(How) Should We Count Effort in Students’ Grades on Writing?

I’m sure most teachers have experienced this: You watch some students struggle and struggle to write well. They revise and rewrite. They come for extra help. They work with a writing tutor. But, short of having someone else actually do some of the writing for them, their final products are only so-so.

And then other students with very little exertion of effort can produce a good or even excellent piece of writing that scores high on the rubric. Do we simply file this under “Life Isn’t Fair,” and move on, or is this more of a dilemma?

What is Effort?

Effort goes by many names: sweat-equity, determination, perseverance, grit, work-ethic. To reach one’s true potential, it’s imperative that one expend one’s full effort in a task. In a 2014 Research in the Teaching of English article, Asao B. Inoue calls it “labor failure” when a student underperforms on a writing assignment due to lack of effort. 

“[L]abor-failure,” Inoue says, “is often associated with not achieving or demonstrating a defined degree of effort, quantity of written products, and/or amount of time spent on an weightliftingactivity such as reading or drafting. . . Labor-failure is associated with noncognitive dimensions such as conscientiousness, persistence, and motivation.” (339)

An ability, a willingness, even a disposition toward expending effort is a good thing. Few adults would disagree.

Oddly enough, some students disagree. I remember an enlightening conversation I had with an extremely intelligent, accomplished young student when I was in my first couple of years of teaching. Sydney was talking to me about the comments we teachers put on students’ report cards along with their grades. (This was in the very early 90s, and we had a scan-tron system that allowed us to choose from about 40 different comments, such as Student shows excellent potential or Student is frequently late to class.) Sydney told me bluntly that the “smart kids” considered the comment Student works hard in class to be an insult. She said it was equivalent to saying the student wasn’t really succeeding, but at least the student was trying. I countered that often I assign a grade of A and I also comment that the student works hard in class. Sarah was unimpressed. She said, “That’s just as bad. You’re saying the only way the student did well in class was by having to work really hard.” Huh?

This was extremely telling. It wasn’t enough for “the smart kids” to be getting As. Those As had to come from natural ability, not hard work. I was polite to Syndey–who went on to an Ivy League college and I’m sure a fantastically successful career–but I found her attitude utterly loathsome. Doesn’t effort matter? Shouldn’t determination, work ethic, sweat be admired?

Clearly not all students believe this. Maryellen Wiemer cites a study in her 2012 blog for The Teaching Professor in which 120 undergraduates were asked how much effort should count in a writing assignment’s grade. They said effort should count for 39%.

Even still, is the amount of effort expended really relevant to the quality of a piece of writing?

The Value of Writing Quality

Ultimately, writing is what writing does. And no matter how hard one works on a piece of writing, what it does is all that matters in terms of its success. In the world outside school, no one really cares how much the writer has worked. The quality of the piece of writing itself is all that counts. At least until the writer achieves celebrity acclaim, a complication few of us will ever have to worry about.1_diamonds-girls-best-friend

Students deserve an honest assessment of the quality of their pieces of writing, and they need such an assessment to have an accurate sense of how effective they are as writers in general. Putting too much emphasis on effort could give students an inflated sense of their strengths and weaknesses. This isn’t being nice: This is setting students up for failure.

So what’s a teacher to do?

Putting Effort in Its Place

Teachers have several dilemmas when they grade. I’ve blogged recently about deliberately avoiding objectivity and about retaining humility when one responds to writing. I think determining how and when to include Effort as a criterion is another judgment a teacher has to make each time s/he assigns writing.

Here are some of the guidelines I use as I decide how and when to count Effort:

  • The younger the student, the more important it is to include effort as part of the grade. We need to assess and count students’ effort, so they expend the best efforts they can and learn to derive pleasure from working hard and achieving higher-level success from that effort.
  • The more advanced and more unfamiliar the genre of writing is to the student, the more emphasis should be placed on Effort. Students will take more risks and try harder if they know their trying will be counted more than the quality of their finished product.
  • The older the student and the more specialized they become in the genre being assigned, the less Effort should count, even to the point of not counting at all.
  • At the beginning of a school year or a semester, Effort should count more than it does toward the end of the class, when the students are more comfortable with the genre(s) and the teachers’ grading. The steepness of the change should depend on the maturity and writing experience of the students in the class.
  • Just as we suspend judgment in some aspects of writing process (brainstorming, for example), we should also suspend judgment of quality in some writing assignments. When that happens is the purview of the teacher and needs to be made on a case-by-case basis for each assignment. As Inoue points out, grading solely on effort can help students focus on their efforts and can also help avoid “the damaging psychological effects, such as performance-avoidance and low self-efficacy, that grading by quality can cause many students” (345).download
  • There may be occasions when effort should count differently for different students in the same class. It depends on what experience and tolerance for risk-taking the student brings to the assignment.
  • When a student’s effort is being considered as part of a grade, the student should be told. It’s important that students know that their effort has real value and is thus worth grade “credit.” Students also need to know what the quality level of their finished writing is.

