My Own Grades So Far? Three Fs (Sort of)

I’m a bit late in posting this reflection for the month of September, but a little over a month into the school year, I was feeling as though I deserved three Fs:

–          one F for feeling like a First-year teacher

–          one F for feeling like a Failure, and

–          one F for feeling like a Fraud.

I was probably being too hard on myself, but that’s how I operate.

You see, this year has very much been a process of adjustment for me. Although I’ve kept my sections of American history (which are going very well overall), I’m also teaching Western Civ for the first time, which is why I feel like a first-year teacher. In a way that I haven’t done since my “rookie season,” I’ve expended considerable energy just to “keep ahead” of what I’m teaching. So far, so good, but feeling like a first-year teacher in my fifth year has made me feel like a failure. I’m supposed to have it all figured out by now, right? I guess not.

What really bothered me, though, was the third F: feeling like a Fraud.

Because I’m teaching Western Civ for the first time, I’ve found myself relying on a lot of old teacher tricks: multiple choice quizzes, traditional grades, etc. In other words, I’m using methods that I don’t necessarily agree with as a crutch, simply because I don’t know the material as well as I feel I should—certainly not as well as I know American history.

I’ve also found myself thinking things (e.g., “some of these kids just don’t seem motivated”) that I don’t generally believe. I tend to believe that if students aren’t motivated, that’s at least in part a failure of the teacher to present the material in an interesting way. Because I haven’t taught the class before, though, I haven’t had a chance to really figure out what sorts of questions or issues motivate students. I’m just starting to get a very vague sense, and I think things are slowly getting better, but in the meantime, I’ve found myself wanting to blame my students for my own failures. That’s a tough thing to admit to myself, let alone to the world (as if anyone reads this).

After talking with my Outward Bound Educators Initiative mentor (more on that some other time), though, it occurs to me that there is probably a lot of learning going on in this situation—on my end as well as theirs. As I described some of my concerns to him, Michael pointed out that my “comfort zone” in Western Civ is much smaller than my comfort zone in American history. He basically gave me permission to not incorporate the classroom community-building techniques we learned in that class, given that I already seem to be well into my “stretch zone.”

Thanks. And good point. I’m adjusting to a new course with new content, as well as a new grade level with new developmental expectations. Maybe I should be willing to let go of some things and just deal with my discomfort on those levels.

From my students’ perspective, I’m asking them to take responsibility for their own learning—to play an active role in the acquisition and application of knowledge. For many of them, especially those who are accustomed to more passive learning environments, that’s getting into their “stretch” (or maybe even “panic”) zones. Like me, they blame the other party (i.e., me), but as teenagers, they’re less discreet in their frustration. In class, I’ve seen eye rolls and heard heavy sighs and under-the-breath remarks. Outside of class, I was hearing about much grumbling to friends and advisors.

So, a week or so ago, we spent an entire class period hashing things out. More accurately, I spent an entire class period soliciting their input on why the class was frustrating them and what they would change if they could. I tried to make it clear upfront that although I valued their opinions and suggestions, I could not promise that their requests would be honored.

It was an interesting day. Put succinctly, most of the students who spoke up seemed to be saying (in not so many words, and probably without realizing it) that they needed more structure, and a smaller number seemed to be saying that what they really wanted was the passive, teacher-centered environment that they’ve grown accustomed to. I made it clear that although I would consider the request for more structure, I was firm in my commitment to fostering independence.

After thinking through those conversations over the weekend, I brainstormed a list of minor changes that I’m going to be implementing. Most of them are attempts to have students create more structure for themselves. My hope is that these changes will be a win-win; students will get more structure, and they will also do the work to create it.

I’m feeling better about the classes already, and what I’m most proud of is the way I’ve acknowledged my shortcomings and tried to learn from them. I didn’t really think of it this way at the time, but on reflection, I hope that I’m successfully modeling a positive approach to failure, the same thing that I spoke about in my convocation address at the start of the year.

I have to acknowledge, though, that it hasn’t been an easy thing. I feel as though I’ve been fighting against old authoritarian habits that are shared (I think) by many teachers. It has crossed my mind that to admit fault is to “weaken oneself” in the eyes of the students—a corollary to the old saw for first year teachers about not smiling until Thanksgiving. (Although I didn’t follow this advice, I did once accept its wisdom. Today, though, I tend to believe in a different cliché: “Until they know how much you care, they won’t care how much you know.”) I’ve had to work to let go of the notion that “strength” is the most important stance I can present in the classroom.

On a more positive note, there is one thing I have done well in my Western Civ classes. I’ve worked hard to implement formative assessments and use that information to shape my own instruction, particularly for writing. I gave two short, ungraded writing assignments, and I encouraged students to revise them. Both of these influenced my instruction leading up to our first graded essay, and all in all, the results were pretty good. When I compare them with what I’ve seen from my American history students (a year older and honors-level), I’m pretty impressed. Unfortunately, I made some assumptions about the skills that I could expect from my 11th grade honors students, and I didn’t do as much to prepare them for the assignment. I now see that I should have–but luckily, they too will have the opportunity to revise and learn from their mistakes. Just like me. And that is the value of formative assessment.

So, all in all, I’d have to say that my progress report probably wasn’t good, but I think my grades are already starting to climb.

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