I’ve got a friend named Carly Albee who just convinced me that all is right with the world—and that high school teachers aren’t as stodgy as I once believed!  You see, Carly is a high school teacher in the mountains of North Carolina, and she left the following thoughts on my post regarding the need to separate academics from work behaviors when giving students feedback about their performance:

If our principals told us we were failing at teaching, but didn’t give us any idea what we needed improvement on…or even what we were succeeding in…we would be lost (probably depressed too). I think it is silly to think that our students (who don’t have the maturity and self-reflecting skills that we do) can figure out what they are doing wrong when an “F” shows up on their report card.

Carly goes on to ask:

I have a quick detail question: What do you put in the teacher box on your work behaviors rubric…a check…a rainbow…a unicorn… or comments??? Okay, I realize that you would never put a unicorn in there.

Figured you’d be interested in my reply:

Hey Pal,

Great to hear from you and THANK YOU for being a high school teacher who is willing to separate work behaviors from academics! One of the biggest challenges that I face in using the work record is the constant argument from parents and teachers that our system of grading is horrid because it fails to “prepare kids for high school.”

“In high school,” they’ll argue, “No one is going to separate work behaviors from academics. If a kid doesn’t turn in his work, he’s going to fail. Period. And because of you, my child/our students are going to be completely clueless.”

In many ways, their concerns seem legitimate. After all, the majority of high school teachers I know are pretty heavy handed when it comes to grading. (Gotta prepare them for college and the work world, right?)

But my position has always been the same: I’m not preparing my kids for high school.

I’m preparing them for life. And that includes helping each child to learn what their individual strengths and weaknesses are as learners and as responsible workers who know how to produce. Until we give students specific, targeted feedback about what skills they’ve mastered—both in the academic content of our classes and in their ability to function as contributing members of a family, community or work team—-we’re leaving them truly unprepared for improvement.

In my classroom, I always explain my approach from the lens of my miserable skill as a baseball player. You see, I played Little League for something like 13 years—starting when I was 6 and moving through to high school.

The wild part: Despite rarely missing a practice (my parents were big on the “you made a commitment to the team, you’re going to practice), I still can’t hit a baseball today! In fact, one of the rare treats that my students or athletes get is to go to the batting cages with me. It’s nothing short of a hoot!

Being overconfident, I inevitably jump into the 95-mile-an-hour cage. Gotta look tough in front of the lads, you know. Then, I inevitably miss 15 of 20 pitches. I’ll swing too early and then stand there watching the ball whip past me and hit the cage. To compensate, I’ll wait on the next pitch, listen to it crash into cage, and then swing.

I’ll fall down at least twice while swinging. I’ll stand with the bat crossing the plate horizontally and hope the ball hits it, figuring that my odds go up if I don’t actually swing. Sometimes the bat will slip from my hands and go flying down the cage, landing under the heaving-ball-chucker-thingy.  Then, I resort to my approach for getting on base during my little league career—I crowd the plate and “take one for the team.”

How can I possibly be so miserable at hitting a pitch when I played baseball for over a decade?

Because my coaches never told me what I was doing right or wrong. I’d strike out time after time—never coming close to hitting the ball—and my coaches would say things like, “Good cut, Billy…You’ll get it the next time.”

What a crock of crap, huh?

Wouldn’t a “good cut” actually involve hitting the ball?

But my coaches were more concerned with making me feel good than they were with helping me to figure out what exactly it was that I was doing wrong in the batter’s box. Either that, or they were just too lazy to bother with me. (Don’t you think it was probably a mix of the two?)

That’s what teachers do every day to their students. Rather than giving specific, targeted feedback that explains the specific skills or dispositions that a student lacks, we give numbers or letters with limited feedback. We figure the “Behavior in Class is Unacceptable” comment we automatically add to report cards is enough for parents and kids to know that something needs to change. From there, it’s up to them. “Well, if they really cared, they’d make something happen!” we argue passionately to one another.

Trust me: They do care. They just don’t know where to begin.

Do you think that anyone really enjoys striking out five thousand times during their school careers?

As for what I actually write on our work records, I typically stick to my initials (although unicorns are a great idea! With glitter too. If it’s pretty, it must be good, right?!). Our team has also gotten in the habit of having all teachers of record for a kid initial the same work behaviors rubric. That way, parents are getting systematic feedback about every class—and teachers can identify classes that may resonate with an individual student.

We don’t initial, though, until students have scored themselves in each area. The way we figure, self-assessment is even more important than teacher assessment. Kids need to carefully consider their own strengths and weaknesses as compared to standards of excellence and be able to honestly evaluate their standing. In fact, no skill could be more important for creating independent workers, don’t you think?

We also ask students to circle individual bullet points under each criteria on their rubric that they believe are areas of personal weakness. That way, we can see the specific work behaviors that they need help with. We can also track patterns across our classes/teams, giving us valuable feedback about the kinds of traits that we need to stress in our teaching.

Finally, we ask kids to write a goal for improvement for themselves in their agendas after reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses. A typical goal statement might sound like this:

“I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been prepared in class for the past three weeks. I’ve brought all of my supplies every day. I’m not always giving my best effort, though. That’s because I always choose to work with Johnny and he and I end up screwing around rather than working. I think I’ll try to choose different group mates for the next few tasks and see if that helps.”

All of this takes us maybe 20 minutes two or three times per quarter. The way we see it, those 20 minutes are the most valuable—and the most professionally responsible—minutes we spend each quarter because we’re finally giving students the kinds of feedback about work behaviors that they need in order to be successful.

Hope this helps,

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