How to Solve This Dilemma? Student Learning!

Like all dilemmas in teaching, there is a clear compass: student learning. Do what will increase your students’ learning best. Use grading Effort as a dial you can turn from 0-100 to employ the appropriate degree to get the best learning results in each writing assignment in each class for each student. Making these decisions effectively is what professional teachers do, and it’s what makes us experts. 


The Importance of Being Humble When Grading

In my last post, I wrote about the futility of trying to be objective when grading student writing. The point I make is that teachers must bring their professional judgments to bear on writing as they grade it. Teachers must be completely, intentionally, and unapologetically subjective in their responses to student writing.

But with that authority is the responsibility to be humble.

The Power of the Grader

It’s not news to anyone that teachers have power over their students. Grades and other feedback are among the strongest ways teachers exert their power, sometimes more than they even realize. A stinging comment, a too sharp wise-crack, a too-direct suggestion can crater a student’s confidence and his or her trust in that teacher. But a student’s hurt feelings is actually not the most important reason for teachers to be careful about how they wield the power of the grade and response.

Teachers, like everyone else, can only read through their experience and knowledge. Even the smartest among us has limited experience and knowledge—and it’s likely you are not in the group of “the smartest among us.” I can guarantee you I am not in the group of “the smartest among us”—and I can almost hear my former students’ (and current family

We all read through the lenses of our experience.

members’) heads nodding in annoyingly enthused agreement! We should not respond to student writing as if we are the sole arbiters of writing quality; nor should we make comments that imply as much. If you do respond to students as if your way is the only correct way, you will set your students up for future failure.

Even more important: well-designed, authentic writing assignments require students to write for audiences well beyond the teacher.  The best feedback on that writing comes not from the teacher, but from members of the audience to whom that writing is aimed. In these cases, teachers can pretend to be members of that audience, but this completely artificial. It’s far better if the teacher can devise ways for students to get real feedback from real members of their intended audience. And teachers should use that external

Writers need real-world feedback.

feedback to grade and respond to students’ writing. Teachers shouldn’t be the sole arbiter of student writing, but rather at least in some cases, should be collectors, synthesizers, and communicators of external feedback. If you never count the feedback of other readers in your students’ grades, then you are inflating your own sense of correct and of effective writing. Again,  you are setting your students up for future failure.

Four Strategies for Practicing Humility as a Grader of Writing

  1. Work from a specific handbook for correctness. Choose a style guide that you and your students can use to consult for questions about what is right and wrong regarding grammar, spelling, usage, and other debatable matters in writing. If you don’t choose a standard, you are probably subjecting students to your opinions of what is right and wrong. Even if most people would agree with your opinions (and that’s doubtful in more cases than you might realize), it’s not fair for students to have to guess at what you think is right or wrong. Select a handbook and use that as a reference to which students have access. I favor Diana Hacker’s inexpensive and portable style guide, but there are many others out there. The Purdue OWL is also a terrific resource and is free to anyone with Internet access. For deliciously in-depth debates regarding style & usage there’s no better resource than Garner’s Modern American English.
  2. Work to make your feedback facilitative, not directive. These are terms I learned decades ago from Cy Knoblauch and Lil Brannon, and they remain critically influential in my teaching and in the teaching of many others. Instead of writing, “This is awkward, organize!” write, “This is hard for me to understand. Could you write this more clearly?” Instead of, “Not enough detail,” write, “As a reader, I’d enjoy reading more about this here.” The point is to honor students as the writers of their papers; we are mere visitors, hoping to leave student writers more aware than we found them.
  3. Allow students to get and use feedback from each other. But be careful not to make peer response a game in which students have to help each other guess what the teacher will like or not like. Instead, allow the students to talk about what they like in each other’s writing and what they like to hear more or less about in their peers’ work. Even better: incorporate students’ feedback on each other’s work in your summercareercampsgrades and responses. In my classes in which I use peer response, I often make comments like the following on student work: “I would really have preferred to see _________ in your writing, but I have to admit that ______ & _______ liked it just how it is, so your writing was effective with them.” Teachers can’t abdicate their authority to make useful judgments on student writing, but we should acknowledge that in the world outside school, there is rarely a single, all-powerful audience like there almost always is in school.
  4. Swap papers with another teacher and respond to each other’s students. Then you put the grade after reading that other teacher’s feedback. This is a great way to open your mind to other ways of seeing your students’ writing. Sure this can cause debate and could even lead to some embarrassing moments (say you make a mistake in your response), but that will remind you that writing to someone with as much or more authority than you is kinda scary.

