When I first began teaching other people’s children, the thought of assessing their work filled me with no small amount of dread. Even back then, when it was simply known as “grading”, I became anxious at the thought of telling others that their work had, or had not, met the standard. Why oh why hadn’t I decided to teach math? You either get it right or you don’t. Yes or no. Correct or incorrect. Vainly I searched for encouragement from other Language Arts teachers. The advice ranged from the humorous (“Throw the papers on the stairs. The ones that land near the top are the A’s, the bottom ones are the D’s, sort out the rest.) to the defeatist (“Uncap your red pen and uncap your red wine. Good luck.”) to the honest (“Everyone worries about this and no one thinks they are any good at it.”) Being in the majority was reassuring, but it still wasn’t very helpful.
What has helped? Experience and practice go a long way. I’m thankful for growth over the years and for the parents who trusted me in the beginning (we all have our guinea-pig stories). Learning from skilled mentors also helped. Thank you CiRCE Apprenticeship and Andrew Kern. Your vision continues to make a difference.
If I can encourage you, even just a little, I’d love to share some of what I have learned when it comes to this mysterious process called “assessment.” Let’s take some of the mystery out of it, shall we?
Part 1: Relationship: The Context Before Assessment
When any kind of assessment is taking place, we assume there are at least 2 parties present: the teacher and the student. You might prefer the terms “coach” or “mentor” or “expert” instead of teacher. The student could be a “client”, a “protégé”, or a “participant.” No matter the label, there will be someone who knows more and who has the responsibility to evaluate and judge the progress and/or output. There will be someone who knows less and is there to learn and improve.
The longer I’ve taught, the more I have come to prefer “assessment” over “grading” or “marking.” A machine can grade but it takes a human being to assess. When these two humans are in the place of learning, it helps if there is a relationship present, a relationship that is deeper than simply an outward label. As the one “in charge”, it is incumbent upon me to cultivate and nurture that relationship. How well do I know this student? His family, background, likes, friends, strengths, and weaknesses? “Whoa!” you may be thinking. “That’s a lot to ask of a teacher with 5 classes of 20 students (or more) each!” Yes. Yes it is. (And this is probably the subject of another blog post!) Every single one of my students needs to know that I care. How can I accomplish this?
I can call on them by name in class.
I can greet them with a cheery word when they enter and do the same when they depart.
I can pray for them before class and ask how I may pray for them outside of class.
I can arrange opportunities for feasting and fellowship to allow friendships to grow.
I can share (appropriately) from my own experiences and risk being known.
I can laugh at myself so that we all know not to take ourselves too seriously.
I can receive their input and questions with respect and honor so that they feel safe in sharing.
The question I ask myself is this: “Do my students know I care about them and know that I will do everything in my power to help them grow, learn, and flourish?”
The benefits of this kind of relationship are confidence and trust. A student can have confidence in approaching new and untested content and skills because he trusts the teacher. The student knows that the pace may be strenuous, but it is achievable. The student knows that the teacher will be there today, tomorrow, and in the future in order to see the journey through. I remember the first time I went skiing and my “instructor” took me to the top of the hill and gave me a push. I learned how to do it the wrong way and I never trusted him again. I remember sitting in physics class in high-school and hearing the facts, figures, and formulas pouring out of the teacher’s mouth. If learning is truly the art of overcoming confusion, my learning ground to a screeching halt. Confusion ruled the day. In both cases, the lack of confidence and trust stopped the learning before it could start.
As teachers we may not have a great deal of control over what happens outside of our classrooms. We may not be realistically able to overcome, in one hour, the struggles and pain our students face the other twenty-three. What we can do is pray and pursue, and leave the rest in the Lord’s hands. As much as it depends on us, the relationships we build provide fertile soil for the seeds of knowledge to take root. In this context, assessment can be an asset to that growth.