Don’t lose sight of why you became a teacher in the first place.
For five years, I taught instrumental music classes and was the department chair over the fine arts department. This means I was the teacher who organized all those field trips, competitions, and performances for the performing arts kids on campus.
At our school, all field trips that required a student to miss class time were “No Pass, No Play” events. Because our orchestra cannot compete well without our first-chair cello player, I needed to be very aware of all my students’ grades in all their classes.
Four weeks before any trip, I checked in with students to make sure they were passing all their classes. If they weren’t, they would get instructions on how to check in with the teachers of classes they were failing now, instead of waiting until the week of the field trip. An English teacher is highly unlikely to accept an essay six weeks after it was due and then grade it immediately and generously so a student can pull their grade up at the last minute. But, if students start the conversation early enough, there are more chances to retake exams, go in for extra help, or put in extra effort on a big upcoming assignment that can turn the tide in their grades. Four weeks is a long time in high school.
During this four-week time, leading up to a major competition, I approached a group of teachers at lunch. A biology teacher, a math teacher, and an English teacher. They were laughing heartily, glee radiating off them. I approached, thinking I’d get to hear a good joke or a funny story. Instead, I heard them cackling about these “dumb” and “lazy” kids who had asked for a way to pull their grades up.
“Should have thought about that orchestra trip back in January when you missed that paper!” they shrieked and then continued laughing. One woman slapped her thigh in merriment.
Teachers, champions of kids and education, laughed for a very long time at students who had the gall to let their grade slip early on and then ask for help making it right.
I will admit I didn’t have the guts to stand up to them. I went back to my office and had a good cry on the kids’ behalf.
Sometimes teachers and parents lose sight of what extracurricular activities offer our students. Yes, academics come first. Grades, homework, and test scores matter.
But do they matter more than a student knowing they’re talented? More than a chance to work hard as part of a team? Do they matter enough for teachers to put themselves firmly on the opposite team from their students?
Another story: A tenth grader was failing English by one and a half percentage points. He was close to passing, but would be excluded from a weekend intensive trip that was invitation-only in the performing arts groups. He had auditioned and had performed well enough to earn a spot, had fundraised for months, and was going to be held back for a lackluster performance in English.
He didn’t have excessive missing assignments. He just … did badly on every assignment, every step of the way.
He approached his English teacher, sure that he would be told “Sorry. Should have thought about this earlier!” It was a lost cause as far as he was concerned, but he worked up the courage to take my advice and go ask for a chance.
She gave him an extra assignment. He had three days to finish it, and it would be a lot of work in a short amount of time. She promised him that if he finished it, and put effort into it, she would give him the handful of points he needed to bump up one and a half percent in his overall semester grade.
He was nervous and nearly overwhelmed, but his excitement was palpable. He wouldn’t suddenly have an A+, but he would be given the chance he needed to go and do the thing he was good at. It would be difficult, and not a guarantee, but he had a chance. He put his nose to the grindstone, turned in the work and waited.
The English teacher gave him the green light. He was elated and he joined us on the weekend intensive. After that weekend of work, he had the skills necessary to successfully audition for regional band, then earned another spot in a college-sponsored summer program, which put him in front of the music department head at that college. He earned a spot in their jazz bands after graduation, all traced back to that weekend intensive that came along at the right time for him as a performer.
He had been failing English, and academic courses continued to be incredibly difficult for him throughout high school, and I assume in college, too. But he knew he was good at jazz, and he knew he had teachers on his side to help him hit the minimum thresholds in his core classes.
That English teacher came into my room after she gave him the green light to go on the trip. She told me, “It wasn’t really about the work, if he was willing to try. Lots of kids ask for extra credit and then never follow through. I figured, if he was willing to follow through, then he was going to get something out of that weekend. It wasn’t just a fun trip for him.”
She was on his side.
Teachers, in the weeds of standardized testing and data-driven policies and skill-and-drill curricula, sometimes forget this one truth:
We are all on the same team.
The teachers who had laughed so heartily at students missing an orchestra competition had forgotten. They saw themselves as being on an opposing team. Who can keep kids from scoring the most points on a test? Who can have the highest fail rate in a class? Who has the strictest rules in the classroom?
