Of Pencils, Sporks and Compliance

ImageWhen I was a middle school principal several years ago, a parent stopped by my office one morning angry about a grade her son earned on a social studies test. When I looked at the test it was clear why she was mad.

At the top of the test (which was all multiple choice questions), the teacher had written in black ink “88% B+.” Great score, right?

Not so fast. With a red pen the teacher had drawn a thick X over the 88% B and wrote next to it: “0% F No Pencil.”

The classroom policy required students to do their work in pencil. (Why? I’m not sure. This was a social studies class, not a math class). Because the student had taken the test in pen, the teacher gave him a 0 on his test. To make matters worse, before the test began the student asked the teacher to borrow a pencil, and the teacher refused.

When I asked the teacher what this was all about, the answer was what you might expect: “We need to teach our students to be responsible.” Instead, I think she was teaching this student to hate school and not to trust adults.

So the question becomes, what are grades for? Many leading educational scholars argue against assigning grades at all. Many of those arguments have great merit, but I don’t want to get into that discussion here.

Even if we just accept the traditional practice of assigning grades the question still remains, what is the grade for? It should be a representation of the student’s knowledge, right? Not an indication if the student used the correct writing utensil. Or headed his paper properly. Or used the proper clear plastic binder. Or any of those other things that measure compliance while we euphemistically say we are teaching responsibility.

I am a grown man with three college degrees. I have a wife and kids and a mortgage. I go to church every Sunday and call my parents on their birthdays. And sometimes I forget my pencil. When I do, I ask to borrow a pencil–or I use a pen–and life goes on.

But what if doctors were this ill prepared, you might ask. I guarantee if a doctor forgot to bring his scalpel into surgery, he wouldn’t use a spork. Somebody would give him a scalpel.

So what happened to the young man and his test? I asked the teacher to change the grade. No…that’s not right. I didn’t ask the teacher to change the grade I asked the teacher to give the student the grade he earned.

The cries came that I was not supportive of the teacher. But the truth is I was supportive of the teacher; I gave her an opportunity to learn from her mistake and did so in a way that allowed her to save face with the family.

To me, it’s more important to support WHAT is right rather than WHO is right.


2 thoughts on “Of Pencils, Sporks and Compliance

  1. I’ve been teaching about Ancient Greece and the Socratic Seminar – our ability to ask good questions. As my students are practicing the skill of questioning, I can only recall when I was growing up and “children were to be seen and not hear!” I love when students ask GOOD questions like may I borrow a pencil?

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