This year I have been thinking a lot about grades. In Ontario, we have the Growing Success document that tells us what we can and cannot do when determining student grades, but I find parts of it to be a little ridiculous, especially when it comes to grades 7-12. For these years, we are expected to evaluate students based on levels of achievement, but then convert that level into a percentage for report cards. For parents who never experienced this as a student, it is very confusing! If we aren’t supposed to evaluate using percentages, why report with them?
For my part, I have been moving away from grades. Occasionally if students have a finished, published work, I will give them a mark, but mostly I have been giving them feedback. In part, this is because my students generally really don’t care what their marks are. In part, I don’t feel like any grade is final until the year is over and there’s no time left. If a student wants to take some of their own time, solidify their learning, and demonstrate their increased understanding, I take it! I make notes along the way, but try to use it more to plan next steps than anything else. My question is this: is what I’m doing good for my students? Is there a way to meet my aforementioned goals in another way? Are there any Ontario people who have done away with marks altogether? How does that work?
It has been almost a month, maybe more, since I had time to write a blog. A lot has happened in that time, but tonight, as I have time to finally put thoughts to words again, I can’t help but reflect on my job as a whole. In the last month, I have been humbled in ways I never knew possible. I have to admit that this is my first real experience teaching elementary. It doesn’t really feel like my first experience because I have been occasional teaching so long, but I haven’t had my own elementary class before so in many ways I am still a rookie.
It blows my mind the amount of impact that I can have on a child’s life and future. Each day, something happens to remind me of this:
- the autistic child who comes up to me in the hall, gives me a hug, and tells me that he thinks I am a really great teacher, a child for whom expressing his feelings is difficult
- the students who, upon hearing my story of bullying and how you get through it and it gets better, look visibly relieved and optimistic in a way they often don’t
- the student who didn’t want to do a language project, but then can’t wait for language because the light bulb went on and he just needs to tell the story in his head
- the students who light up and ask dozens of great questions every time you teach them something about life beyond their small town
There are so many of these types of moments, that I can’t help but smile on a daily basis. Teaching, and learning from my students, is an unbelievable privilege that I am so fortunate to have.
On the flip side, I am also humbled by the reminders of all the ways in which I am a fallible human being. I can put all kinds of structural, emotional, and academic supports in place, I can go above and beyond to give students everything that they should need to be successful, but I can’t make them learn. I can’t make them behave appropriately. If they are having a bad day and there is stuff going on at home and they didn’t get their medication, they might explode no matter what I do. I struggle all the time with how to balance keeping the students who need it safe, while trying to keep the students who need to be apart away from each other in our tiny, overcrowded classrom, while trying to meet the needs of 23 IEPs (Individual Education Plans) out of 31 students. It can be exhausting! And exasperating on days where several of them are having difficulty with self-regulation.
I am humbled because no matter how hard I try, I can’t possibly give each student everything they need to succeed. What one student needs conflicts with what another needs, most of them would benefit from one-on-one attention, many of them would benefit from mental health support, and I am only one person (or rather we are two with my EA, but it’s still not enough). Some days it hurts that I can’t do more. I know it could be worse, but I want what’s best for my students, and they deserve more than what I can give them.
So on a day like today, where I have had the privilege to experience both the unbelievably amazing moments of teaching along with the exasperating moments of teaching, I am reminded of my goal of balance. My days do have some weird sort of balance of highs and lows. This is my weekend to rediscover some life balance. I finally have some time to reflect and plan forward. I finally have some time to get active again. I finally have some time to spend with my family again. Maybe, just maybe, if I do this right, I can find some balance moving forward so that I can deal with all of the humbling moments of my day with patience, calmness, and a sense of gratitude for the immense privilege I have to do great work with some amazing people.
Going into the winter break, I actually needed the break, probably more than ever before, in my mind, just to have enough time to plan. A week before the break, I thought that I would spend most of my time planning, getting myself caught up and ready for January. But as the time wore down, I started seeing articles popping up everywhere about how teachers should spend the break taking a real break so that they can come back refreshed and not burn out before the end of the year. Most of them I found in unusual places, but one of the blogs that I usually read by John Spencer had this to suggest on the topic. The proverbial straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back was when my administrators told me as I left to get some rest over the break. I did.
I spent the first week and a half working retail (a little, but not too much), visiting with family, playing lots of games, going on lots of walks with Charlie, and binge-watching Netflix as I attempted to return my house to some semblance of normal. It was glorious. Slowly I have been working my way back to “school-mode” over the last few days, even spending a couple of half days at school, but I have been easing in much more slowly than anticipated. It hasn’t been an easy transition back. I thought I would be ready by now, but I have to admit that 3 more days of break would be nice. While I feel less prepared for the return to routine next week than I had hoped, I do know that taking a break was the best thing I could possibly have done for myself, and for my students.
My students will come back to a teacher who had some time off, who can talk about spending quality time with family over the break, and whose more relaxed brain will be calmer and more patient in dealing with the inevitable hiccups of the classroom. My lesson plans may not be as brilliant as my perfectionistic brain would like, but emotionally I’m calmer, more refreshed, and ready to deal with things as they come up. And when I come to class calm and ready to learn with the students, they get my heart as well as my head, and that’s really putting students and their well-being first. By taking care of myself for a little while, I am equipped to care for them.
As we head back in January, I need to figure out how to find some better balance. So my question for you is this: how do you maintain balance during the school year so as not to wear yourself out and to be healthy so that you can be a better person, for yourself and for your students?
Photo credits to Ben Wood.
I have been quiet on the web for the last couple of days. I had an interview for and was hired into a grade 6/7 long-term occasional (LTO) position, and it has been a whirlwind of prepping and trying to teach a very challenging group of junior/intermediate students. Today was day 2.
I planned a math lesson the way I wanted to do it, knowing that with my group it could flop miserably, but to my delight, it went off quite well! First we did our first WODB (Which One Doesn’t Belong) for the non-math-teaching-geeks out there. They had to sign their name to the one they thought didn’t belong and write in their reason. They were reluctant at first, but loosened up when they realized that they were allowed to use the same reason as some of their classmates. Knowing that they might be tempted to cluster in their answers, I provided an incentive for original thinking: as a class, they had to try to find my secret teacher choice. If they did, they would get a small prize. Here is the board for the day:
Students came up with all kinds of great reasons, some of which I hadn’t even considered! A few of their reasons were not well explained, so we discussed what they meant, and I clarified and made visible their thinking in green (my teacher colour). Despite their best efforts, they did not come up with my secret teaching reason. I chose 2×2 because it is a perfect square. I picked this one, because it tied into exponents (which the grade 7s had learned in the fall), and it opened up the idea of an array, which should open up their view of multiplication. After saying that it made a perfect square, another student said that it didn’t have to be a square and separated the two groups of two. I should have paid him. It got the class talking about another way in which we could talk about multiplication. Overall, we had a great discussion. The image to the right shows some additional insights and reflections on student thinking.
I followed this up by splitting them into visually random groups and having each group take one of the multiplications and representing it as many ways as possible on a sheet of chart paper. They struggled with what this meant at first, and I had to call them back in to model it a little in the middle, but they seemed to wind up with a broader conception of multiplication by the end.
For grade 6/7 students, the multiplication was a little simple, but I noticed during my transition day of observation that students did not seem to have a lot of flexible thinking when it comes to the idea of multiplication so I wanted to back them up a little and try to open up their minds a bit. I think it worked, even if it did take a while. They now have a base from which to add in an extra digit.