Contact the Author |

13 May

Sometimes, a moment in history is so important, so all impacting, so all encompassing, that it gives us a moment to teach huge groups, even generations, important lessons that will serve them for all time.  This corona pandemic is definitely one of those historic moments.  Because of it, we had a chance to teach virtually every student important lessons about self-discipline, about pride in work, and about getting the job done even if it was a bit harder than planned.

And we royally screwed it up.

As a country, we seem to be more focused on having our students feel safe and secure than actually teaching them.  You don’t learn good lessons when you are comfortable.  Learning comes from feeling safe to make mistakes, but challenged and out of your comfort zone. 

Lots of districts have recently published their grading procedures in this unprecedented time as school years wind down.  This is the message I was hoping for across the country: “Doctors are doing their part; nurses are doing their part, truck drivers are doing their part, your teachers are doing their part; YOUR PART is to help out at home and do your work.”

I didn’t get it.

Instead, most districts are taking a what they ironically call a “do no harm,” approach, meaning that these fourth quarter grades won’t really count for much.  (I applaud my district for being a little tougher; we are allowed to mark a student down for not participating, but we can’t fail them.  The worst they can get is a No Credit, which doesn’t hurt their GPA and they have to retake the course.)  While they may preserve the students’ grades, I argue they are definitely harming the student.

I don’t fault my district or my superintendent. As a teacher in his district, I will do my best to follow his guidance and grade according to this policy, because I’m a good troop and good troops follow the boss’s orders.   I’m sure the district received guidelines from the state Board of Ed, and I absolutely applaud my principal, who has given his teachers great latitude in how they implement distance learning policies, including the grading policy.   Finally, I also recognize that not having gone to teacher school I may be missing some educational tidbit here that makes this all understandable, and if that’s the case, someone please explain it to me so I can stop pulling out what’s left of my hair. 

This just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

As you may have heard, I teach Navy Junior ROTC.  We are all about accountability and responsibility; most of the time we get that with positive leadership (the proverbial “carrot,”) but there is sometimes a “stick” in the form of consequences.  Low grades, loss of rank, loss of billet, etc.  Even during distance learning, we have been enforcing the same standards, just taking into account the necessary changes that the new environment requires.  After a few difficult weeks, we were seeing some success.  Cadets were off the learning curve, knew what to expect, and were “getting the hang of it.”  And then they all got a letter from the district saying, “don’t worry, if you don’t do your work and fail, it won’t hurt you.”

As you can tell, I don’t agree.

I’m not heartless.  Distance learning is tough and many of my students are saddled with extra responsibilities at home like cooking or taking care of siblings.  My teaching partner and I know that, and  we have bent over backwards by accepting late work, having generous due dates, and even excusing them from assignments, provided they communicated with us.  They make the effort, and we work it out.  But many of the policies regarding grading across the country are rewarding those that don’t make the effort with a free pass and no consequences.  Sorry, the world doesn’t work that way.

Put aside the fact that I wore a Navy uniform for 24 years, and a Catholic school uniform for twelve years prior to that (I get it, I’m pretty conservative and I follow rules).  I’m really scared that we have taken a whole bunch of high school and middle school students and told them “it’s okay if you don’t do what you are supposed to, someone will make it go away.”  

I predict that next school year is going to be a train wreck across the country.  In a lot of districts, homework in middle school is already considered blasphemous (it’s assigned, but often does not have to be completed).  When this year’s “graduate” eighth graders show up to high school, look out.  Never mind their social awkwardness and genuine freshmen goofiness; most of them will not have been held to much of an academic standard for at least four months.  They are going to be woefully behind, and with discipline and academic policies across the nation more worried about upsetting parents and less concerned about making students perform, they are going to stay behind.  And then there’s this year’s freshmen, many of whom were just starting to figure out that they actually needed to do work in high school to succeed when the “don’t worry about it” life ring was thrown.  This year’s seniors get a real bonus; they get to take their lesson learned of “when life gets hard, the standards get lowered” out into the real world, which might just promptly bitch-slap them and send them back to their mommies, headed for a future of bouncing from job to job until something “feels right.”  Let’s hope their parents don’t mind feeding them until they are 30.

That doesn’t sound like we “did no harm.”

Next year I, along with my fellow teachers and administrators, will do our best to pick up the pieces and try to teach the lessons society should have taught this year. We will do so in the hopes that our students won’t be too badly damaged by all of this, but we should have never gone down this road.  Why not make them feel safe but challenged?  Give them something that stretches and pushes them, but with a safety net so that if they fail they can try again?  Why take away the impetus to even try? 

I’m old and I’m retired and I have a steady pension so I won’t pay much of the bill for this, but someone will, and it’s going to be ugly.  We had a chance to do some real teaching here, and we blew it. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.