sad teacher-moments

22 09 2004

i’ve been kvetching all day about my students’ horrible papers. i hate teachers who do that. then i came home to get back to grading, chiding myself about having that bad attitude that makes nothing better in education, and found that, in fact, the papers were much worse than my attempt at good attitude could possibly stand up to. i hate this.

i feel like the worst teacher in the entire world.

i’m not an idiot. i know enough about education to know this, at least: when everybody in the class gets the answer wrong, it’s not because they’re dumb, it’s because it’s a bad question. you throw out that question on the test. you re-write the assignment. you start over. you don’t just flunk everybody for something that was obviously poorly taught–that none of them understood. problem is, i can’t rewrite the assignment, because i didn’t write it in the first place. and other people (theoretically) get okay papers with this assignment, which means that if it’s not the students OR the assignment, it has to be me.

now, i’m not trying to say i am the worst teacher in the world. far from it. even in my most self-depricating moments i know better, because i really, really, really care. and the automatic bonus points for that blow every teacher in classrooms everywhere who doesn’t (and, sadly, there are lots of them) right out of the water. but i’m apparently terrible at teaching the ideas/skills/theories/whatever that my students needed to understand in order to succeed at this assignment. because they didn’t succeed. and i have to penalize them, because i set them to a task, and they failed to complete it. they didn’t work up to the criteria i said i would grade on. i can’t ethically change the criteria NOW, even if i were allowed to change the assignment, which i’m not. nor can i make the next assignment a matter of re-doing this one, because it’s already been written too.

what i can do: try in my comments to explain, again, what i wanted, because the kind of work i’m supposed to be seeing they’ll need to do in the next paper too; allow re-writes and be willing to put the time into re-grading the work of anyone willing to put the time into doing it over; do it better next year with next year’s batch of students (or write a new assignment, since next year i’ll be allowed); keep smiling and insisting that they’ll get it, even when, after getting grades back, their heretofore smiling faces turn into coal-eyed rocky stares of hatred and mistrust.

what i can’t do: take it back. even before i do most of the grading, i’ve betrayed and hurt them. i know it, even if they don’t. i didn’t help them enough to get them to where they could succeed at the task i set before them. i didn’t explain it right. i didn’t come up with enough good activities to lead them through the steps.

i know the 1st college paper is supposed to be a wake-up call about how it’s more demanding here and you have to learn to think differently, about how what worked in high school isn’t good enough, about how your uber-skills in the small pond are minnow-esque in the sea. i know they’re supposed to do poorly at first and get better. i know this paper is worth only 10% of their grade in this class.

i also know that their faces so far have been curious and optimistic, and that these papers, when they get them back, are going to be the first significant college grades they ever receive. i know their faces won’t ever look quite the same again–at me or anyone else. i know they’re going to doubt me, doubt themselves, doubt their ability to think and write and be expressive, intelligent humans… i hate assigning grades–to anything, but most of all to writing, and most of all to writing aimed at goals i didn’t understand well enough to steer them better towards. they trusted me. they walked where i led them. and it’s going to hurt like hell.

so, really, it’s no wonder that i’m dragging my feet here, that i’ve had these papers for 5 days and only read 5 or 6 of them–and only actually put a grade on one, a gift-D that i could justify failing, which is when i gave up for a while, closed the files, and logged into lj.

i love teaching. i really, really, really do. but god do i wish i could do it in a world without gradebooks and semester-breaks, one in which i never had to label things “unsatisfactory” but could instead say “try again,” and explain again, and know that they had as long as it took–not three weeks–to get it right, that i had as long as it took–not three weeks–to explain “collapsing the binaries” and “complicating easy generalizations” and “exploring instead of judging” and all the other things they’re expected to do for this assignment that for 12 years of schooling they’ve been driven to do exactly the opposite of.

also i feel guilty for posting anything this long when my hand already hurts from all the commenting–because when they’re this confused, i’m compelled to an awful lot of commenting–i’ve done on papers so far–and i’ve got 35 more to go. no time for pain. certainly no time to be wasting wrist-movement on personal expression. all my muscles are belong to student papers.

