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A 'Real World' Education: The Art of Giving Zeroes

Note: The National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) will be blogging this week. Today's blogger is 7th grade teacher Rebecca Mieliwocki, the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and California State Teacher of the Year. 

As a National Teacher of the Year and proud member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), I have the joy and the challenge of finding a way to marry the two chambers of my professional heart: classroom teaching and teacher leadership.

This year, my 20th as a teacher, I have the super-cool opportunity to step out of the classroom for a bit to work on twin issues in education that mean the world to me: welcoming new teachers into the profession, and working with teacher teams to increase effectiveness and raise student achievement. My days are filled with all manner of opportunities and trials that keep me on my teacher toes.

One part of my new job includes being in a book study group with a bunch of high school educators. At the behest of the principal, we're reading Grading Smarter Not Harder by Myron Dueck, which is about how our grade books and grading practices sometimes do more harm than we fully understand. We hadn't even made it to chapter two before World War III broke out. Do you want to know what threw a roomful of otherwise reasonable adults into an angry mob? 


Yep. The number zero. 

The angriest group of teachers in the room was enraged at Dueck's suggestion that teachers rethink the zero. He urged us to see kids who fail to turn in their assignments as works-in-progress, and have their lack of work be the first step in a process by which we go after their advancement. The zero is the beginning of the conversation, not the end of the line.  Instead, he asks us to consider giving 'incompletes' to kids until the work comes in.

You'd have thought he asked teachers to raise show ponies on their lunch breaks.

One teacher mounted an impassioned, desk-pounding argument about how school is where we get kids ready for the "Real World" and that if we begin giving kids chances and extended deadlines and do-overs, we are only setting them up for failure. 

He said, "If they don't ever learn that deadlines matter, that being on time matters, then I haven't done my job." He went on to exclaim that if a child doesn't care enough about school or grades to turn work in, then that's the student's problem, not his. 

I did a gut check, steeled myself, and then respectfully disagreed.  And that's when things got real hot, real fast.

This mythical "Real World" that teachers talk about and wield like a sword is a pretty punitive and unforgiving space, apparently. To succeed there, one had better be perfect, have flawless on-time and attendance records, and never, ever, ever have life circumstances that make schoolwork challenging to do. Everything but work-in-hand and on-time is just a pathetic excuse best saved for someone who cares. 

Frankly, it doesn't sound very much like the real world I live in, nor one I'd ever want to.

In the face of all this bitterness about kids who struggle and how to help them, that piece of my teacher core that feels differently about kids lit up. Why? Because after 20 years in the classroom, there's only one thing I truly need my students to know about me, and it's this: your learning matters to me. 

I will wait as long as it takes to find out what you know; but make no mistake, you will show me what you know. There is nothing more important to me and there's next to nothing I won't do to find out. That means I have to invest a lot of time and belief in the idea of the incomplete.

When you replace the zero with an incomplete and then do whatever it takes for that kid to get the work to you such as hosting a homework lunch club or after school homework recovery session, you are teaching accountability. 

When you give a kid an incomplete, and then take the time to find out why the work didn't come in, you're modeling the very real world skill of listening, understanding, and showing empathy. Some of our students come to us with lives of such startling struggle, it would humble us if we knew it. I think teachers ought to take the time to know this about our students, and then help them figure out how to succeed in spite of the cruddy hand they were dealt.

When you mark a child's work incomplete and then follow up with students on when they will have their work to you, you teach them the value of owning their mistakes and following through to correct them. That's being hard on kids and for all the right reasons.

After a year spent with a teacher like this, kids learn to do the work. First, because not doing it involves a whole lot of hassle they'd much rather avoid. Later, they do it because they respect you and how much you cared to make sure they were learning.

You can lay a zero on a kid who doesn't turn in an assignment and walk away. It's the easiest thing in the world to do, and it's even easier to justify it. But you know what?  A long line of zeroes next to a kid's name tells you absolutely nothing about that kid and what she knows or doesn't.

It doesn't tell her parents anything, her principal, her community, or the teacher who gets her next. There's just too much left unknown and as an educator, I can't live with that. 

It's my professional responsibility to know what my students know and where they're at on their learning progression. It's my job to make sure that my students know the lessons I teach matter, the work I assign has value, and the learning that will result from both of those is essential. And when it doesn't come back to me in a way I can examine, I have to go after it. 

Is it easy? Nope. Does it mean I'll have my lunches free to eat in peace with colleagues? No sir. Will I be able to drive off at 3:15 after a solid day's work? I'm afraid that answer is again no. But is putting in the effort to make sure kids get their work done the right thing to do for kids? Yes. 

After all, it's the smallest, neediest clutch of kids who need this kind of teacher the most.  The vast majority of your students succeed with you, exactly the way you ask them to.  The few who don't? They need us to believe more than anything else in the idea of incomplete. All of us are an imperfect work in progress. 

Failing kids under the guise of getting them ready for the "Real World" only gets them ready for failure-- nothing else. If you really want to be hard on kids and give them skills they'll need in the "Real World", help them get up after they've fallen down.

Don't get me wrong. Not every child rises to the meet this challenge. I have had to turn enough incompletes back into zeroes to know that some kids just won't ever become who I'd like them to be. But I know intimately and with certainty exactly what that zero represents. 

I'm certain I didn't make too many friends in my new book club, and I'm a bit sad about that. I wish we could agree on something that's this important. 

The truest measure of you as an educator isn't how hard you make your class to pass, how many zeroes you give, and how many chances you take away in the quest to teach responsibility.

The truer measure is in how you design a meaningful, relevant space for kids, their lives, and their learning, that allows for chances, opportunity, progress, and their eventual success.

It's hard, demanding work for sure. 

It sounds a lot like the real world. 

--Rebecca Mieliwocki

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