Teachers are graded for our work. Over the course of a school year, administrators and peer teachers visit our rooms to watch us do what we do, and we receive a grade, of sorts, through some type of rating scale. Although much debate surrounds the issue, end-of-year testing serves as a grade of our labor for the year. Then there’s the summative evaluation with the principal that goes in our personnel file. That’s not the final evaluation, though.
The final evaluation is the one that we put ourselves through during summer days. Sitting by the pool, or binge-watching a show that everyone else talked about in February, or working a summer job, our thoughts inevitably and repeatedly return to the faces we saw every day for 180 days. Thoughts circle and swim: “I wonder if Julie is doing better. I hope I was able to convince Roberto that he really can have a bright future. Did I review the Pythagorean Theorem enough to have them ready for math next year? Did I have the right balance of being tough but caring to Jordan? Did I make sure each student knew the value I saw in them?” The names and the specifics differ from teacher to teacher, but the theme is the same for many: “Did I do enough?”
You see, I find that, while senators and board members and treasurers and professors all debate how teachers should be graded, the fixed variable in the educational equation is that no one grades us harder than we grade ourselves. This is because we understand, better than most, what is at stake. We know that Johnny is being groomed by a gang, Sarah’s depression is deepening, and Amiya has no hope of going to college.
Our hearts break a little, hundreds of times over in a school year, when we see bruises and despair and frustration and loss of potential. When I tell a sixth grader in my first class “Happy Birthday,” and he sincerely asks, “It’s my birthday?,” something happens inside me that I cannot emotionally release until the calendar says June and he is no longer on my class roster. When an eighth grader with a reading disability takes every single minute of the five hours given to her to take an English Language Arts end-of-grade test, and I watch the tears swell in her eyes when I have to tell her there’s no more time, I have to reconcile my frustration with the system with the fact that I am also a willing participant of the system.
These things take time to process… the images, the fear, the guilt, the sadness, the anger, and still, all of the beauty and hope wrapped up in pint-size, adolescent, and teenage packages. It takes June and July for me to go through this mental, emotional, and even physical process. I give myself a grade, I release myself from the specific level of responsibility to that particular group of students I had, and I prepare to be a better teacher the next school year.
As you can imagine, then, Covid-19 has changed this professional cycle of mine. During the first weeks of quarantine and distance-learning, I realized that my mind tried to begin that summer process of coming to terms with things in my students’ lives that I cannot change but certainly wish I could. My heart tried to begin the emotional release that must happen for me to be ready to receive fresh fractures during the next school year.
Stubbornly, I actually tried to stop the process. “These students are still mine. I will get them back, and I will get more time to accomplish goals with them before I have to give myself a final grade as their teacher.” I was not ready for the final exam. I was not ready to have to sit here and stare at this computer screen and ask myself, “Did I do enough? Did I do enough for those precious children who deserve only the best?”
Now that I know for sure that those who called me math teacher this year will not sit in my classroom again, I am having a hard time accepting this reality. Posting online assignments is not the same as witnessing teamwork, personal development, problem-solving and academic growth. Communicating through a computer will never be the same as creating conditions in which young minds question and collaborate and struggle and win personal battles. And, I wanted one more chance to look members of our future in the eyes and say, with such conviction and passion that they have to believe me, “You are valuable. You have gifts to give to this world.”
If you know a teacher, say a prayer for us during these coming days. Our final teacher evaluations have begun earlier than normal.