Chances are if you’re a parent of a school-aged child, you know of a teacher that, no matter how much your child plugged away at a lesson, a project, or a full semester’s worth of coursework, was fixated on keeping your child from earning at least a B on whatever was being graded. It’s just as likely that you yourself had such a teacher who was intent on giving you a high C grade and shutting you out of that favored subgroup of classroom blue birds.
Over the years I’ve seen this trait so many times in my schools—these are the teachers I call “bell-curve teachers,” because they typically peg a student’s placement along an imagined bell curve very early in the school year, and the rest of the year is basically spent justifying this initial pinpointing along the curve. Some teachers have even boasted to me about their “efficient” ability to know in the opening days of school which kids are the “A” kids, which ones will be the “B” kids, and so on. These teachers say that figuring this out quickly helps them to grade a huge stack of weekly papers swiftly. “I know these kids before the end of the first week,” one English teacher with over thirty years of experience told me. “On Sunday evenings,” this same teacher gloated, “I’m able to place the papers into the right stack of A papers, B papers, and C papers, based on who the kid is.”
My daughter had a name for some of her teachers who dished out these judgments early in the new school year. She called them the “79.4%” teachers. “They’re so annoying, and so unfair,” my daughter would say. I always found it suspicious when a language arts teacher would assign numerical grades with decimal points—the homework, participation, unit tests, and project grades, for example, would show numerical scores in the upper 70’s and a few in the low 80’s, but at year’s end there it was: that stinging, composite, frustrating number of 79.4, certifying that your daughter definitely didn’t belong in the B category and asserting, defensively and emphatically, that the teacher’s initial bell curve placement was indeed correct all year long.
My point here is not to call out the haughty or lazy teachers—yes, they do exist in our schools and they need to be weeded out, however we can accomplish that. My aim here is to highlight the contrasting and healthy approach: the growth mindset among all who partake, fully and genuinely, in the educational enterprise—teacher, student, administrator, and parent. [Regarding grading, I believe very strongly in a more organic approach—a topic I’ll cover in a future blog.] The educator’s growth mindset is the one who sees students as “growth beings” and sees that learning is and should be an ever-evolving process throughout the school year. Learning is not about reaching, and then stopping at, a fixed and preordained point of competency; nor is it about displaying knowledge or skills one already possesses.
Schools are places that must always be in motion, and that means everyone inside the school must be in continuous motion. That bell curve I mentioned earlier should really be an undulating, elastic band with all involved—teachers and students—bouncing up and down toward deeper understanding and growth.