Friday, April 29, 2011

A Tough Love Teacher

Throughout my years as a student and later, when I became a teacher, writing had always been important to me. In fact, my love for writing would eventually lead me to become a English teacher in college.

Once I began teaching, I was shocked at the poor writing and reading skills of at least half of my students, and wondered how they had even gotten into college in the first place.

Nonetheless, I was convinced I could  make a difference; I would be the one to teach them to love what they had grown to hate: writing an essay! I was a dreamer.

But what I grew to fear and hate the most about teaching was having to grade my student's work. Even more dreadful was the day I returned their papers. Students fidgeted, their faces full of anxiety as I handed them the graded essays, the one or two A and B papers, the many C, and the few D and F ones . I had resolved early on not to mark them up with "red ink" so I used blue ink, hoping it wouldn't hurt as much.

"Class, if I didn't love you, I wouldn't even bother to write comments on your papers. I would just hand them back and let you figure out why you got the grade you did. I could just write a single word or phrase 'good job', 'you can do better' on each one. I know it hurts but take time to read my comments and you will see that many are just suggestions and not errors you have committed. I try to suggest to you how you could have made yours a stronger, better essay."

Regardless, I could see the grief in their faces. "But I worked hard on this paper", "I thought I did good", "I have never gotten a C- on any paper before!?" Were their labored responses. Sometimes, it took 10 minutes just to quiet them down afterward so I could begin the day's lesson, so I started handing the essays back at the end of the period. I always ended that period by inviting them to see me during my office hours so I could go over the comments with them individually. Few ever took up my offer.

In each batch of 25-30 students there were always 4-5 who didn't even bother to turn in a paper. I would let them slide on the first essay, but once they failed to turn in a second one, I would ask to see them after class or in my office to inquire about why. I offered them the opportunity of turning in one of the two as a "late" paper. After the third failure, I would advise them they were failing the class, and to consider "dropping" it rather than risk a failing grade.Some made a serious turn around after these interventions and began turning in their work.

Elena was one of these students. After her failure to turn in the second paper I approached her one Monday. I told her that the way she was going, she would fail the class. I would give her one more chance to turn in essay number two late, and that if she failed to do so I might consider dropping her from the course. I got the usual "I've been so busy. There's lots of stuff going on in my house. I promise I will have it on Friday."

She complied. On Friday she turned in her paper. When I read it, I was shocked to see about a 6th grade level of writing. Her spelling, the grammar, and format was atrocious. "No wonder she has not been turning in her work", I thought. After much thought, I called her to my office. "Elena, you are so far behind in your writing that honestly I can't see how you will be able to pass this course. My advice to you is to drop it, and take a lower level writing class for at least one semester and then take the course again. You can take it from me, or another instructor if you feel more comfortable."

The student was devastated. Tears welled in her eyes. "Do I have to? I promise I will work harder if you give me a chance." "Yes, but I cannot even promise you C grade in this class. This course is transferable, and If you fail it, you will have to take it again anyway?"

After a long silence she asked "Do I have to drop now? I am learning so much in your course." I hesitated and said "No, you can wait until the drop deadline", which was still over a month away, "and drop then if you want. That way you can get the most out of this course and your time will not be completely wasted." We agreed.

She stayed until the deadline and dropped the course. I felt badly. Why had I been so mean to Elena? Why was I so strict? I had passed many with a C grade, though in my heart I knew they didn't deserve it. Why not her? Of those I failed, I never most them again, but when I did, and they saw me coming on campus and pretended they didn't know me, or quickly turned in another direction. I got no joy out of failing any one of my students, with the exception of one or two. That felt good, I must admit.

I did not see Elena on campus for a couple of semesters and one day on my way to my office I heard a young girl's voice "Mr. Rios! Mr. Rios!" She smiled and we shook hands. It was Elena. "I did what you told me, Mr. Rios! I took two remedial writing classes and this semester I am taking English 1A and doing B work!" She said excitedly. "I just want to thank you. Of all the teachers I ever had, not one ever told me I had any problems with my writing. They all just passed me along giving me the impression I was doing fine. You are the only one, Mr. Rios and I want to thank you for that."

Elena had just confirmed what in my heart I knew to be true but which was a burden to admit, that too many of our students are just "passed along", products of grade inflation, by teachers who do not want to take the time, are afraid, or simply don't care enough to be honest with them. How, in good conscience were they ever allowed to pass high school, and get into college, without ensuring they had the necessary skills to survive it?

I went to my next class and collecting another pile of essays, noticed that Juan had not turned his in. "Ah, I'll talk to him next week", I assured myself and went to the teacher's lounge for a cup of coffee. It was cold outside and the fog was beginning to roll in, again.

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