My name is Brian Huskie, I’m a National Board Certified English teacher, I’ve been teaching for nine years in an urban school district, and I spend an obscene proportion of my day busily wasting time. After some reflection, I managed to come up with a list of useless and sometimes harmful things I do (or am supposed to do) that are utter wastes of time. Quick note…this is a list of things that waste our time as teachers, not the things that totally and completely waste a student’s time. That’s why “homework’ didn’t make this list. Without further ado:
Grading and feedback are different. There’s nothing wrong with giving feedback, even in the form of a percentage, if that feedback is asked for. If it isn’t, you’re just giving advice to someone who didn’t ask for it, and that’s obnoxious.
Grading is one of those things that is both useless and harmful; I’ve come up with five reasons for that (five seems to be the number of the day). First, learning is unquantifiable. You may be able to observe learning (or you may not), but to say, “That learning equals an 87% whilst that learning equals an 84%” is silly. The only way to pin a number on the quantity learned is by choosing specific objectives and grading either completely objectively, as in multiple choice, or mostly objectively, as with a rubric. Specificity in curricula naturally narrows what could possibly be learned. It inhibits learning, as those students who buy into this system forsake all other possible knowledge for the sake of the grade, and those less enthusiastic of your (or the state’s) particular idea of standards will do the absolute minimum, again simply for a grade. In both instances the score takes precedence over the process, and the only thing really taught is how to play school. Grades also create a disincentive for creativity and risk-taking, since both of those things could possibly result in a reduction of grade, due to deviation from the force-fed curricula or simply incorrect answers. For example, the following picture, culled from the internet:
A friend sent this to me for a laugh, but I found it sad. It’s a perfect example of how grading inhibits learning. Presumably a student actually believed that a teacher wanted them to write the word “or” five times (that number again!). If I told you to write a word ten times, and it was for a grade, would you do it? As a student, if those were the directions, would you? Remember, it’s for a grade! Students are reluctant to challenge teachers because the teacher can “hold them accountable” via grades. Oftentimes, in my experience, students don’t even think challenging an assignment or an activity or a novel is an option. Grades are a tool to teach obedience to the master of the classroom. They are, to my knowledge, the most oft used method of coercion, which is the fourth reason grading is harmful. I’ve never had a strong desire to control someone, and yet that’s what it’s called: “She doesn’t have control of her class,” etc. It’s the “problem” with pass/fail classes at the High School level. If there’s no grade, then there is nothing to use to coerce students into your idea of important work.
The fifth and final reason why grades are harmful is also, for me, the saddest. That is, the grade you give a student is their perception of what you think of them as a person…whether or not you like them. You can try to convince yourself otherwise, but even graduate students believe their final grade is a reflection of the professor’s personal feelings. There’s no way around it. Have you ever said something along the lines of, “I got an F minus because Ms. Pimplepopper doesn’t like me?” Or an “A plus” because she “does like” you? Even the perception of conditional love is enough for me to believe that grading is not just a waste of time, but harmful to students.
There is a book by Chris Mercogliano titled Making It Up as We Go: The Story of The Albany Free School. I don’t entirely make it up as I go, since I work for a public school, but I have found that the more I loosen the reigns, the more the students produce, and the happier and more content they are. That’s because learning best happens when you are in a comfortable, playful state of mind, and doesn’t happen when you’re anxious. I’ve read and written lesson plans with steps like, “Students will discuss” something kind of specific and “come to the conclusion that” something more specific. The more in detail you plan, the more you’re scripting what you want them to think and do. That adds stress (anxiety) since their grade and your approval hinges on how well they play the “guess what my teacher is thinking” game. Not to mention your goals, interests, standards, etc. aren’t theirs.
3) Formal Observations
Paraphrasing John Holt, learning is the business of learners. Just as a good amount of what teachers try to do for (or to) kids actually gets in the way of their learning, most of what administrators try to do in the name of “instructional leadership” gets in the way of teaching. A great deal of time and money has been spent by people much smarter than me on methods and rubrics used to quantify teaching. The fact is that while you can see generally good or bad teaching, you run into virtually the same exact issues as grading students. Let’s ask ourselves what the purpose of a formal observation is. To my knowledge, they are about growing a teacher’s skills with useful feedback, and quality control. To both points, an administrator who walks into a room between one and three times a year, on a day that was scheduled, with students who may or may not have been bribed with the promise of a pizza party, is going to be limited as to what kind of useful feedback they can give, assuming they are capable of giving any, and also limited in how they assess the teacher.
4) Compulsive Standardized Testing
You want to take an AP exam or the SATs? Have at it. Why on earth we spend the amount of time and money forcing everyone into the same measures of success is beyond me. How anyone allows their children to take any compulsory test is also beyond me. High School students are old enough to make their own decisions, and I’ve already suggested they go on strike. Compulsory testing wastes our time and the taxpayer’s money practicing, grading, reading, sorting, photocopying, proctoring, all in the name of harming kids. I’m not a constitutional scholar, but I’m pretty sure the 14th Amendment freed the slaves. We don’t have to take tests just because the state told us to. We’re free men and women.
5) Writing Bathroom Passes
This wastes less time and is less harmful than any of the other points, but is symbolically important. I am compelled by policy to give written permission to 16 to 20 year olds for the privilege of emptying their bladders and bowels, or to drink a little water, or to do a quick lap around the building to clear their heads. I don’t understand how that’s normal.