Developing Grading Humility

The strategies above can certainly help any teacher remain humble while grading student writing. But, without question, the absolute best way to be humble as a writing grader is to be a writer.

Write often and share it in any of the following ways:

  • Start a writing group with friends and colleagues
  • Contribute to a blog in your fields of interest
  • Send a letter to the editor to your local paper
  • Write an op-ed piece for a newspaper
  • Send an article to your state NCTE affiliate’s journal (or whatever your professional association’s affiliate journal is)
  • Send an article to English Journal

And to really be a writer who teaches writing surrounded by other writers who teach writing, get involved with the National Writing Project. I’ve actually never been a member of the NWP, but I have learned tremendous amounts from those who have.

Striking the Right Balance

Giving supportive, useful, professional feedback on student writing is challenging. I believe it’s something all good writing teachers struggle with throughout their careers. If you’re trying hard to do this well, you’re probably on the right track.



Grading Student Writing Objectively: A Myth and a Trap

Many newer teachers and non-specialists believe that above all else, teachers should be objective when they grade student writing.  That is, they should grade based on fact, not bias. After all, this kind of thinking goes, isn’t it wrong to judge student work subjectively, bringing one’s own thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives to bear on student work?

Christopher Smith
Objectivity is a goal for scientists, but not for writing teachers.

If teachers are permitted to make distinctions about the quality of students’ writing based on their own ideas and pre-conceived notions, doesn’t that give the teacher too much power? Doesn’t that allow teachers to indoctrinate students, control the ways they think? Doesn’t this encourage brainwashing?!

Grading Writing Objectively is a Myth

You are human. You filter everything through your experience, your understanding, your identify. Who you are is inherently part of how you read. When you read, you make judgments. Making judgments is, in fact, the process you use to read. Trying to eliminate yourself from your reading_44595understanding of the world is a doomed project.

Plato knew this, and he spent his lifetime trying to find a way around it. He failed. His student, Aristotle, embraced this failure and turned it into a strength, creating entire fields of study to find ways to create data upon which to base decisions.

Don’t be Plato. Be Aristotle.

To put it a little less grandly: it’s actually impossible to read objectively. We can try to create distance from the texts our students create (by using rubrics, for example; or by designing authentic writing projects), but we can only achieve so much of that. Teachers create the assignments, teach ways to complete them, and then have to assess the success of their students’ products.  Teachers are way too implicated in this entire process to be able to claim any real level of objectivity with a straight face.

This doesn’t mean teachers should ignore the responsibility to put aside some of their personal beliefs when they great student writing. In fact, teachers have a professional responsibility to be mindful of their personal biases and to ensure they do not interfere with their ability to grade student writing fairly. 

Bottom line, teachers should not feel the need to be completely objective in their grading. Nor should they describe their grading as objective. Objectivity is impossible. It’s a fantasy. Objectivity–whether or not we, our students, their parents, our supervisors like it–is a myth.

But that’s good. Grading objectively is actually not desirable.

Grading Writing Objectively is a Trap

Computers can grade objectively. They can read T-Units, count clauses, determine Lexile level, identify most spelling and many punctuation errors, and perform other rote tasks. If you think you should be reading work objectively, you’re trying to be a robot; and, despite all the problems with machine-scoring of student writing, robots will always be better at objective scoring than you will be.

So why do we pay writing teachers? We actually pay them to be subjective

The whole point of getting grades and responses from teachers is to get their feedback, their opinions, their professional judgment. The more professional judgment a grader can impose on student writing, the more valuable that grader’s feedback is. If teachers remove too much of their professional judgment from their grading in an attempt to be “more objective,” they are actually withholding the very skills, knowledge, and abilities for which they are being paid. 

Accepting Responsibility for Making Professional Judgements

Most mature teachers are very comfortable with their responsibility to impose their professional judgment. (In fact, a few are too comfortable.) But newer teachers need time judging_progress.pngto understand the value of their professional judgment. What they are learning in their education, in their professional development, in their days of teaching and hundreds and hundreds and then thousands and thousands of responses to student writing is that their judgment matters. Writing teachers are, in part, professional judgers. We need to accept that role with confidence, responsibility, and–of course–humility. 

In a follow-up blog, I discuss the important ways in which teachers should remain humble as responders to writing, so they are accurate judges and effective teachers. But for now, I want to leave readers with this: Grading effectively requires the use of professional judgment. Objectivity is neither possible, nor desirable in writing assessment.

My Top 10 Early-Career Teaching Fails, and What New Teachers Can Learn From Them, Part II (6-10)

Read Part I First.

