End of the Term Pile-Up

This past week, the first marking period of the 2010-2011 school year came to a close. In NYCDOE high schools, the year is divided into six terms: three for the first semester, and three for the second. Students receive report cards six times a year. However, only two of these sets of grades, the January and June reports, really "count," in that they appear on the students' permanent records. The others are essentially progress reports to update parents on students' progress. Though teachers are instructed to average the other marking period grades into the January and June ones, these midterm report cards still have an air of artificiality for the students; in a sense, the kids have still been on summer vacation until this wake-up call.

The teachers, however, cannot afford such a cavalier attitude. At the close of each term, we are given print-outs of our students' grades, along with our "stats" -- the percentage of students passing in each of the classes we've taught that marking period, and an overall student pass-rate for all our courses. (In NYC high schools, "passing" is a grade of 65 or above.) While teachers are not hired or fired based solely on these stats, the numbers do come under scrutiny, particularly during one-on-one goal-setting meetings or post-observation conferences between administrators and teachers. Each of us dreads the moment that the assistant principal will pull out a damning set of stats -- say, a 7:35 a.m. class with a 20 percent pass-rate, corresponding with abysmal attendance -- and ask, "So, we've noticed you had a particularly low pass-rate in this class. Could you explain why this might have happened, and what you could have done to enable more students to succeed?"

It is precisely this fear, of being cornered after failing too many students, that gets me into trouble when I'm trying to produce term grades -- particularly at the end of the first term, when the students have been slow in getting back into the school mentality. Throughout the term, I'll give a certain number of assignments. Some students will complete them on time. Many will not, and will ask for various forms of extension and accommodation: "I forgot to do the homework -- can I take the weekend and turn it in on Monday?" or "I lost the assignment -- can I have another copy?" Then, without fail, the students will turn in the late/make-up work at last possible second of the term, resulting in a massive pile-up; in order to produce marking period grades, I have to mark stacks upon stacks of back-logged papers first.

My rule for accepting past-due work, which I announce at the beginning of the year and write into my student/teacher contract, is that I'll take it up to a week late, with a deduction for each day past the due date. After a week, I will not accept late work. That said, I've never been able to enforce this rule in a hard-and-fast way, as I'd like to. For starters, there are the inevitable emergency situations -- and when you teach 150 students per term, you're guaranteed at least a few of these each time -- that require forbearance. Last year, right around the close of the fifth marking period (early May), one of my students came to school and announced nonchalantly that his house had burned down the previous night. His family had moved into a homeless shelter. Subsequently, when he requested make-up work for days he missed while his family was dealing with various social services organizations, I can't imagine any teacher turned him down. (I certainly didn't.) So, you count on having some extenuating circumstances that result in a scramble to mark just-received papers the night before grades are due.

It's the students without extenuating circumstances -- which is the majority of them -- for whom the question of whether to accept late work really gets sticky. On the one hand, you want to teach the kids responsibility: if a paper was due two weeks ago, it should have been turned in two weeks ago. "In the real world," I tell the kids, "your boss is never going to accept your work two weeks late -- and right now, school is your main job." Furthermore, assignments cease to be relevant when completed late, or out of order. One of the most absurd interactions I regularly have with students is when they ask if they can "make up" a missing draft of a paper... after they've already turned in and received a grade on the final version of the same paper. (Pointing out that the draft was supposed to be a precursor to the final paper yields only frantic pleas: "But Miss! I really need the 50 points!")

On the other hand, there is the issue of the stats. It isn't good to be the teacher who "failed" too many students. Inevitably, that teacher is looked upon with suspicion: If he or she is truly a successful educator, then why have so many students failed the class? Moreover, I think it's fair to say that the majority of us are in this business because, simply, we like the kids. We want them to be proficient in our respective subjects, to learn something beyond what the state tests will ask (more on that in a later blog), to get their credits, and eventually to graduate. Just as we wish for the approval of our administrations, we teachers gauge our own success based on how well the kids do. Giving lots of failing grades, even if they are well-deserved, is a bitter pill for most teachers to swallow.

So, the end of the term comes around, and we face the pile-up. At least, that's what always happens to me. I go days on only three hours of sleep a night (becoming quite cranky with the kids at times), churn through reams of papers with my red pen in hand, and collapse at the end of it all. Then, I can pass as many students as possible.

To be completely honest, I'm not sure whether this makes me a better teacher, or a worse one.