I received it when I made a disparaging comment about a student. Not a horribly mean, bullying comment, but the kind of good natured joking that can occur between friends, family, and acquaintances. You know, how human beings treat other human beings. I was then met with a human response, a swift slap in the arm. Instead of gasps and stunned silence, the rest of the class laughed. I need to work on cultivating that atmosphere again because that is what I had lost. My interaction today was not as teacher talking to students, but just as a person talking to other people on equal footing.

A student hit me today. It was best day I’ve had in a long time. How was your’s?

Searching for a Purpose

I have been very unhappy with myself lately. While Googling ideas on ways to discuss leadership I came across an entry written by Morgan Guyton.  What he is describing is that vulnerability and leadership can go hand in hand. In a way, leadership can come from the weak and meek. As I read through more of his posts I realized that for the past two years I have been missing the solidarity that I used to have with my students on a regular basis. Every now and then I get a sense that solidarity has come back, but too often it feels like we are separate, like I am living and working in an “us”  and “them” kind of environment.

When I started blogging again I stated that it would be for my own benefit. The whole purpose was to be about reflection. And if OTES doesn’t think that writing about my teaching at 1:27 AM on April 13 doesn’t count as reflection, I don’t know what does.  As I sit here and reflect, I think I lost my sense of purpose. I feel like I have become a teacher I really never wanted to be. I know what I am doing (teaching math), I know how I do that (I use whiteboarding, but there are many different methods), but I feel like I have lost my reason for why. I teach math, the concepts and procedures, but at the end of the day it just feels so empty and shallow.

I feel that as teachers, we continually hear and use rhetoric about the actions we take in school are “in the best interest” of the students. But what always bothered me was that rarely were the students consulted about their “best interest.” It always felt like that “best interest” was just an empty justification thrown around by teachers, administrators, and parents. I am not trying to portray the people behind Common Core, or any other educational fad as self-serving, maniacal, ego-maniacs, but no matter how sincere the belief behind “best interest,” it really isn’t. Our students are unique in so many ways and when they get aggregatized to the extent of most “best interest” initiatives, they lose their uniqueness, leaving many involved on the front lines of education feeling jaded. When our new initiatives don’t work, we then blame the students.

That’s where I am right now.  A couple of years ago I felt much more accomplished as a teacher. It’s not that my methods have drastically changed, they haven’t. Grades and test scores are pretty similar. But now when I go home at the end of the day I don’t feel like I have accomplished anything. Right now I don’t know why I am here. I know I teach math, but why? Right now, I feel like I am an employee at a prison. Right now, I feel like I have otherized my students. Right now, I feel like I have made them a “them.” As long as I am not “them” I am free to blame “them” for the shortcomings of the classroom.

Right now I’ve made my classroom about my methods, my philosophies, and my math. When I started the process of changing my methods and philosophies a couple of years ago, it wasn’t because they were special, but it was because I decided to make a couple of students my priority. This revelation occurred because for the first time I made myself vulnerable to my students. I made myself emotionally vulnerable to my students. I stopped being the arrogant, pompous, self-righteous, sanctimonious, authority teacher I was and confessed that all I really am was a lost asshole of a human being.

When I admitted that to my class, albeit a class of two, I was met with grace, sympathy, and understanding. If the two guys in class had every opportunity to crush my spirit and destroy it, but instead met me with a feeling of solidarity. I slowly began morphing my teaching to improve the learning in my class and over the course of two and a half years. I would be the first to admit that there are aspects of my class that are entirely unconventional. My purpose had shifted from teaching math to being more student focused. I wanted to become the teacher that inspires students to free themselves of the shackles of intellectual servitude that is often experienced in school. I know I can complete this purpose, I have in the past. (Beyond my intuition, I keep a thank you that a student wrote me a couple of years ago. I read it when I need an emotional lift after a rough day.)

I know I can accomplish my goal, but I think that my priorities were misplaced. Changing my methods didn’t change my outcomes, it was changing my mindset. When I made myself vulnerable I felt a solidarity with my students that I think I have lost. I have become an asshole again. My teaching isn’t really about them, it’s about me. I need to reclaim that solidarity because when there is genuine solidarity in a classroom it can be like a sanctuary of grace during a hectic day.

Bad Images of School Spirit

For the past two weeks I have been trying write about how I view the concept of school spirit. It seems like the topic has come up in discussions at staff meetings and even among the students themselves. Every time that I have tried to write I have come up with some kind of imagery that I was going to use an analogy to describe school spirit. At first it was a tripod, then a pyramid. Even a Russian nesting doll came into consideration. Think about that for a second.

The Nesting Doll of School Spirit….ugh, what a waste.

I keep trying to write and I keep second guessing myself because no matter what I use I always feel like I am missing the point. When I feel like I miss the point I feel like I am contributing to the problem rather than solving the problem.

We have brainstormed ideas on activities and many of them sound really neat. I would be excited to try some of them. But I think what we are doing is backwards. The practices that represent a positive school spirit only manifest themselves in the correct environment. And that is where we don’t focus our attention enough. It is the reason that our all of our activities ultimately feel shallow and contrived rather than being authentic. School spirit requires an emotional investment, but we haven’t created an environment where that emotional investment can thrive.

In the post linked above, the author talks about the professional relation between the staff and students. A successful, spirited, supportive school can only exist when there is a collectiveness between the major stakeholders in the school. Students to students, students to staff, staff to staff, it all needs create a cycle that builds a mindset of us. The intrinsic nature of the educational system we live with though, tends to push us apart. We form cliques. Students group themselves by GPAs, extracurriculars, and different career paths. Staff divides themselves into departments, coaches, classified vs. certified, just to name a few. Our schools do not represent an opportunity to unite, but instead drive us apart. When we are driven apart our leaders tend to divide us into groups that suits their own self-interested pursuits and wonder why their followers revolt or resist.

Once we are driven apart we aren’t under any obligation to view our peers, colleagues, students, teachers, and administration as people. We can assign them traits that we would never ascribe to ourselves. We don’t think of them as us, but rather they are something other. We otherize people. As teachers we create assignments, give grades, and demand obedience that we would never wish upon us. As administrators we create rules and climates that are the furthest thing from being warm and inviting. As students we continually tune out teachers, ignore and belittle their effort, and worship credentials rather than knowledge. Our schools have created an environment where we live by the adage, “what have you done for me lately?” If those others won’t give us what we want, well screw them. We hand out detentions and suspensions, give out low grades, assign more homework. We leave to take classes online, take classes at the community college, just flat out skip school. Then we justify our actions by claiming that they deserved it.

We do all of those thing because it provides a barrier that protects us. Until we are willing to be vulnerable in front of each other, we will always have an unsafe environment that will never be supportive, collaborative, learning environment. (On a personal note, I really think that I have been struggling with the vulnerability side the past two years.) When we are vulnerable we place our self-confidence, our self-image in others. When we are vulnerable we inherently trust each other. As a teacher, when I am vulnerable, I am trusting my students to not ridicule me and tear me down. As a student, when I am vulnerable, I am trusting my teachers with my self-esteem. If that trust and vulnerability are mutual we become emotionally invested in each other. Once we are authentically invested in each other, then, and only then, can we begin to build the activities that appear to create a positive school spirit.

Until we learn to give a crap, our culture will be crap.