I warn you, I may sound mean-spirited. We teachers pride ourselves on hope and, even in the inkiest darkness, look for light. You may not believe me, but there’s light here too… in the perverse hope these cynical appraisals of students arise not from their character, but from us—from me—and expectations we perpetuate.
This post started with a student in one of my first years of teaching, one of the most diligent and conscientious I’ve ever met, a model of exhaustive effort. She’d never think of merely meeting expectations and added her own requirements to whatever rubric I created. She labored as if she were digging to escape her own grave and looked at me as an acolyte might, scrutinizing each gesture and murmur, every hint of expectation.
Yet she enjoyed almost nothing. Little of her industry seemed to spring from a desire to learn. The final mark measured her achievement and stood as its solitary value. Marks—evaluations intended to affirm her successes and motivate growth—became another reckoning. If she didn’t do as well as usual, she felt worthless. If she did well, she worried about the next assignment.
Though she’s an extreme example, her perspective lurks everywhere, and I can’t help blaming grades. My experience in independent schools, schools filled with ambitious students, teaches me that grades affect every aspect of students’ lives. Some of the people I teach transcend grades—they are the rarest, most beautiful birds—but the rest fall into broad types, sometimes into more than one type depending on the term’s progress:
The Glad-Handers learn, perhaps at home, that having a warm relationship with teachers assures positive results and so hang out after class to ask another question, offer another response, check-in on the instructor’s interests. As endearing and charming as these students are, you wonder where they fall on the faking-to-making scale. And you never know.
The Shotguns seek subjugation. Enough information, verbiage, and will, they believe, will subdue a teacher. Volume, volume, volume evinces hours of elbow grease and midnight oil. Finesse doesn’t fit this student’s modus operandi nor do focus, purpose, and spirit. The aim is to be undeniable, diligent enough to be deemed worthy of an A, despite the absence of interest or curiosity.
The Accountants possess the finesse the Shotgun lacks and know exactly where they stand numerically, doling effort according to a desired result. If the situation in one class demands an 85.5 to maintain the current mark, the accountant turns to more vulnerable averages. Schooling is a zero-sum game—with only so much effort to give—so Accountants think strategically.
The Scavengers add and subtract points on a test or quiz to find mathematical errors. Catching a mistake or debating an evaluation erodes a teacher’s resolve and yields incremental advantages. And extra credit or revision or corrections are golden. Even when the original outcome is outstanding, extraordinary, impressive, Scavengers want any point available. Nothing can remain unclaimed.
The Righteous rely on emotion. Ultimately, the Righteous say, education isn’t about numbers but opportunities. “Don’t you know,” they ask (or their parents ask), “how ambitious I am, what schools I aspire to?” Only monsters deny hope, and so each situation demands reconsideration: is this mark something a Teacher can live with… because Teachers are in the business of encouragement… right?
As I said, cynical. Fortunately I’m not describing everyone, not even—on a good day—a majority. Yet few students escape altogether. At some time or another, marks lead them into one of these roles.
And I, as the point carrier, reserve the greatest censure for myself. We teachers made this game. We enforce its rules. We call scores and standards and admission—and other extrinsic rewards—the greatest goals. We offer few terms besides the numerical and alphabetical.
Marks have only abstract value, but we’re petrified of what students might do—more accurately, might not do—if we give grades up and say learning is intrinsically satisfying, fun. We state (over and over, more to ourselves than to them), “You do know, don’t you, that learning, and not a grade, is the point?”
Then we hand them a report card.