In part one of this series, we looked at relationship as a prerequisite to assessment. This friendship, whether between parent and child, teacher and student, or mentor and apprentice, can offer a rich environment for the cultivation of knowledge and skills, and ultimately wisdom and virtue. In part two, we considered the importance of response, the understanding that assessment is a two-way street and needs to be an interaction between both teacher and student.
Part 3: Results: The Growth After Assessment
In part one of Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Inferno, Virgil takes his student Dante on a journey through Hell. The bad news is that no one wants to go there, but the good news is that for Dante, there is more to come. Hell is only the first part. Thankfully, for Dante’s sake, Virgil has the bigger picture in view. He understands that there is something better coming. He is preparing his student for the journey of a lifetime.
As teachers who love our students, we are also preparing them for a journey. We may only play a small part in their educational life but what they learn from us and with us may affect them for years to come. That’s a large responsibility! To enable the growth of another human being is a serious responsibility indeed, but it is one that comes with great joy in witnessing the flourishing of another. This is why we do what we do, after all.
After an assignment has been assessed, it is only natural that we expect change to take place. We want to see results: student learns, student produces, student corrects, student goes forth to never make the same mistake again—Oops! Perhaps we had better revisit this script? That growth, which we expect to witness in our students, is not fast, is not linear, and is often not visible.
Teachers, may I encourage you with this reminder? Results take time. We see this in plants, in babies, and in building cathedrals. The parable of the sower instructs us that fast growth is often futile growth that does not withstand the stress of life. It is right to expect our students to grow but the timetable is not our own. Does that mean we sit back and do nothing? Of course not! Three things we can do to encourage growth in our students are the same three things that encourage muscle growth in the gym: stress, rest, and food. (I realize that some of you reading this may be teaching in your home, in which case “the classroom” looks more like “the whole of our home.”) The stress of asking them to do hard things, pushing them to do more, requires them to rise to the level of our expectations. This stress is appropriate of course, based on our relationship with our student as well as the feedback and response we are getting (see parts 1 and 2 of this series.) This stress is not endless either. There are breaks for rest. A good teacher understands pacing. There are also breaks for food. Maybe this is a literal feast within your class or maybe it is a break from the routine to do something different, something that feeds everyone’s soul. By giving all of these elements time to work together, the plant grows at a healthy, hardy, sustainable rate.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if the growth in our students was measurable and predictable? That would simplify yearly planning! Since people are not machines, thankfully, we can predict growth patterns to be, well, unpredictable. That student who wrote the outstanding essay last week may be the same one who struggles with something seemingly simple this week. “Two steps forward and three steps back” does not mean you have failed as a teacher, nor does it mean your assessment was mistaken. It probably means this student is a human being who messes up, needs reminding, and will eventually get back on the path. It might also mean that this student who is struggling mightily with writing might be seeing enormous gains in arithmetic or some other area outside of our immediate view. It is reasonable and normal to expect growth, but our expectations need to be tempered with reality. Growth can be messy more often than neat.
The last, and perhaps hardest, aspect of assessment to grapple with is the fact that our students’ growth may very well occur long after they have left our home or classroom. Their “shining moment” may well result from your lovingly administered instruction and critique. Your effort, even a small one, may have contributed to this wonderful display of wisdom and virtue, but you won’t be there to see it. It might help to see this as a good thing and not a disappointing thing. As we teach and train these students, we fully expect them to leave the “nest.” So when they walk out of our classrooms or homes, it is with our blessing. We know we won’t be there right beside them in the same way, but we trust their growth to continue and we pray that our efforts be multiplied by their Heavenly Father who loves them more than we ever could.
When Dante and Virgil emerged from their journey through Hell together, Dante noted “He first, and I behind, we climbed so high that through a small round opening I saw some of the turning beauties of the sky, And we came out to see, once more, the stars.” Wise assessment does more than merely mark papers. It shows our students that the universe awaits.