The ‘A student’

“Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.”                                         -Martina Navratilova

Over the years I have encountered the label ‘A student’ in a variety of situations. Students identify themselves with it, parents use it, even teachers talk about students by using this label. When I was younger I thought of myself as an ‘A/B student’. But what does it really mean?

Let’s start with the multifaceted composition of an A. Does the letter indicate that the student achieves at a high academic level? Or, does it connote that the student is compliant and follows all the rules? Could it be that a student has shown so much growth over a marking period that the teacher wants to reward it? Grades get muddied so often in the educational world that many times we don’t know what has elicited an A.

Letter grade labels can become tied to students’ identities. The label is a part of who they are and it can define them both in and out of the classroom. For these students As are what should appear at the end of every marking period for every class. But what happens when an ‘A student’ gets a B? or even a C? This is a crushing blow and can feel like they have failed. How do ‘A students’ react to struggle, frustration, and failure (which to them does not necessarily mean a grade of F)? For true learning to happen, these are part of the process. Learning is uncomfortable at times. Often the process begins with making mistakes, having misunderstandings, and working over time to develop proficiency.

Parents attach an ‘A student’ label as a source of pride. They at times talk very openly about their children’s grades and put the label out as a sign of excellence. But is it a sign of excellence? And if so, what type of excellence? I go back to the idea that an A can represent so much more than academic achievement and we may not know what has contributed to it. This also creates stress for students. When they hear how proud their parents are about the As, they feel as if anything less would be unacceptable. Don’t get me wrong, there is reason to be proud as a parent when kids are successful, but we need to move away from labels and focus on student learning.

Let’s consider the converse situation. If a child is labeled an ‘F student’, how do they feel? Do they believe they can move up? Letter grade labels have the impression of being fixed and in turn, hinder motivation. The ‘A student’ perceives they are doing just fine the way they are, and the ‘F student’ feels as if there is no way to move up and grow. Have you ever tried to remove a mailing label from a magazine? They don’t come off easily and it is the same for our students.

To turn this around, learning environments need to be safe places while students progress to proficiency. This journey has potholes, bumps, wrong turns as well as an achievable destination. A safe environment sans labels with one goal – to meet the learning objectives. A safe environment with a teacher who models growth mindset and sets high expectations for all students.

For me, it took a long time to break away from my label of ‘A/B student’. It defined me and I’m sure I could have gotten more out of my classes if I didn’t rely on being ‘good enough’. Let’s remember that labeling files or clothing is acceptable, but labeling people is not.  We all learn, we all strive for growth, and we are all capable of success.

 

Strength in letting go

Do teachers own their content? Are the information and concepts taught at each grade level and subject area exclusive to that class? The issue of content and where/when it should be taught to kids is something we hold near and dear to our hearts as teachers. It is something that feels as though it is ours and has a personal connection. But do we own it? Are there certain concepts that can only be taught in a particular grade or at a certain time of year? I don’t believe this is true. There is a natural flow of complexity as kids grow and learn, but limits on how far students can go are detrimental.  I believe we should focus instead on skills and understanding, leaving content to the contexts where it is appropriate.

This evokes nervousness in some teachers. It can derive from uncertainty about how next year’s teachers will react when some kids are further along. Another part of the fear lies in knowing students will leave at the end of the year in different places with content. But doesn’t that happen already? No matter how great a curriculum map or scope and sequence is, the student variance will exist. Let’s move past that anxiousness and focus on learning.

When working with students, I want to develop and encourage their curiosity. Over the years, I have experienced curriculum maps, state standards, benchmarks, and goals. I liked having a guiding framework, but at the same time didn’t want it to limit what I  or my students did. I preferred open-ended standards  or maps that allowed students to delve deeper with their learning. Final outcomes should be laid out without confining teachers and students to a restrictive day by day timeframe for their learning. Topics should not be limited or bound, there is no ceiling to learning unless we create one.

What happens when kids are told ‘No, we cover that topic next year.’? What happens to their motivation? Do we as teachers own certain concepts and allow others to own different ones with no space for deviation? If we believe that learning never stops kids need to believe it too. If we want their passion for learning to drive motivation we cannot get in the way. Be intentional with language and communication in the classroom. Ask more questions rather than giving answers. Learn about your kids and show them how learning is encompassed in every part of their lives. Tell students to go, not to stop.

What about when a concept comes up in the future that students worked with previously? As a language teacher, did I need to be concerned if a student learned a verb tense prior to when it was supposed to appear in the curriculum? No. When it comes back around, students can go even further with the concept. We don’t ‘own’ particular concepts…let’s be cognizant of the fact that with technology at our fingertips, students have access to limitless information. Now we return to a focus on skills and understandings. Students need practice at how to apply, analyze, and synthesize all the information available to them.

Some of us think that holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.                     -Hermann Hesse