Teaching Fail #6: Being a Pedantic Hard Ass

The Story: This story goes way back to when I was student teaching in East Hampton, New York in 1988. My cooperating teacher had a speech class that he asked me to take over. I used his assignment for the students, which required a speech of between 5 and 7 minutes. There were criteria for the assessment, and those criteria were very strict. When it came to the time requirements, the rule was simple. Under 5 minutes or over 7 minutes was an automatic fail.

Raised in a Catholic family, educated from pre-k through 8th grade in a parochial school, I was very comfortable with strict rules. And I was very comfortable enforcing them. So when two students gave speeches under 5 minutes–each somewhere around 4 minutes and 30 seconds–I assigned them Fs.

The students protested, met with my Cooperating Teacher, and even had their parents call. We explained to everyone that the grades were final and that was that. The 0511-0805-1218-2060students were upset, depressed, and pretty unmotivated. Over the course of the next several weeks, I was able to rebuild a relationship with these students, but it took me a long time to regain their trust and willingness to learn from and work with me.

Lessons to Learn: Teachers should remember that the only thing that matters in teaching is student learning, and the more positive a relationship we build with our students, the more likely they will be willing and able to learn from us. By putting the rules over the learning of my students, I ended up interfering with the students’s learning. I wish I could say I learned this lesson early on, but it actually took me years.  I got too wrapped up in the grading schemes and particular wording in exam questions and the language in scoring rubrics. Assessments are for helping understand where students are and where they need to go. Don’t use them to be a pedantic hard ass. Save that attitude for where it belongs: with family.

Teaching Fail #7: Moving Furniture Haphazardly

The Story:  This story scares me just remembering it. I was lucky to teach in a classroom that had a good amount of space, nice carpeting, and these terrific, heavy, strong bookshelves that hooked on large seams in the walls.

When I inherited that classroom in my second year of teaching, the previous teacher, Jim, who had just retired, had the room in traditional rows. I reshaped the room to have groups of students together facing the center of the room. Doing this meant the some of the desks had to be up against the wall. Some of the bookshelves were desk height. So I just took a morning, and moved them high up so that they would be above the students’ heads. Perhaps you can see what’s coming.

During a class later that day, one of the shelves fell, hitting a young woman in one of my “non-college-bound” classes.  This young woman, “Andrea,” was hit on her back–not her head, thank the gods!–and her shoulder. For me, time suddenly stopped. I was horrified that she was really hurt and at the same time–I am embarrassed to admit–I was immediately concerned about my own culpability.  Then Andrea let out a loud string of obscenities the likes of which I haven’t Cartoon mouth with tongue sticking out and lightning bolts sticking out of it indicating loud yellling.heard anywhere short of a biker bar suddenly set on fire.  I and the entire class was stunned, and we stared as her cursing continued.

“Oh my God, are you OK?” I finally asked.

“Owe that hurt like hell!”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?!” Andrea demanded.

“Because he moved those shelves there this morning,” some obsequiously helpful classmate volunteered. “He must not have done it right, so they fell on you.”  I wished the ground would open up and swallow me whole. I was sure the next string of swears would include the words lawyer, law suit, and you’ll never work again!

Instead Andrea shouted, “Jeez. Next time get some help, idiot!” Then, “I’m ok. Go back to your teaching.”

To this day, I love Andrea. She really was OK, and I think she knew damned well she could have sunk me but good. But she didn’t. She knew it was an accident. She called me an “idiot” with complete justification, and we all moved on.

Andrea would be about 42 years old now. I hope she’s had a fantastic life so far and the bruise on her shoulder has healed.

Lessons to Learn: This lesson isn’t really too profound. DO NOT PUT ANYTHING ANYWHERE THAT CAN FALL ON STUDENTS! I hope that’s enough said. Let the custodians or other appropriate personnel help. Or just leave stuff where it is.

Teaching Fail #8: Assuming Your Students Will Be Good Adults

The Story: This story breaks my heart, and it’s one in which I find no humor. As I’ve said a few times in part one, I taught a few rough groups in my first few years of teaching, as most teachers do. I had groups of students who were completely uninterested in school, had jobs lined up for them by their parents, and were mean to students beneath them in the pecking order.

I tried hard to be the kind of teacher who liked students. In even the hardest cases, I found students whose tough fronts masked learning disabilities, an abusive home life, or a series of bad experiences with less compassionate teachers or authority figures. I got pretty good at turning the most antagonistic students into allies by consistently showing them care, respect, and high expectations. And even regarding the students I never reached, I still found things about them to like. I began to feel that inside all students, no matter how unpleasant, was a good person.

