My greatest shame as a teacher stems from my past grading practices.
At the time, I was certain it was my role to protect perfection. I believed it would drive students to go beyond their current ability and seek ways to express themselves more effectively. I had it in my mind that rigor meant setting the bar out of reach for everyone. I thought it would make my students better people if I gave them a 98/100 on their essays and purposely make the 100 elusive. So, I spent my time combing their work for the slightest error in order to exploit their lack of attention to detail and protect the sacred perfect score.
Out of convenience, I set due dates and punished students for not meeting them and marked them down each day the work was late until it was not worth doing. I ran a grammar check on the work and began deducting points for each error. I read the work to see if it followed a preprescribed formula. Each time work would deviate I would mark it down. I was a master of the red pen.
Rarely did I compliment beyond “Nice work” or “Excellent”. I’ve read student writing that made mine pale in comparison. Not once did I tell the writer his work amazed me. Never did I tell her I was in awe of the eloquence, voice, and expression.
I found more and more that my role as educator was equated to a gatekeeper and my weapon of choice was filled with red flowing ink. I secretly held the idea that none should enter the Land of Perfection.
But as I reflect on my practice, I begin to realize all the missed opportunities I will never get back.
The more I think about it, the more I ask myself, “What kind of irreparable damage have I done?”
Was I trying to protect perfection or my pride?
When I decided to remove grades from the equation, what would replace it? What filled the gap left by letters and numbers had to be better. It had to have some meaning. It had to be human. I wanted to give my students what they deserved more than anything — recognition.
I decided that I would no longer read their work in isolation. Instead of assigning due dates I offered due windows where my students could sign up to conference their work. We read it aloud. We discuss their ideas. We highlight strengths and discuss areas of growth. We talk about how it impressed me and devise plans to go beyond.
We do it together.
As I have made the effort to center the classroom around the student and replace empty grades with personalized feedback I discovered something. I found that all of my students have voices with so much potential. I learned each of them could exceed my expectations. I realized they were amazing.
So, as I’ve transformed my role from gatekeeper I have decided to give myself a new title. One that challenges me to recognize my students. One that reminds me of their worth. One that values each and every learner. I am desperately trying to vanquish the gatekeeper to the Land of Perfection, a place that never truly existed.
For now, I now will call myself the Seeker of Potential, but that mantle will not last as it is my students who should rename me over and over based on their individual needs.
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