(Hi newbies! I expect this post to be highly controversial. But my mission at the moment is to help teachers, so I wrote this advice, which I view as good for teachers and regrettable for America. Please pass this on. I think my observations will be true in many schools and districts — and fortunately untrue in many others — so I want new teachers especially to see this post.)
To go back to a line from my previous post, picked up in a past professional development:
A “D” is a coward’s “F.”
That line resonated with me. The issue’s trickier than one might think at first glance. In this time when teachers are often held responsible for student learning, virtually without regard for the characteristics of the students in their classrooms, that “F” can come back to bite a teacher, especially if parents storm the bastion of administration.
I hate this piece of advice. I don’t like to give advice that might compromise someone’s integrity. But here it is: Be very careful about passing out those “F” grades. Sometimes you may want to take the coward’s way out if you are a new teacher — or if you are an experienced teacher under a new principal.
That “D” is likely to fly mostly below the radar. Parents usually know if their kid has been doing a schlock job academically and they will rarely fight a passing grade in this circumstance. As soon as a kid moves below passing, though, the firestorm may start. Trouble will likely begin when dad or mom asks Freddie about his grade.
“How could you fail social studies?” (Freddie’s on the spot now.)
“The teacher never teaches anything,” he replies. “She just shows slides and stuff but she never explains.”
“Did you ask her to explain?”
“I try, but she never answers my questions. She does not like me.”
The conversation will keep spinning from there, as Freddie attempts to avoid taking personal responsibility for not having done his work or studied for his tests. Freddie may succeed in convincing his parents that YOU are the reason he failed, especially if Freddie has just started failing classes. Some parents will always take their kids’ sides regardless of the facts. If Freddie failed to turn in thirteen out of twenty assignments, those parents will blame you for not having somehow forced Freddie to do the work.
Kids who are on track in elementary school sometimes fall off the track in middle school or high school, overwhelmed by organizational and academic issues. Many kids in our system have been passed on and passed on despite poor work until they have fallen years behind other, academically stronger peers. These kids have a track record of passing classes. If suddenly they are failing YOUR class, that grade can be viewed as a mark against you.
It’s not fair. It’s not smart on the part of administration, either. But too many “F” grades may reflect poorly on you, especially when the administration does not know you yet. When Freddie’s parents start criticizing you in front of the principal, you have a problem, no matter how diligently you have been working.
I am not saying to never give a well-deserved “F.” If you do fail a student, though, be sure you can document your reasons. If you have too many “F” grades at semester’s end, talk to older, experienced colleagues about the likely ramifications of giving those grades. If allowed, you may wish to tweak the gradebook, upping the percentage given to homework, for example. In desperate circumstances, when the gradebook percentages are fixed, you may wish to design a test to pull up overall percentages.
I’d love to see more integrity in the grading process. Why do we have so many illiterate and innumerate students? Because we keep passing them when they don’t know the year’s material! But I have also seen colleagues suffer for their attempts to stick to their principles. In this time when teachers tend to get the blame for students’ poor performance, clueless administrators may view your lower grades as documentation of your lower performance. That view may color your evaluation and even affect your retention.
Tip #17.5: When a kid starts to struggle academically, be sure to phone and email home. Keep a record of those contacts. As a teacher, you want those parents to help you with your efforts as you try to fix any deteriorating situation. You want them to check on the homework and be sure some studying happens before the test. Also, you SO do not want parents to go to the Principal and say, “We had no idea he was doing badly.”
Tip #17.75: Keep samples of Freddie’s work. Keep all tests and quizzes, Copy particularly poor work examples that might otherwise be thrown away after papers are handed back. This tip argues for portfolios, but you cannot trust Freddie to put substandard papers in that portfolio. If you end up in a grade dispute, those papers may prove invaluable. Besides, you will want to discuss Freddie’s work when his parents (hopefully) come in for conferences.