I still believe that for the most part, but one student in particular gives me pause. “Wayne” was one of the students who was difficult to like. Petulant, resistant, mean to his peers, and as hurtful as could be to me, he made classes unpleasant for all of us. He often got into fights over nothing, and was good at getting others around him into trouble. He had no discernible sense of humor. No interesting ideas. I never saw him smile, except at other people’s misery–of which he was often the cause.

I worked with Wayne and did my best to like him. I told him I liked him even though I frequently didn’t like his  behavior. I tried to cajole him into learning or at least allowing those around him to learn. I got administrative help and I called his parents. Nothing
really seemed to work, but after that year, I knew he would grow up and eventually make his way positively in the world. I was wrong.

Abstract Black and white painting of darkness.

A few years after I left that school, I learned that Wayne was in jail–on a 25 year-life sentence. Why? He had robbed a cab driver. After he had gotten the driver’s money, he shot him in the back of the head, fatally. Seemingly for no reason. Witness statements and other evidence found him easily convicted, and the judge cited his reckless disregard as a reason for the long prison sentence.

Lessons to Learn: Finding out about Wayne sent me into a bit of spiral. What, I thought, might have I done that would have prevented him from pulling that trigger? We read literature together, I worked with him on writing and communication. I’d have taught job-getting skills and even some social skills in those classes. I’m confident I didn’t teach him anything that would have encouraged murderous behavior, but was there more I could have done to encourage humanity, respect for the lives of others?

Most people who have committed heinous acts have had teachers. Hitler had language arts teachers, as did Charles Manson. Teachers can’t prevent the mentally ill, the psychopathic, or the ethically bankrupt from committing crimes.  Sometimes we have to get help or to try to protect the larger society.  Some of our students may be victims, but others are also victimizers. We need to be prepared to teach them all.

Teaching Fail #9: Thinking Administrators Have the Same Sophomoric Senses of Humor as You and Your Students

The Story: One Halloween when I was teaching high school I decided to wear a costume to class. I dressed like a student. I wore a heavy metal band tee-shirt (this was the 80s), and I shredded a pair of my old jeans. I was a pudgy blonde-haired, blue-eyed very young-looking 21, so Photo of Wayne and Garth from the movie Wayne's World.I probably looked like Wayne and Garth had a baby who ate a bit too much formula! But I did it and I owned it that Halloween day.

I got the biggest kick out of my students’ reactions. My college-bound classes said, “Oh, he’s dressed like a ‘dirt bag,’ isn’t that funny?!” And, my non-college-bound classes said, “He’s dressed like one of us! Cool, man! Awesome!!” Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was dressing like one kind of student, but apparently I was. I was delighted that non-college bound students took my costume as a sign of affection. (I think they knew I actually enjoyed teaching them more than the other classes, but don’t tell anyone I said that.)

So later that day, I ran into Mr. Ed Shomanowski. He was the Assistant Principal with whom I worked. He was a 6’7″ tall walking mountain, a former college football player, who never went into the pros only because of a serious injury. So he became an educator. Ed scared EVERYONE.

When he saw me in the hall dressed as a student, Ed looked at me with contempt and said, “What are you supposed to be?”

Feeling full of myself from the positive reactions I’d gotten from students all day, I said, “I’m your worst nightmare, Shomo!” (Shomo was the name the students who spent the most time with him [that is, the trouble-makers] called him.)

Ed replied without so much as a passing glance of good humor: “If you ever call me ‘Shomo’ again, I will knock you on your ass so hard, it’ll take you a week to climb up out of the crater.”

Lessons to Learn: Do not tick off the administrators in your school. Do not assume they have as silly a sense of humor as your students. If your administrator is a 6’7″ walking mountain, do not crack wise.

I tease. Ed was actually a great support to me in many ways, His office was right on the other side of the wall of my classroom and he could hear my class from his conference room. He appreciated how I used silly humor to connect with my students, and once I established myself as a serious educator, he treated me as an equal. The problem was that I didn’t know he did not like being called “Shomo” by students and that they only called him that behind his back. I touched a nerve. I was lucky that Ed liked me. If he didn’t, my mistake could have been the final nail in my coffin. Don’t let this happen to you!

Teaching Fail #10: Having Only One Pair of Pants at School

The story: This one happened after my high school teaching days, during my fourth year teaching as a graduate student in English at Syracuse University. Some people may wonder why I am so willing to laugh at myself. Stories like this show that it’s basically because I have no other choice.

I was teaching an Introduction to Critical Theory course of about 20 students in a seminar room. We sat at a very long table, and I taught from one end in front of a white board. I had chinos on that were pretty loose in the seat, and I had my wallet in my back pocket. After giving what I’m sure was a particularly brilliant mini-lecture, I sat down as all my students watched. On the way down, my wallet caught on the arm of the chair and a very loud and long ripping sound commenced. The alarm on my face grew worse, as I stood (keeping my front facing the class) and used my right hand to feel that I had ripped my pants open so badly that they flapped back and forth like a flag in a breeze. I sat back down and taught riveted to that position for the rest of the class. Thank the gods it was winter, so I could tie my coat around my waist and get back to my car without being arrested.