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7 responses

22 09 2004
mb_1978

Guilt is good in this context – I’ve heard
I know how you feel. Writing should not be graded. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it! There’s just not enough time in the semester for them to get closer to “good” and not enough time in the semester to plan and successfully carry out an upheaval of the current composition curriculum. SO – it’s not your fault. When you have the opportunity to write your own assignment and translate YOUR values freely in the classroom, then it will be a beautiful thing. For now, I’m not quite sure I even understand “collapsing the binaries,” and “complicating easy generalizations.” Man – that stuff sounds hard! You care enough to worry about it – that’s what’s important. And if it helps at all – I know exactly how you feel. Twill be ok…

22 09 2004
jules_11

preach on, sister!
and this is why i hate grades, and why mary beth and i got involved in the doomed (well, i won’t speak for mary beth, but it definitely was doomed for me!) group grading exercise last year. and why i do portfolios. so i guess my question is, since syracuse is not so flexible with their assignments and your autonomy, are they at all flexible with alternative forms of assessment? i’m in a faculty study group, examining different forms this academic year, so if i learn anything new, i’ll pass it on to you if you are, indeed, allowed to fool around with grades.
and it’s not your fault. i like to think it’s “the man’s” fault for creating grades, and thus strata, in the first place. down with the man!

23 09 2004
tyra

Re: preach on, sister!
i’ve been told “no” about portfolio grading here several times, by several different people.
still, i should ask again, since i’ve also noticed a local trend of utter inconsistency–sometimes it DOES seem to work to just keep asking until you get the answer you want to hear! maybe i can sneak in a way to not make these papers “count” at all–at least not automatically!
hmmmmmm… ::plot, plot::

23 09 2004
message_2love

you said you know their faces aren’t going to quite look the same after this – well, it’s your job to take those saddened faces and turn the underlying attitude into motivation rather than defeat. if you feel defeated yourself, how can you expect to bring them up out of their own defeat? because you also said:
i know the 1st college paper is supposed to be a wake-up call about how it’s more demanding here and you have to learn to think differently, about how what worked in high school isn’t good enough, about how your uber-skills in the small pond are minnow-esque in the sea. i know they’re supposed to do poorly at first and get better. i know this paper is worth only 10% of their grade in this class.
so this indicates to me that you know the score; you just got caught up in that inevitable first-paper-of-the year discouragement. make them realize how exciting it is that they are moving on from the mediocrity of their public school education. they are moving up and on to bigger ideas, more intense issues, more complicated explorations and explanations, etc. and it’s fabulous, and you know this so make them know it too!
you ARE an excellent, caring teacher, and I understand your discouragement, but use it as a catalyst to move your students further and challenge them. they will appreciate it. and those who fall on their faces will at least know that it was a challenge that made them fail and not a wimpy, easy-A class.
Good luck and buck up! You’re doing well, and your students will surprise you this semester, i’m sure of it! and don’t forget that your hands are tied if you are unable to create your own assignments: how can you expect yourself to fix all of the problems created by your department?
I’m sending you huggy vibes…

23 09 2004
susanmarie

I echo all of the above. Your job now is to tell them what *is* working in these papers, to put examples of the good moves up on that overhead, and help them turn the corner! Go, Tyra, go! Yea!!

23 09 2004
frznfishstick

sorry…was trolling through Threnodyeris friends list and saw this one.
Why not give them a chance to re-write the paper then? If the comments aren’t followed or they don’t have some sort of conversation with you either in person or in email, then you really will have covered all bases and perhaps might feel better about the whole thing?
I’m a (brand-newly-hired-with-no-certificate high school teacher) – my goal is going to be to have students have the opportunity to try again. But like you said, it takes a lot of time to comment on papers (maybe that’s why I never felt like I was getting enough feedback from my profs. By the time they got to mine, they had been at it for ages).
Anyway, good luck.

23 09 2004
tyra

you don’t have to be sorry! 🙂
i’m going to try to give chances for rewrites. i haven’t figured out exactly what the policy is on that around here, b/c here at my school we’re very cautious about actually committing to policies, for reasons i don’t understand. if i can do rewrites, i’ll work them in (but i’d much rather make the rewrites BE the next legitimate work they do, which i can’t have happen, rather than making it extra work–looks too much like i’m punishing them for my incoherence then!). if i can’t, i might sneak them in and call them something else!!! 🙂
i love the idea of you not getting enough comments on your papers, only because it seems so foreign and ideal–a student who wants to hear more?!? most of my fellow teachers and i feel like we should comment less but just can’t help ourselves, and we despair that most of our students don’t read our comments anyway but just flip to the grades at the end. you’re giving me hope–thanks!!!

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