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Making the Grade

[Editor’s note: Kansan in the Bronx is a second-year teacher in a Bronx middle school.]

There were a lot of things I was anxious about when I came out of the School of Ed. One was the switch from being the graded to being the grader. It was really an odd sensation to grade someone else’s work in black and white. All that time spent at a liberal undergraduate school attending vegan potluck dinners, talking about how terrible judging people can be, and now I was being paid to judge people every day.

It gets easier with time. At first you might pore over your grades for a very long time, thinking about how many points a student really deserves based on their effort and the demonstration of their comprehension of an idea. You might come up with rubrics for the littlest assignments to ensure fairness and award points to papers only after covering up their authors’ names. A lot of that will disappear under the sheer workload that is grading. Really, looking at students’ work takes forever! A very good friend of mine back in Kansas has more than 150 students on her rosters. Think about it: you assign a two-page paper in all of your classes and all of a sudden you have a 300-page novel to tear apart, comment on, revise and turn back to its many authors. Who has time for that?

In addition to time, it’s really difficult to do any kind of grading if things are going poorly in the first year of teaching. It’s unfair to fail all of the students for not learning if you’ve not grabbed hold of the reins and taken control of the class. While the vast majority of the students who failed my class last year were making very poor decisions that led to that failure, fewer would have done so poorly if I’d been able to give them the structure and support they needed. How many? Who knows?

It’s really tough to figure out how to assign grades fairly in the first year as you’re wrestling with the fact that the students aren’t learning as much as they could because you’re holding on for dear life and they’re oftentimes in the driver’s seat. Other teachers are going to throw in their two cents about how annoying and difficult it can be to flunk students in terms of the amount of paperwork. You’ll probably hear arguments for and against social promotion stating how terrible it is for a child to be held back and how horrible it is for American education in general to not hold them back. Your administration might also put pressure on you about grades and pass rates.

Things also become much less clear-cut once you realize that some students don’t do their work, that concessions are oftentimes made for students, that some students are going to shut down completely if you flunk them for a marking period and that there are a thousand external pressures “helping” you to amend and develop your own grading policy. What I’ve found to work best is to stick to your gut, assign grades fairly and very consistently (using things like rubrics for larger assignments) and don’t stress about them too much. Last year, in spite of all the pressures and nonsense, the students who tried really hard did well in my class while those who did not failed. In the end, that is about as straightforward as it gets.