The goal for everyone is to teach kids to be self-sufficient, resilient, and prepared for life.
Being the toughest teacher isn’t always the best way to do that.
Here are some questions teachers can ask themselves to make sure they’re working towards the same goals as their students:
1. How does this policy support learning?
You have to have clear policies on late work, classroom behavior, test makeups, and a zillion other things in your classroom. But those policies shouldn’t be arbitrary.
My son took a foreign language class. The teacher did not accept late work. Fair enough. She communicated that policy clearly, from the beginning of class. What she required, instead, was makeup work.
So, if a student forgot to finish a homework assignment, and they wanted credit for it, they would have to finish the missing assignment, turn it in to her, and receive permission to do a makeup assignment. She would then give them the makeup assignment (after throwing away the late work that was completed), which was usually only tangentially related to the subject, and grade that makeup assignment. Students had to do twice as much work in order to get partial credit — because of course makeup assignments were still very late and couldn’t be given full credit.
Her justification for this was that they had to have severe negative consequences to avoid them from constantly wanting to turn in late work.
In reality, she had a higher fail rate than any other foreign language teacher at that school, and my son ended that semester with a C+, his lowest grade. He couldn’t see any value in doing double the work for half the points, putting him farther behind in other classes as he did so. So, on the occasions that he forgot homework or did poorly on an assignment, he chose to let his grade slide. He and his teacher were on opposite teams, fighting and strategizing against each other.
Are your policies supporting learning? Or are they designed to punish students?
Are you encouraging students to catch up? Or scaring them into not falling behind?
Are you on the same team as your students?
2. How would I hope my boss would handle this situation, if it was me in the student’s shoes?
You’re an adult. That means you can, to some degree, fairly evaluate when you deserve a second chance or some compassion. Are you always late, or was this morning a fluke? Did you forget a meeting last week, but you’ve been present and attentive at the four hundred previous consecutive meetings? In these situations, you expect a bit of a call-out from your principal, sure, but you also don’t expect to be immediately fired or have your paycheck revoked.
You made a mistake, and while there might be consequences, those consequences are usually in line with the severity and frequency of the mistake. And sometimes? There are no consequences. Sometimes you get a pass because it was a fluke and everyone knows you aren’t the type to blow off your responsibilities.
Do you give your students that same room for error?
It’s very true that you cannot let kids turn in whatever they want, whenever they want, and give them a perfect A at the end of the semester if their work is shoddy.
But are we cognizant of the pressures on the kids we’re teaching? Are we working alongside them, or against them? Is there room for slip ups? Is there room to make amends?
Do you give second chances? Do you treat kids the way you would hope to be treated?
3. Are you communicating clearly?
Most policy arguments with students (at the high school level) or parents (at the K-8 level) come from a lack of communication. Yes, yes, you sent home a syllabus with details on all your policies and the parents signed it and sent it back. But did you read the Terms and Conditions of every website on which you clicked “I Agree”? Did you read all the fine print of your lease agreement, or even your teaching contract, for that matter?
So, assume that parents didn’t read every word of every classroom paper that came home during the first week. As a mom of four kids, I can promise you that there’s no way on earth I’m reading every page that comes home in backpacks during the first week of school.
When big assignments are coming due, it would be helpful to send home an email highlighting the most pertinent policies. If you won’t accept this essay late, make sure parents and students know that at least a week ahead of time. If there is a last day to turn in extra credit or makeup work, send out a reminder. If a student is in danger of failing your class or the grade level, send home communications early, giving parents time to wrap their head around this development and strategize with their child on how best to proceed.
The goal here isn’t to make your life more difficult, but instead to give you opportunities to evaluate where you stand and prepare yourself for difficult conversations. Those conversations are coming, whether you’re prepared or not. I can tell you from experience, those conversations are much easier to have if you are the one to initiate them. Parents are likely to read a reminder email as just that: a reminder email. But those same parents are likely to see a zero in the gradebook as an attack, particularly if there had been no warning nor communication that the zero was a possibility.
And remember: We’re all on the same team. Let’s work like we are.