Teaching Opinion

Go Rogue, But Be Prepared for a Fight When it Comes to Giving Up Grades

By Starr Sackstein — February 01, 2019 4 min read
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I worked alone.

It wasn’t my choice to work alone, but no one was coming with me. They all thought I was CRAZY! Some said it to my face others only said it behind my back but loud enough for kids to hear and report back.

Of course, the notion of giving up grades inside of a school system that requires them, where parents and students expect them and other teachers wield them powerfully is definitely outside of the norm, but I was okay with all that.

When I made the decision to give up grades, it was because I knew it would benefit all of my students.

And it did, but it made people uncomfortable and I spent a lot of my time explaining myself and trying to help others understand.

I’m no evangelist, so I wasn’t looking to convert, but I was hoping to build a solid curiosity where perhaps some folks would at least try to loosen their grips on the grading reins and provide students more opportunities to be involved in the process. Too often schools focus heavily on the product, missing countless opportunities to increase student learning and efficacy by doing the hard work of revising and growing in class.

Giving up grades isn’t just about not labeling learning with numbers or letters, it is about shifting a mindset about what learning is and how it should look in a classroom at all ages. It is about creating nuanced learning experiences that grow essential social-emotional skills while developing academic skills and building deep content knowledge.

Developing a learning environment that incorporates student voice and choice, engages on a multitude of levels and plays to the strengths of individual children takes time, but the rewards are great.

Here’s what schools can do to help those teachers who are bold enough to make big strides to improve student learning with or without the support of others:

  • Take an interest. When I started to make my move, my leaders didn’t really understand what I was doing and since things went well, generally and my students were successful, they left me alone. That had its benefits and its drawbacks.
  • Provide feedback. Everyone needs feedback, even your strongest teachers and administrators. Sometimes it is the encouragement and sometimes it can be as easy as a conversation to bounce ideas off of each other. If you don’t know how to help, that is okay, but maybe you can put them in touch with someone who can. Reach out to your PLC and network for them.
  • Provide resources. Maybe you read something great that could help. This is an opportunity to give insight through current writing and/or videos that could potentially be very helpful. Maybe you know there is going to be a conference soon with someone notable speaking. Allow the teacher to go and get inspired and get connected. Being supported through these tough adjustments is important and if we can acknowledge that maybe we don’t have all of the answers, helping teachers find others who may have answers is extremely helpful. As I navigated the waters, I reached out to people on Twitter, read anything that had something to do with grading and joined larger conversations. Then I started thinking crazy and taking big risks, all the while including my students in those experiences.
  • Acknowledge progress. When you see a teacher taking risks, tell you them you notice. Be specific about the growth you see in the students and/or the teacher. Write a note or email or share a vox, but make sure to say something. It is also cool to ask the teacher, how he or she likes to be recognized and then do that. You can also make connections within the building. Particularly in secondary settings, teachers work in silos and are often unaware of what their colleagues are doing, help them know there are others that could provide support even locally. It’s also important to not make examples of them because there is a good chance their colleagues could resent them.
  • Be a supportive ear. When a teacher goes rogue, they will often feel like they made a wrong choice to do so. It’s hard and there is usually pushback, so when the teacher is having doubts, make sure to be available to talk them down, reminding them how important the work is and how successful they have been already. It’s easy to lose sight of the successes when you are in the middle of a setback. Hold up the mirror, remind them of how far they have come and that it is okay for mistakes to happen.

If we know people who are bold enough to start changing the way the system works, we need to engage in conversations to understand if we don’t already. We need to be willing to have an open mind and a helpful, supportive outlook. Change is hard, I know it is cliche to say, but it is. We need all the help we can get while we are on the front lines trying to make a difference.

How can you support a teacher who wants to try something big, even if it doesn’t align with everything the system promotes? Please share

*picture made using pablo.com

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.