Voices in Education

Shifting Focus: Good Grades vs. Good People

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The school day had come to another dull and hopeless ending. The faint, low buzzing sound of the microphone in the main office turning on caused our classroom speaker to make a slightly audible humming noise. This signaled that it was finally time for our principal to announce the names for the month’s Golden Dragon Awards. On the last Friday of every month, there were a select group of students chosen to be recognized for academic achievement and growth from grades K through five. As a struggling student, I never cared much for the awards that were presented to the supposed deserving scholars of my elementary school. Teachers usually picked the same kids while some added names to the list as a consolation prize for their class pets. 

An unexpected announcement
At the time, I was in the fourth grade and had been reading on a second-grade level. My comprehension skills were poorly developed, my language acquisition was below average, and my written expression was the epitome of “chicken scratch.” Back in the first grade, my teacher had suggested that I receive support services but no one had figured out the best approach to addressing my specific needs as a learner. As my elementary school principal made the announcement on the loudspeaker, my name was the last word I thought I’d hear. That afternoon changed my life forever. To my surprise, I had received my first shiny blue ribbon since attending Hayestown Avenue Elementary school.

Recognition leads to a confidence boost
After making my way to the office, I slowly realized that I wasn’t being awarded with what I had known the awards to represent. In the main office, I was met with warm smiles and a hug from the school secretary. I received praise and admiration, although confused as to what I had done. It was then brought to my attention that during recess, a few weeks ago, I helped a friend avoid a fight. By getting in the middle of two boys who were known for pushing and fighting, occasionally landing themselves in the principal’s office, I had somehow earned a ribbon. My intention on intervening wasn’t to win a prize, but to genuinely choose peace over anger and hate. I was simply trying to be a good person. Perhaps I got in the middle of the situation because I wanted to get on with playing kickball or maybe it was the thought of seeing my friend get hurt. Either way, a teacher had seen great citizenship in action and considered my behavior worthy of praise. My teacher thanked me for stopping them and I figured that the moment had come and gone. She then went one step further to ensure that, although I struggled academically, that somehow I could achieve some form of success. After being awarded and recognized, my confidence increased. I began to see myself as a “good kid” regardless of what my report card had previously indicated.

A positive view of the whole child 
Fast forwarding to reflecting on my career as a teacher, I have seldom considered rating a child solely on how well they can read, write or solve equations. Instead, I have always led with the importance of teaching the whole child, including intentionally imbedding life skills that they will need in order to be people who are thinking critically of the world around them and continuously thinking about how it can be changed for the better.  

As the Covid-19 Pandemic impacted decisions of state and local officials, traditional education as we know it was being reconstructed. How, if at all, were we going to rate students based on accuracy, work completion and benchmark assessments like times of the past. Teachers and school leaders around the country quickly realized that in-person approaches to K-12 education would soon be put on hold as new, distance learning concepts would be put to the test. If integrity, secure testing and traditional approaches to rating student performance and school success profiles would no longer be attainable strategies for evaluation, what would replace those assessment criteria in relation to proficiency and achievement? These times make me reflect back: was the 9-year-old me capable of achieving success in the system that we prioritized as best practice?

The importance of teaching critical thinking skills 
What if all we did was rate students based on academic ability or intellect and never considered highlighting the human side or the character of our children the way my teacher helped to change my life years ago? Taking things a step further, from my experience as a kid, I recognize the need now more than ever to teach critical thinking skills that can be attained through meaningful conversation and questioning which is often left out of mainstream general education curriculum. 

Maybe a better question is, are state tests, universal benchmark assessments, high stakes progress monitoring and pressuring students to focus on the perfect transcript the most effective ways to encourage and inspire children to maximize their potential for overall success in the first place? Who has our system always supported in terms of encouragement and inspiration for academic pursuit? Which community of students benefit the most from those narrow minded measuring tools that we have prioritized as effective teaching and learning?

Are we as educators missing the mark?
Prior to distance learning, the data has suggested that testing, anxiety, peer pressure to outperform classmates, along with other mental health issues, can all be attributed to our formal education practices. With our traditional ways of determining if students are ready to move on to the next grade or if students are on track for a college ready future, it is possible that we as educators have been missing the mark all along?

Community focus on building character
Many of my peers and I are abandoning traditional practices for formal evaluation of student performance and reconsidering how we view and evaluate our students. If a 4.0 GPA is accompanied by a kid who is ill-equipped to use their voice to speak up against violence or to intervene between two arguing classmates, not even see injustices around them, what risks are we running? Our system has been socially constructed to promote a specific group of students who are exposed to hundreds of thousands more words than their BIPOC peers, who have safer environments than their counterparts and who simply have the support and resources to stay prepared and on track in school. Teachers everywhere have what it takes to prioritize citizenship and the overall mental health and well being of our communities.

Developing good people vs. people with good grades
In the case that we are unable to return to our formal setting and traditional school environments, perhaps the shift should be to encourage qualities that are historically not assessed. Qualities that can be strengthened through meaningful, courageous and critical conversations with our students. Our focus should be to equip our students with the tools needed to be change-makers and stand up for what is right. Instead of shoving the dream of perfect grades in the faces of our students, we would benefit in the long run as a country and society by prioritizing developing good people vs people with good grades.

Schools need to keep high expectations for academic achievement. Quantifiable data indeed does measure several important factors. And although we can’t formally measure the character that our students can develop, if we rethink what is truly important as we prepare for the 2020-2021 school year, then the amount of love our students express will at least be overwhelming.

Glen Mourning

Glen Mourning 4th Grade ELA Teacher https://www.glenmourning.com/

Glen Leroy Mourning was born on March 26th, 1987 in Danbury Connecticut. As the oldest of his mother's five children, Glen was blessed with the opportunity to lead by example where he would become the first of two generations to not only graduate from high school, but to complete a masters degree.

In 2005 Glen earned a Full- Athletic Scholarship to attend the University of Connecticut where he would make the "All Big East Conference Academic Honor roll for two years in a row before graduating and attending Grad School at the University of Bridgeport.

In 2010 Glen finished his masters degree in Elementary Ed. and was named the Student teacher of the year at the University of Bridgeport. Since then, Glen worked along side of the nationally renowned Educational contributor Dr. Steve Perry, Star of the CNN Special "Black in America II" and the host of TV One's "Save our Sons".

As an elementary reading teacher Glen managed to brilliantly inspire the lives of hundreds of students in his tenure as an educator. With the publication of The Crunchy Life kid’s series chapter books, Glen has motivated and encouraged minority youth to fall in love with reading and develop social and emotional skills to improve their lives. 

For the past several year, Glen has worked in Washington D.C as a 4th grade ELA teacher and community leader. His greatest accomplishments are not those that have occurred on the playing fields across America but rather with his promise to his family which was to become the motivation for his students that have come from similar circumstances.

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