Lessons to Learn:  Your teaching life may not turn out to be the “I Love Lucy” episode that mine frequently is, but you should still be prepared for the unexpected. Be ready to laugh at yourself and your own mistakes. Be humble. And treat your students with the care and respect you’d like them to treat you and their peers with. And bring extra pants!

Male teacher grasping head in embarrassment in front of students

This blog post was written in preparation for a presentation I gave at the 2016 National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. I presented “Take My Advice: Learning from a Veteran’s Mistakes” in a session with Leila Christenbury, with whom I recently authored Making the Journey: Being and Becoming an English Teacher, Fourth Edition.



My Top 10 Early-Career Teaching Fails, and What New Teachers Can Learn From Them Part I (1-5)

Teaching Fail #1: Oversleeping

During my first year of teaching high school English full-time, I had a few recurring fears. Oddly enough, one was that I would be incapacitated by a 15-25-sneeze-long sneezing fit and completely lose control of a class. This didn’t happen in my early years of teaching (although it since has, and was fine). I have pretty aggressive allergies, so bouts aren’t as unusual as one might think.

Another serious fear was sleeping late. This nightmare did, indeed, come true during my first few months in the classroom.

The Story: My apartment mate banged on my bedroom door: “Phone!” The daylight streaming from the window immediately betrayed the reason for the call. “Oh shit.”

“Ken, it’s Kevin. [My department chair] We’re into first period. Where are you?”

“Oh No. I guess I overslept.” I immediately went into my just startled awake version of crack problem-solving mode. Should I call for a sub? woman-waking-up-late-turning-off-alarm-clock-panic-morning-young-girl-laying-bed-56705841Should I run to school? Should I ask someone else in the department to cover for me? I came up blank.  “Kevin, What does one usually do in a case like?”

“What does one do in a case like this?! One gets one’s arse into school is what one does!” This was all the more commanding for Kevin’s distinct Irish brogue. I did, indeed, get my arse into school, and it never happened again.

Lessons to Learn: Especially if you live alone or with roommates who are not invested in your success enough to ensure you’re up in the morning: get a second alarm clock, one that does not require electricity. After this fiasco, I bought a wind-up alarm, and it saved me more than once during power outages or very early-morning meetings.

The bigger lesson here is to not just be afraid of something you think might go wrong. Be prepared for it. Make a plan. Even if you try really, really hard and you have never been unreliable, you will some day make a mistake or be subject to something out of your control. It could happen. Be ready. And then be confident.

Teaching Fail #2: Telling a Student, “If you don’t like this class, no one is forcing you to stay here.”

The Story: Like most new teachers, I had a few challenging students during my first year of teaching. One young woman in a tenth-grade-college-bound class really got under my skin. She was bright and had a sharp tongue. She was also quite cool and appeared very 1144420_ME_1116_me_adv_angry_little_asian_girl-MAMconfident. She was the kind of student who five years earlier would have been dating the alpha-male student in my high school who’d be throwing me up against lockers in the hall.  While I was dealing with this student, I was a 21-year-old new teacher, nervous as a teacup chihuahua in a wolf pack. So I didn’t deal especially well with this brazen, confident young woman.

“Listen,” I once said in frustration after yet another string of sarcastic comments, “If you don’t like this class, no one is forcing you to stay here.”  So she packed her books and left. Problem solved.

Uh, no. Problem created.

The student went right to the principal’s office and told the principal’s secretary what I said. Dr. Aldi was a wonderfully supportive principal, and he was always good humored about my missteps, in part because he knew I meant well and was generally pretty reliable (despite my confessions in this post). Dr. Aldi explained to me quite clearly that, in fact, the state is forcing students to attend classes, and they do not have the option to leave.

Lessons to Learn: Neither students nor teachers have a choice about coming to class. It is up to teachers to do what is necessary to engage students in learning. Like it or not, students can choose not to engage. So it is incumbent on teachers to provide as engaging an environment as possible. If we teach in a way that bores students, their learning will be negatively affected. Since all that matters in school is student learning, we need to make class as fun as possible. Luckily, there’s a great deal of good advice out there for teachers on that.

