Who Was Responsible For My “A?”

Yesterday after dinner, I was rushing around to put food away, and getting myself and my older kids ready so we could hurry out the door and be to Church activities on time.  I was going to be teaching (substituting) the Activity Day girls and so I had a little more to think about than I usually do when we are preparing to leave.  In the middle of the rush, my husband turned on the 6:30 News, and what I heard caught my attention and caused me to stop in the middle of my rushed state-of-mind.

The story being reported was about a group of teachers who had cheated on State tests, erasing students answers and replacing them with the correct ones, or otherwise giving hints and helps so that the students would score well.  As I watched this, I felt kind of sick…it was said that these teachers could go to jail for as much as 20 years!  They showed some of them crying in the court room, and I felt like crying too.

“What a tragedy!”  I thought to myself.

For many years now, it seems to me that teachers are increasingly being held accountable for student performance.  This has been bothering me for a really long time, because I feel in my heart that this is not right.  I’m not saying that cheating in order to artificially increase test scores is right…it is clearly not.  But I have a feeling the motivation behind the cheating was fear…fear of losing a job because what was being required of them was impossible.  And, I have a feeling that there are teachers and administrators all across the U.S. that are experiencing this same fear.  In general I believe that teachers want to do well in their jobs, and they want to do what they can to help their students.  But instead of being supported and given the resources they need to succeed, they are constantly having resources taken away and replaced with an increasing set of demands.  And then they get told they are not doing well because they are “bad teachers,” and that to fix the problems those in charge simply need to let all of the “bad teachers” go and replace them with “good teachers.”  The result, as I see it, is a lot of anxiety among teachers as well as administrators.

I read a story once about a business man who sold blueberries for a living.  He was giving teachers a hard time for not “producing” better graduates (ready to work in the business world), and said if he produced the quality of blueberries that equaled the quality of students that the teachers were producing, then his business would fail in a big hurry.  One teacher responded by asking a question.  She said, “What do you do if you get a *bad batch* of blueberries delivered to you from the farmers?”  He said, “Well, I send them back, of course!”  Her response?  “If we get a *bad batch* we do not have the option of sending them back.  We have to work with whatever we get!”

Below is a little article I wrote about this subject a year or two ago.  I felt the same then as I do now and wanted to express my views.  I didn’t know who to give the article to however, so I simply saved it to my computer.

Who Was Responsible For My “A”?

When I was a senior in High School, I had Mrs. Draper for English.  She was a great teacher – energetic, cheerful, knowledgeable about her subject, and one who truly wanted to see her students succeed.  Although I can’t remember the exact grade, I do remember that I didn’t get what I wanted on one of my writing assignments that I turned into her.  But then, when it was time to turn in another assignment, as she was explaining her requirements, she said, “I’m here every day after school.  If anyone doesn’t understand or feels like you need some help, you are welcome to bring a rough draft of your writing and I will go over it with you.”  So I took her up on her offer.  She read what I had written, and explained what I could do better.  Later, after all the assignments had been turned in, she finished grading them and handed them back to us.  As she handed me mine, she said, “I was so happy to see that you got an ‘A!’” For some reason, her wording struck me as odd.  I remember thinking, “but you graded the paper; you could have given me anything you wanted.”  I think this thought stemmed from the idea that writing is subjective, not concrete like a multiple choice test.  But I quickly realized to myself that she was using very specific criteria to grade the paper, and I met enough of the criteria to earn an “A.”  She was happy for me, and I felt good about it too.  That was 23 years ago, and I still look back and consider Mrs. Draper to be one of my favorite teachers ever.

Currently I am married to a teacher.  It seems to me that government is increasingly holding teachers accountable for the achievements of their students.  They will say essentially, “a certain number of students needs to pass our test, or you are not doing your job correctly as a teacher.”  Or, they will say, “If all of your students do not graduate, then you must not be doing your job as a teacher correctly.”  This puzzles me.  Mrs. Draper said that I had been the one to earn the “A.”  Yes, she helped me to understand what I needed to do, but I was the one who did the work.

