A recent situation with one of my student’s parent’s really got me thinking about an important question: What do teachers owe their students.
Here’s my answer:
I do not give out grades. My students earn them. And I don’t owe any student an A, or any grade for that matter. What I do owe them is a realistic assessment of their work so that they can continue to push themselves further and further. I owe them opportunities to engage in deeply important issues to develop critical thinking skills and a social consciousness that will serve them throughout their lives. I owe them increased, access, opportunity, and personal growth. I owe them a love and concern for their well-being that is so great that I refuse to give them a grade they have not not earned because they deserves to know what the benefits of hard work and real learning feel like. I owe them multiple opportunities to come to know themselves and the world better as a result of being in my class. I owe them preparation for the rest of their life. I owe them a deeper concern with the quality of the last 7 decades of their life than with their enjoyment and sense of ease in the four years of high school. I owe them satisfaction with the ability of their education to serve them throughout their lives.
Too often in education, adults get caught up in doing what helps us sleep at night. Under No Child Left Behind, adults in schools have become so obsessed with high grades and passing test scores, even if this means making the tests and assignments so easy that they do not challenge students. But if we really care about our students and our children as deeply as we profess to, then our first obligation must be to them, not to ourselves. High grades are not an end. They are a byproduct of real, deep, meaningful learning, and unless we are unmoved in that being the case, we are not serving our students well. If we were more concerned about students becoming critical thinkers, knowing more about the historical events/people/issues of the past, valuing themselves and others, valuing the pursuit and equitable use of knowledge, and change agents committed to social justice, we wouldn’t have to worry about their grades. The A’s and the B’s would come as byproducts of real learning. But if we focus on the grades, there is no guarantee that real learning will accompany them. And then, what have we given students? False hope? A belief in an open pathway to a future that is really marred with obstacles and challenges? A false sense of failure and lack of self worth when the lies we’ve sold them can’t buy their way out of their lived reality?
If you tell students that they’re ready when they aren’t, you do the greatest disservice possible to students who already have the cards stacked against them. I understand that so many people want to spare youth the trials and tribulations of adulthood, but I think that the idea that children should not be burdened with the inequalities and unfairness of the world is a middle class privilege that we can’t afford to keep selling to low-income kids. So much of the sorting and access to power in American society is decided in the first 18 years of life. Whether you go to college matters. Whether you get postsecondary training for whatever your goals are matters. What college you go to matters. Whether you know all the options available to you matters. And students from historically disadvantaged communities deserve to know that. It is too late to tell them when they’re 18 and supposedly ready for the realities of adulthood. By then, in many cases, so many pathways have already closed.
In the battle for increased access, increased opportunity, and social mobility, we must arm low-income youth with weapons of truth. Instead of offering them 18 years of “innocence”, why not prepare them to live 70 years of fulfillment? In order to do that, they will have to work twice as hard and play half as much as wealthier children. Not expecting them to do that does not change this reality. Instead, it sets children up for even more difficult adulthoods devoid of the knowledge and skills that are crucial to their ability to deconstruct the societal and structural constraints that silence their voices, ignore their needs, devalue their potential, and limit their agency.
That’s what I owe my students. The truth about the ways thing are. And the knowledge and skills to change it.