To My Students at the End of the Semester

After over three decades of teaching, only two realities about teaching are nearly unbearable for me: the end of class (like parenting, teaching is entered knowing that students, like children, will and must move on from the teacher, parent) and the ugly inevitable of having to assign each student a grade.

Since I do not grade assignments or students throughout the semester, that second reality creates a great deal of tension for you students as well as for me. So I want to take a few moments to emphasize what we were trying to accomplish together, an orchestra I conducted (possibly badly occasionally or even often), as I must add quite purposefully, with all my heart.

As at least some of you heard this story this semester, please indulge me.

Harold Scipio taught me high school chemistry and physics. He was a tall black man, very measured and formal. It is because of Mr. Scipio, I think ultimately along with Lynn Harrill, that I found my way to teaching after thinking I was going to major in physics (that was because of Mr. Scipio, but it was also because I was young and mostly misreading myself and the world).

Mr. Scipio practiced two behaviors that were totally unlike any other teacher I ever had. First, he referred to all of us as Mr. or Miss and our last names, and he explained to us that since we had to call him Mr. Scipio, he should certainly return the courtesy.

In the last days of my senior year at the National Honor Society banquet (Mr. Scipio was a faculty sponsor), as we were cleaning up afterward, he called me Paul, smiled widely, and told me to call him Harold because I was graduating and an adult.

And throughout my junior and seniors years, each time Mr. Scipio would hand out a test or exam, he would quietly gather a wide assortment of lab materials around the room before walking out of the main room and into the back where he washed and returned the materials to the storage shelf.

During every test, Mr. Scipio left the room, sent an unspoken message about not only our very frail and young integrity but also his trust that although we were surely not perfect, that we would ultimately make the right decisions.

I now teach every single day in the wake of Mr. Scipio—often disappointed in myself for failing his lessons about the essential dignity of all people, especially young people, especially students in the care of a teacher.

Teaching isn’t about chemistry or physics, or introductions to education or first year seminars and learning to write.

Teaching is about those becomings and beings that truly matter: becoming and being a citizen of communities grand and intimate, becoming and being the only you that you can be, becoming and being a scholar and student.

And yes, I placed student last because it is nested as least important among everything I placed before it.

But the semester is over. We will not ever share these classes together again, and I must per university directive issue you a grade now.

In my quest to honor the essential dignity of each one of you, then, I have fought the good fight against what I feel is deeply dehumanizing—grading.

My final stone cast at that unmovable and unbreakable window is that I have asked each of you to submit a final portfolio of your work this semester.

That portfolio is your argument, your final artifact of representing not only you but also the you that you have become this semester.

That collection of artifacts should show the you who could not have existed a few months ago, should show a young mind now capable of synthesizing a wide range of experiences and materials into something only you can offer, and should strike a blow against the former you while calling out for the you yet to be.

That portfolio is you, and as Mr. Scipio taught me, you are the most important thing in the world; thus, your portfolio deserves your undivided attention and care.

It deserves to be a purposeful thing of this moment, but it can never fully define you and certainly will only represent you in passing.

In these final moments before you submit the last act of our classes, forgive me your final grades—and I hope I have earned just a small kernel of the respect that Mr. Scipio received from me as I watched his back disappear from the room and then turned to those tests that really had nothing on them I remember today.

5 comments

  1. Pingback: Professor to students: ‘Forgive me your final grades’ - The Washington Post
  2. Jill Reifschneider

    If only all of our schools and their teachers valued the learning experience and the learners more than the memorization of the facts that someone determined were worth points.

  3. Lee Kottner

    Thanks for articulating this. Like you, the longer I teach, the more I abhor grades and the more I prefer the portfolio method as the best way around them. I used it in graduate school as a teaching fellow, under the guidance and urging of my supervisors, and it made classes more vibrant, papers more creative and riskier, students bolder. How much bolder would they be if we didn’t constantly evaluate them elsewhere? And isn’t that the point of education?

  4. Pingback: The True Meaning of Teaching | Literacy & NCTE
  5. Bridget

    We must not also forget the role that feedback plays in the learning process. In order for students to make progress and reflect on their learning, they can often benefit from timely feedback that guides them in a positive direction. The use of a grade as feedback does nothing to teach students “how” to improve.

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