Work Habits are Behaviors [REPOST]

Continuing my celebration of the fifth anniversary of Scripted Spontaneity, I’m reposting one of the blog entries that I am most proud of.  Mainly, this is because grading practices has become one of my passions and I feel that this post was one of the clearest explanations that I have ever made.  It was originally posted in December 2010.  Feel free to add your comments below, or read the original ones here.
As the slow crawl toward standards-based grading makes it way into classrooms across the country, in defiance of the drill-and-kill mentality brought on by high-stakes standardized testing, one of our most important jobs is to educate the families affected by this sea change in grading practices.

I have made this transition two years ago with much success.  I no longer dread the “Meet the Teacher” night at the start of the year when I introduce myself to parents.  A clear explanation of the philosophy and purpose of my grading system convinces nearly every parent immediately.  Some assignments are practice and don’t affect a student’s grade (although they are scored and lots of feedback is included).  Other assignments measure mastery and determine the student’s grade, with multiple attempts.  The child will be judged as below standard, at standard, or above.  It makes sense.

The part that confuses (and even frustrates) some is the focus on mastery.  Skills not directly related to mastery of the curriculum will not affect a student’s grade.  Work habits like assignment completion and study skills, while critical to academic success, will not be factored into the grade.  Instead, they are reported alongside content mastery and reinforced in the classroom through other means.

The question that I often get asked is, “If my students/my child/the youth of America don’t lose points for failing to complete their homework, why would they do it at all?”  It looks like I’m not the only one receiving these comments.  A recent article in the New York Times (“A’s for Good Behavior“) resulted in some interesting responses from readers.  One reader writes,

“What kinds of lessons are we teaching children if we tell them it’s O.K. to ignore deadlines and that there are no real consequences for being disruptive or unprepared?”

Responses like these frustrate me because they demonstrate a real misunderstanding of the system.  There are real consequences to misbehavior and poor work ethic, but these consequences do not include grade penalties.  To put it simply, grades should not be used as a motivator for behaviors.  And behaviors include anything that is not mastery of the curriculum.

So, how do we motivate those students who don’t have baked-in (intrinsic) desires to engage with the learning by completing assignments and participating in class?  The same way we motivate students to stay in their seats, raise their hands to contribute, and follow other classroom policies.  If we start to think of incomplete work as just another behavior that needs to be modified, the potential responses become plentiful and obvious.  In my classroom, the consequence for most inappropriate behaviors includes a written reflection and loss of privileges (such as seat choice in the cafeteria or weekly game time).  For missing or incomplete work, consequences always include focused time to get the work done.  To quote a colleague,

“The punishment for not doing work is… to do the work.”

How do we help the public understand that we aren’t lowering the standards?


The Deep End of the Pool [REPOST]

This fall marks the fifth anniversary of Scripted Spontaneity, this august publication that has provided me an outlet for my ideas and grown my personal learning network in ways that I would never have predicted five years ago.

As part of my need to reminisce, I will be reposting some of my favorite pieces from the past.  This month, I want to re-share the post that I am most proud of.  It uses a metaphor to describe the two kinds of teachers who I have met in my career.  It was originally published in March 2010.

This past summer, I enjoyed watching my 6-year-old explore the community swimming pool. When he was younger, he wouldn’t leave the 2-foot-deep section because he couldn’t touch the bottom, but last year he finally gained the confidence to float and swim in the area where he can’t stand up.  It was a significant moment for him, and for me.  He traded safety and familiarity for freedom and exploration, and I saw in him my own goals as a teacher.

Despite frequent opportunities and the inherent rewards associated with it, very few of my fellow teachers are willing to leave the shallow end of the pool when it comes to their profession.  Too many are accustomed to the comfort of staying within their classroom, continuing to teach the way that they always have, and communicating only with other like-minded teachers.  For those who work at this level, the world is small and everyone is a master teacher; and our vocation will not move forward until we can convince many more teachers to “cross the rope” and explore the rest of the pool.

Shallow Enders

In the shallow end, every instructional decision is based on “this is how we’ve always done it” and “kids just don’t care anymore”.  Teachers who operate at this level believe that they have no need to change because they are already good at what they do.  They find validation in the other “shallow enders”, and together this group punches the time card everyday and teaches the same year 30 times.

I was one of these teachers until very recently.  I received positive evaluations and plenty of praise from colleagues and parents.  I figured that I must have a knack for this teaching thing, and that’s why it came easily.  At the start of one academic year, I actually copied one of my lesson plan books and simply changed the dates.  It was nice and comfortable and easy and flattering… and boring.

Since I left the shallow end, my time has been absorbed with blogging and writing and questioning my practice.  I rewrite lesson plans constantly.  I spend countless hours reading about instructional strategies and collaborating with distant contemporaries.  I refine, and I refine, and I refine.  And then I go home and refine some more.  It’s frustrating, and I am often unhappy.  I look at the shallow-enders around me and I sometimes consider sneaking back under the rope and letting my feet touch the bottom.  I envy their satisfaction.  I long for that sensation of terminal success–of reaching “the goal”.

Shallow enders don’t really follow (or care about) the ongoing policy debates in their State Capitol or Washington, D.C.  They don’t really know what “The Research” shows because they figure if it’s important enough someone will tell them about it.  They wish teachers were paid more, and that we were respected more, but they pay their union dues and move on with it.

Most of the teachers that taught me and that I respect very much are shallow-enders.  There is no shame in this, but there is also very little hope in it.  Shallow enders will touch lives and teach children, but they won’t change education. Most of them don’t even see a need for change.

Paddling for the Deep End

With the risks and uncertainty that accompany the deep end of the pool, it’s easy to ask “Why swim there?”.  I mean, after all, what benefits are there to feeling inadequate and challenging conventional wisdom and constantly seeking perfection?  It would seem a useless enterprise, since perfection can never be attained.  And yet, as Oscar Wilde said, “The condition of perfection is idleness.”  Those who decide that “okay is good enough” cease to improve.

Heading away from the safety of the shallow end of the pool brings with it a sense of pride in this marvelous profession.  I mean, why take a job that you don’t love?  And if you love a job, why not try to make it better (for yourself and for others)?  Diving into the policy conversations and becoming a teacher leader gives you a voice in the path ahead.  I suspect that most teachers enjoy the (relative) autonomy that comes with running your own classroom, so why would you settle for letting someone else make all of the other decisions that affect your career?

Freedom is the least considered, but most important, reason for teachers to spread their water wings and head for uncharted waters.  When you explore the less familiar end of the pool, you gain the attention and respect of the decision-makers and your colleagues in ways that you might not appreciate until it happens.

We Must Be The Swim Instructors

Most of the shallow enders don’t even recognize that there is a deep end, let alone how to get there.  They need to understand what it takes, and why its worth it.  They need swim lessons from intermediate and advanced swimmers (and if you’re reading this, you are probably one of us).  If we value change in the education system, we must seek out more shallow enders and encourage them to build a PLN, read books and scholarly articles, and set goals for professional improvement.

All my son needed was consistent encouragement and a little maturity, and he left the 2-foot-end of our local pool.  These days he finds it funny that he ever enjoyed keeping his feet on the bottom.