I feel that if we are going to hold teachers accountable for student failure, then we must also give them credit for student success.  Therefore, the “A” was not mine after-all; I must give all of the credit back to her.  The “A” I received that day, was in fact Mrs. Draper’s “A” because she did everything right as a teacher.

But wait!  There are others who helped too!  Maybe, the “A” actually belongs to one of them!

For example, my mom (and sometimes dad) made dinner for our family almost every night of my life growing up.  To be honest, being somewhat a picky eater, I actually did not even enjoy what we ate all of the time.  But I was there, at the table with the other members of my family practically every night.  In 2007 Elder Dallin H. Oaks gave a talk in General Conference titled, “Good, Better, Best.”  In it he said this,

“The number of those who report that their ‘whole family usually eats dinner together’ has declined 33 percent. This is most concerning because the time a family spends together ‘eating meals at home [is] the strongest predictor of children’s academic achievement and psychological adjustment.’ Family mealtimes have also been shown to be a strong bulwark against children’s smoking, drinking, or using drugs. There is inspired wisdom in this advice to parents: what your children really want for dinner is you (emphasis added).

I had to laugh a little by his words, “what your children really want for dinner is you.”  But family mealtimes being a “strong predictor of children’s academic achievement?”  Well, maybe that “A” on my English paper really belonged to my mom.

Or, maybe it belonged to my Dad.  When I was in 9th grade, I wasn’t doing well in Algebra.  My teacher sent home a progress report that showed that I was in danger of receiving a failing grade.  When my dad saw it, this is what he said:

Dad:  “Why are you getting a poor grade in Algebra”

Me:  “I don’t know!  I just don’t understand it!  I see what the teacher is doing, and hear her explaining it, but it doesn’t make any sense to me!”

Dad:  “Well, in the future, if you don’t understand something when you are doing your homework, bring it to me and I will help you.”

That was the beginning of a whole new life in homework for me.  Throughout High School, I brought him Algebra, Geometry, Chemistry, and Physics, and he helped me with it all (well, I do remember him being a little stumped with some of the Chemistry, but hey – we can’t all be perfect, right? 🙂 ).  The point is that when Mrs. Draper invited students to stay after school to receive help from her, I was already used to that because of the help from my dad.  So, really the “A” should be his.

But it could be my peers’ “A.”  Some of them were great examples of being diligent in their school work.  When I was in 5th and 6th grade, I really struggled with my school work, and so I was placed in the “regular” classes with students who didn’t seem to care about good study habits.  Sometimes I actually felt embarrassed if I did too well on something.  But in 7th grade, for some reason I did very well that year, and so the next year I was placed in the advanced Writing Class.  Suddenly, I was surrounded by students who wanted to do well!  They had good habits and were nice people.  I watched how they approached their school work, and copied the behaviors that I thought were good.  So, when I reached High School, I was placed in more advanced classes with more opportunities to learn from these students.  I really think that their influence helped me to do well overall with my school-work!

And so the ownership of the “A” on that English paper 23 years ago bounces around, from person to person without quite settling down.  That is, until it makes its way back to me.  In the end, I was the one who wrote the paper.  I made the choice to stay after school and ask for help.  I implemented the suggestions when I re-wrote the paper.  And I turned it in on time.

My teachers used to say to us that it was their pet peeve when a student would say, “What are you going to *learn me* today?”  Sounds grammatically horrible, right?…but sometimes students really would say this.  My teachers would emphasize that they were there to teach, and it was our job to do the learning.   Student performance is a complicated issue, and one that many people rightly feel concerned about.  But I firmly believe that teachers and school officials are being required to carry more of the responsibility than is reasonable or possible.  We need to recognize that there are many factors that go into adequate learning, including family environment, peer environment, and most definitely what the student him- or her-self chooses to do or not do.

In regards to the situation with these teachers who cheated, of course we should let our legal process play out in determining what happened and what the consequences should be.  However, in the mean-time, my hope is that we will use this experience to evaluate the kinds of pressures that are being placed on teachers and school officials, and think about how we as a country can best help them in their efforts to provide a great education for our children.

As a wife of a teacher, and a mother of children attending Public School, I want to say “thank you” to teachers everywhere for your service.  I know for certain that my children have benefited from your efforts.

What are your thoughts?  Please share in the comments below!