A Student and the Standard

I don’t know what made me think about her.  Maybe my mind was running rampant because I was in the shower,  one of the few places I can enjoy a moment of solitude.  I hadn’t thought about her in years, though, and as her picture appeared before my mind’s eye, a sadness washed over me as the soap ran off my body.

Trisha was one of those students who I had really come to enjoy teaching.  She started off the school year as many teenagers do–with an attitude of distrust toward me as a person in a place of authority.  A smile for me would never cross her lips, but she was more than generous with the rolling of the eyes.  Yet something changed, I’m not exactly sure what other than time, and the wall of distrust gradually began to crumble.

Trisha and her friend saw my husband and me at one of the school’s basketball games, and they couldn’t stop turning around to excitedly wave at us.  In class, she would participate and answer questions–I remember her sharing her journal that she wished she could sing–and she would laugh as if English class wasn’t that bad after all.  She had started off the semester on the wrong foot, but she seemed determined to end it in a better position.

And remembering all of these details in that one random instant in the shower, I questioned if I did the right thing.  In place of a final exam, I had all of my students complete a portfolio project.  They were to gather samples of their work from all the different periods of American literature we had studied and explain what they had learned, how they had grown throughout the semester using those samples as evidence.

I remembered Trisha showing me her introduction ahead of time; she wrote how she had grown as a person during my class, how she enjoyed the class and had learned, not only about literature, but about herself.  She was so proud as she gathered her evidence to include in the portfolio, and she took the extra step of making it look more like a scrapbook than an academic assignment with construction paper and vivid colors.  I couldn’t wait to read the final product.

But when I did, I sighed and tried to push away the sick feeling that was forming in my stomach.  Trisha had obviously spent tremendous amounts of time putting together the project, but it said nothing about American literature. She included samples of work from throughout the year, but she never explained what those samples proved.  She did write how she had grown as a person, but she neglected to show what she comprehended from the curriculum. What had she actually learned?  From the portfolio, I couldn’t tell.

I had to grade her with the same rubric I used for everyone else, and the grade she earned was a ‘C.’  I’ll never forget the look on her face when she saw her grade.  I specifically made a point of being there when she opened her portfolio and pulled out the grade sheet.  I told her how proud I was of her for the effort she had shown, how I knew she was disappointed, but she didn’t cover all aspects of the assignment as she needed to. She shook her head like she understood, but the look on her face said she was crushed.

Looking back, I know I explained the project well.  After giving the project for the first time the previous year, I made adjustments to the rubric and how I taught the project.  I made my students keep their notebooks in the same order  and with the same headings that they would use in their portfolios.  I brought in sample projects from the previous year; they saw what kinds of portfolios earned an ‘F’, a ‘C’, and an ‘A.’  I offered to look and make suggestions to their portfolios before they were due, and I gave them class time to work on the project.  And seven years later, I was still questioning if I had expected too much.

As I wrapped the towel around me, I wondered what Trisha thought about me.  Teachers have this amazing ability to affect a person’s life forever, whether for bad or good.  I remember a friend blaming an English teacher for her almost dropping out of school, and I remember inviting one of my own English teachers to my wedding.  Did the wonderful sentiments Trisha had written in her introduction still hold true, or did that experience of working so hard and only earning a ‘C’ negatively affect how she approached the rest of her schooling?

While I hoped that Trisha didn’t look back on her sophomore English class and think about how much she hated Mrs. Davis, I more so hoped that Trisha didn’t look back on that moment as the moment when she stopped trying. I most likely won’t ever know.

As I got dressed and walked downstairs, I did so with a melancholy spirit.  I only taught for three-and-a-half years, but I had influenced over 550 lives.  I’m sure some look back on me as a teacher who challenged them and cared about them, and some probably don’t remember who Mrs. Davis is.  But it’s that other group, that group who looks back and says that Mrs. Davis was the teacher who caused them to stop trying, that group is the one that I can’t bear to think about.

I could only do what I thought was right, hold high standards and hope that my students would rise to them.  I held myself to those high standards, too, those standards which, seven years later, cause me to see Trisha’s face.

7 thoughts on “A Student and the Standard

  1. I often think back to former students – sometimes with many of the same feelings. Sometimes the heart just doesn't quite accept what the head (or the rubric) has to say…

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  2. I think about my students, too… Especially the ones I thought I could save and know now that I didn't. I think about my sometimes harsh words…and like I do with my own children, I wish I could have a "do over" and be more compassionate and patient.

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    1. Yes, there were many times with both my children and my students when I wish I would've been more compassionate. With this particular student, I'm not sure I was wrong in giving her the grade I did, sticking to the standard, but I do wonder if the standard was too high. I honestly don't know. I always questioned whether or not I needed to show more compassion versus tough love and whether or not I needed to adjust my expectations. Teaching was tough–there were so many other factors besides how I taught that went into what a student actually learned.

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