An Apology to Former Students

Do you ever look back at some of your educational practices as a new teacher… and cringe? I do. I cringe a lot when I think back to those early years. I was ill-equipped.

When I started my first year as a teacher, I came to the school with a fairly new degree in music and a semester of substitute teaching under my belt. That was it. Not uncommon for many new teachers, though.failsmall

My first teaching assignment was at a 7-12 school in 1992. It was a much smaller school (350 students total in 7th through 12th grade) compared to the schools I had attended (520 students in my own graduating class). There was no curriculum at all for the classes I was to teach. First year teacher- had to write curriculum for 4 classes… “oh, and by the way, we need you to teach reading, too.” Also no curriculum, other than a textbook. [image credit: cc licensed image by griffithchris]

So, to say that the above was anything less than daunting would be a lie. However, I had a pretty good foundation of what kids should know and be able to do in music classes. That task was time-consuming, but a good experience. I felt pretty good about what I accomplished in this area.

Looking back, I am maybe a little proud of myself for being able to crank that out. But honestly, I’m a lot more embarrassed to share my ridiculous grading policies for the 7th and 8th grade classes I taught.

In general music, I met with 7th and 8th graders every day, all year, and was required to give them a percentage grade on their report card (no letter grades or rubric scores). There were days when we spent a lot of the class time singing, but we also had music theory, music history, American musical theater, improvisation, and music interpretation units (and probably quite a bit more that I’m not remembering right now).

And I assigned lots of homework. Why? Because I needed a body of work for grades. (ugh) That is the reason for homework, right?

The grades I recorded in my gradebook (which I made in Claris Works spreadsheets!) were averaged (ugh)  on homework grades, quiz grades, test grades, project grades, and participation points (a HUGE UGH!). Participation points were based on behavior. I gave every kid 100 participation points. The points were theirs to lose. If students didn’t do their homework, I gave them zeroes. If they turned in the homework or projects late, I took off points for late work.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post… this is cringe-worthy.

Do you know how many 7th and 8th graders FAILED my classes? Many. Too many. And the issue is this: I don’t think a single one of those kids failed my class because they were unable to demonstrate their understanding of the concepts. They failed the classes because I was unable to see the difference between a behavior and an academic score.

I pleaded with my students to turn in their homework on time. I even took time out of a lesson to show them the math on the board. “A zero is devastating to your final grade!” I explained how I was helping them to learn to be responsible.

I’m cringing even as I type this.

Ken O’Connor wasn’t a blip on my radar back then, and I didn’t see his book, How to Grade for Learning, until long after I had left that classroom. As a staff developer a few years later, I was introduced to Ken O’Connor in person. I listened to him talk about the problem with grading behavior and academic progress within the same scores. He provided real examples of why averaging grades across time actually shows less progress. He discussed the need for allowing students to re-take tests to show that they have learned and made comparisons to driver’s license testing. O’Connor asked why we set arbitrary deadlines when we knew that not all kids learn at the same rate.

And… it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been that teacher who used grades as a punishment– a punishment to kids who didn’t care about their grades. Everything I had ever been taught about grading and assessing students was so off the mark. I wished right then and there that I could go back in time and start over again with my 7-12 students.

So this is my apology post, more than a decade too late, but here it is:

I was wrong, guys… and I’m truly sorry. You deserved to have a teacher who was more compassionate… a teacher who understood that maybe you really did lose your homework… a teacher who assigned homework only to those who really needed the practice… a teacher who reported your behavior separately from your academic progress. That wasn’t me back then, and I apologize.

If it’s any consolation at all, I am a huge advocate for children now when it comes to grading practices. In my own classroom, I report academic/skill achievement completely separately from behavior. I share my Ken O’Connor book with many people and then try to have open discussions with them to find grading practices that make sense to them. That doesn’t help the kids from my past, but I hope it helps kids now.

9 thoughts on “An Apology to Former Students

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michelle Baldwin and Inspired Teaching, Greta Sandler. Greta Sandler said: Great post! RT @michellek107: A post that is more than 10 years overdue – An Apology to My Former Students | […]

  2. Enjoyed all you had to say. Found it very challenging in a personal way, but also very frustrating because of some of the grading “requirements” that I am forced to use. Thanks for sharing something that has as much emotion as information.

    • I understand what you mean about grading requirements. As a parent, I often find myself in discussions with my kids’ teachers, asking questions about grading practices, only to be told it’s a department or school policy. Ugh.

      Thanks for thinking about these issues… is there a group with which you could begin grading conversations?

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Michelle,

    I could have a separate blog writing apologies for past poor teaching experiences. We definitely have made our mistakes in practices.

    How we can make amends though is by working with new and current teachers and share all of the great resources that were not so readily available and share our knowledge.

    As the teacher leader that you are, you can not count on your school administration to be the only ones that guide teachers at your school, but to work with all staff. We have been so worried about stepping on toes of our partners, but ultimately, we all want to do better. If you work with staff that are still using some of these practices in their classroom, it is important that we work with them to do what is best for kids. We need to prevent future blog posts that are written about the same topic 😉

    • You’re so right, George. I worry sometimes that the staff will begin to think me too preachy, but it can’t be about me… or them. It has to be about the kids and what is best for them! We all have to learn to be better at what we do, and the more I reflect on my practices, the more I know I have to learn.

      Thanks for being the great leader you are!

  4. Hi Michelle,

    From another Michelle who started teaching about the same time, thanks for sharing this post. It is so true! My assessing of students has changed drastically since the early days, initially because I found assessing homework and participating quite challenging and now because of people like Marzano and Kohn. When I look back at it, there were no rich discussions on pro-d days that centered around the ideas of assessment for learning as we do today – so really how were we to know. We were doing what everyone else was doing. I’m just thankful know that there is a swing to more authentic assessment – and because of our earlier experience, we can see just how much better it is for students (and for teachers!)

    • Glad to see another Michelle! 😉 Feels like I’m back in high school with 5 Michelles in every class! haha

      I definitely see more emphasis on PD now than there was 15-20 years ago. With online networks to help us learn together, too, there’s really no excuse to ignore important conversations about doing what’s best for kids.

      Glad you’ve had the chance to reflect and adapt as well! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  5. […] Michelle Baldwin’s post on how she wanted to make amends for her teaching inadequacies of the past, I reflected on one of my biggest weaknesses today; holding a […]

  6. Fantastic, reflective post. We cannot change our past but we sure have a brilliant opportunity to change the future. It is my hope that ALL teachers look back and question why we focused on grades and results. The way you teach now needs to be the norm – in BC, we are moving in this direction with a lot of great teachers doing this. I look forward to the day when every teacher can reflect just as you have. We need to stop doing the thing that have always been done just because they have always been done. Thank you for doing what is best for students.

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