Teachers, to a certain degree, do have the option of sending students to the principal, but it’s a bad idea for several reasons (for example, you’ll annoy your boss). Instead, deal with students exhibiting negative behaviors in any of the following ways:

  • Have a one-on-one conversation after class
  • Compose a behavior contract
  • Call the student’s parent
  • Give the student an alternate assignment that will keep the student from interfering with the rest of the class (and follow up on this later)
  • Get some advice from a more experienced teacher or school administrator

Teaching Fail #3: Yelling at a Student for Liking You

The Story: Perhaps this is obvious, but if you find a student likes you–that is, has a crush on you–don’t lash out at him or her.  How in the world did I come to this advice?! It’s a short, and sordid tale. I still cringe at this one, now 30 years later.cartoon-pleased-white-lady-holding-her-hands-in-front-of-her-body-and-grinning-at-a-guy-she-is-infatuated-with-hearts-above-by-ron-leishman-211

At 21, I was not the brash, confident specimen of unbridled masculine sexuality  that is writing this blog post. Instead, I was shy, nervous, and less experienced than many. When one of the young girls in a tenth grade class I was teaching started getting teased for having a crush on me, I didn’t know how to react. My concern was really for the student. She was being teased–not so gently–and she didn’t like it. And other students began to embarrass her.

In my own still young brain, I thought the most efficient and effective way to handle this was to stop this student from crushing on me. And in a class, when she did something fairly minor, I yelled at her pretty strongly. The romance immediately ended, and the teasing stopped. I apologized to the student later for over-reacting, but she never knew of my reason for doing it.

It was clunky and inadvertently mean. It worked in a way, but I don’t recommend it.

Lessons to Learn: Be prepared for some unexpected emotional issues. Young people are unpredictable and are learning about themselves and those around them. And if you are a young teacher, still maturing yourself, don’t act too quickly. Ask for advice from a trusted mentor. Also, try to act out of kindness and in kind ways. Yelling at students is almost never the right thing to do.

OK, I acknowledge the lesson from this story is a little thin. Maybe I really just wanted to tell you that there was once a student who had a crush on me!

Teaching Fail #4: Believing “Once a ‘Bad’ Kid, Always a ‘Bad’ Kid”

The Story: This story is pretty famous among my family and friends. I get requests to tell it, and it has become a tale of legendary woe with peaks and valleys and an epic crescendo. It gets better if I tell it after a drink or two. And, I swear it’s all true!  Here I give just the bare bones.

In my first years of teaching, I taught some rough classes. They had students who were savvy and popular and in many ways just not nice.  I want to keep this fairly light-hearted, but there are young people who are real bullies, commit criminal acts, and genuinely make life harder for those around them. I know–and I firmly believe–there is no such thing as a bad kid, but I do in my stories sometimes refer to “bad kids” (in air quotes). Brian (not his real name) was a “bad kid.” I taught Brian for a year; he tested my patience in class constantly and made it much more difficult for the other students in the class to learn. I confess to having being grateful when Brian was suspended from school, which was frequent.

A year or so later, I was teaching when the fire alarm sounded. I dutifully walked my class to the door out of which we had left the building for countless drills before. But this time, blocking that door in full fire fighting gear was Brian. Ifeedbackpic1 was at the back of the line of my students, and Brian was telling the students that they should not go out this door, but should follow the other students to the front entrance of the school.

The sight of Brian at the door trying to convince my students not to do what I KNEW they were supposed to do sent my mind reeling. Brian, who was clearly playing a prank, was trying to keep my students from doing the right thing. This “bad kid” was going to get my students and me in trouble. Well, not on MY WATCH!

“Go Anyway!” I shouted to my young students. “Ignore the fire fighter! Ignore Him!”

I know now I was wrong, but there is some evil part of me that still enjoys the utterly frightened look on Brian’s face when my students began to push against him as I egged them on. But, very quickly, the students stopped, thought better of it–the cowards!–and they obeyed the fire fighter’s commands.

Remember how supportive Dr. Aldi was? Well this time he had to ensure the Fire Department that I would be reprimanded, and doing so he was able to convince them not to have me arrested! I was very contrite and I accepted his firm but kind reprimand. “When there’s a fire drill, Ken, the Fire Department is IN CHARGE! Do you know if that hadn’t been a drill, you might have been accused of forcing your students to march into the fire?!”

Gee. I hadn’t thought of that.

Lessons to Learn: OK, so the real problem above is that I have a unique but consistent reaction to crises: I immediately take charge and then make bizarre decisions. I’m not sure that’s a lesson anyone else could or needs to learn.

But the larger issue is that I didn’t account for maturity and change in this student. I also wasn’t aware that he had, in fact, graduated. When we teach, it’s important that we get to know our students and even if we genuinely don’t like some of them (or more accurately: dislike their behaviors) we should keep track of them. Some students will change and surprise you and become much better people later. Some will even change while you have them in class. Don’t pigeonhole your students. Keep your mind opened to them and what they will become. Otherwise you’ll miss some of the most rewarding aspects of teaching.

