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Is your classroom a barrier or a breakthrough?

F gradeI just survived another round of my least favorite task in teaching: posting final grades. You would think this would be a freeing time of the term. Posting final grades means another class is in the books. Another round of students are moving on to the next phase of their academic pursuits. But what if they’re not? What if my class isn’t that breakthrough moment for them? What if my class is the barrier between them and moving forward?

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about final grading being an excruciating part of teaching at the college level, especially for those in developmental education or at a community college. When I taught developmental English, final grades were by far the hardest part of my job. At that level, students need reassurance. The confidence to know they’re making progress. The hope that they’ll earn the degree they need to take their personal or professional lives to the next level. For many of them, classwork is the barrier between them and their goals. I never wanted my classroom to be a barrier, but when I’m faced with a student whose work teeters on the edge of failing and passing, what do I do? If I were a hard ass and looked purely at numbers, I’d fail him. But my students are people, not numbers. We, as faculty, are humans not calculators.

I’m taken back to that promise I made last fall. “I promise to put my students first.” In putting my students first, that sometimes means putting the grades second. Rather than asking myself whether or not a student did well, I ask myself, “Did she do well enough?” Would moving her on be a hindrance to her success? Or, do I think she could make it? Did she do well enough to be able to pass the next course? Would failure here mean a barrier to her moving on at all? Is that putting her first?

Now, let me be clear. When a student’s work shows that he or she clearly doesn’t understand the concepts or displays significant errors that reflect poor quality and effort, I am never tempted to pass that student on. And, when I first see signs of struggle despite effort, I reach out to students to tap into support resources that are available, including additional one-on-one work. But it’s the students who really put forth effort throughout the term that present the grading turmoil. The students whose work makes progress but doesn’t necessarily reflect “mastery”, a term I see frequently in learning outcomes.

I even play my own devil’s advocate. “Well, in the workplace, sub-par effort isn’t acceptable, so I’m not doing them any favors by passing them on,” I tell myself. But, let’s be honest, I think we all see sub-par work in the workplace. We might even be guilty of it ourselves. Does that always result in firing or failure? Not always. Heck, sometimes sub-par work manages to be rewarded and promoted. But, is this even the lesson my students take away from a failed course? I can hear their inner-thoughts now when they see the F in the grading system, “Oh, I’m glad my teacher gave me an F. I appreciate the lesson of being taught to work harder.” Okay, I’m exaggerating, but I’m partly serious. For the student who worked as hard as he could from first day to last, does an F really teach him anything other than his hardest isn’t good enough? Is that putting him first?

So, I have no clear answers here. Grading sucks. For lots of reasons, but for me, it mostly sucks because sometimes I have to decide whether my class is going to be a barrier or a breakthrough.

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