Teaching Fail #5: Missing An Appointment with the School Superintendent

The Story: As I thought through all the mistakes I made in my first years of teaching for this post, I began to wonder if I somehow sabotaged myself. Could I really have made so many errors purely accidentally? Of course, the answer is yes. As a nervous new teacher entering a new profession and life as a fully-functioning adult, it makes perfect sense that one would make lots of mistakes. Some of them really pretty stupid. This is one of those.

My department chair had been particularly impressed with a lesson I did. I was the first new teacher hired in the department in over 10 years, so having a new teacher was a fun experience for the whole department. My chair was so excited that I was good (so he thought), that he invited the superintendent of schools–that is, his boss’s boss–to meet me and hear my description of this great lesson and how I came up with it.

The meeting was on Tuesday morning during my planning period. I was excited to get kudos from such a high-level administrator in my first few months of teaching. That Tuesday afternoon, my chair (Kevin) popped his head into one of my afternoon classes and said, “Hey, where were you?” I had totally forgotten the meeting and instead spent my planning period grading papers instead. My chair wasn’t mad, just curious. But I was mad. I missed a really nice moment for myself.

I like this kind of calendar book because it gives enough room for daily appointments plus notes. And you can see a week at a time.

Lessons to Learn: When you become a professional (if not before), you become far too busy to be able to keep everything you’re responsible to attend or do in your head. Use a calendar!

Right after I missed this meeting, I bought my first appointment calendar, and I recorded appointments in it. Every morning I would consult it to ensure I kept up on meetings and deadlines. Now I use Google Calendar, which synchs to my phone, laptop, and my desktop at home and at work. I also have the calendar set to give me an alarm 10 minutes before my meetings. The only times I’ve missed meetings now is if I’ve forgotten to look at the calendar. So it’s not foolproof, but it helps.


This blog post was written in preparation for a presentation I gave at the 2016 National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention. I presented “Take My Advice: Learning from a Veteran’s Mistakes” in a session with Leila Christenbury, with whom I recently authored Making the Journey: Being and Becoming an English Teacher, Fourth Edition.

Prepping for the NCTE Convention!

I first attended the Annual Convention of the National Council of Teachers of English in 1989, as a second year high school English teacher. It was like a nerdy dream come true! Thousands of fellow teachers passionate, good-humored, and smart about teaching English. I discovered aspects of the field I had no idea existed. I got to listen to talks by dozens of the most famous teachers in the field, shake hands with some of my favorite authors, and meet colleagues from across the country, many of whom have since becomeNCTE 2016 Banner image good friends. I have missed very few of the conventions since then. It is my absolute favorite professional event every year. (I put “professional” in there only in case a family member reads this post. Shh!)

This 2016 NCTE convention promises great opportunities. The entire program is now available online to everyone, so check it out.

You know those writers in English Journal and in the books about teaching English you have come to love? Those authors will be right there. You can talk with them–they are approachable and very gracious–and they will appreciate hearing how you’ve used their work. Many of them will also help you become such an author yourself, if you’re so inclined.  In fact, NCTE hosts more than one venue that allows teachers to learn more about how to become an author. See especially the “Meet the Editors” session, usually on Saturday morning, where the editors of NCTE’s many journals will meet with small groups of prospective published writers.

I am speaking at two sessions this year:

  • I am giving a talk called “Take My Advice: Learning from a Veteran Teacher’s Mistakes,” in which I share some funny (and some very not-funny) fails from my first years of teaching and discuss what newer teachers can learn from them. In this session, I co-present with the lovely and talented Leila Christenbury. Leila and I recently co-authored Making the Journey: Being and Becoming a Teacher of English Language Arts. We’ll be signing copies of the new book at the Heinemann booth in the book exhibit from 10:30-11:30 on Saturday. We’re honored that Penny Kittle will serve as our session chair.
  • On Sunday morning, I am leading a round table discussion on “Managing the Grading Grind” as part of a session sponsored by the NCTE Emeritus Assembly. It’s a session for new teachers, and lots of veteran teachers will be there with advice and big ears for listening to new teachers’ needs. For a sneak peak of my talk, see my  5 Tips for Managing the Grading Grind.

Some of my favorite sessions are the luncheons. Each year I attend the CEE Luncheon andconv-circle the Secondary Section Luncheon, both of which bring dynamic speakers and give me a chance to have extended conversations with old and new friends in the field. This year’s Secondary Section speaker, Leila Christenbury, is a special favorite!

And finally, the thing not to be missed is NCTE’s massive book exhibit! Picture a BJ’s Warehouse with nothing but books about teaching English and Young Adult and Children’s Literature (at a discount). Any many of the authors are there signing or just wandering around buying their own books.

I hope to see you in Atlanta!