Changing the feedback culture, Part 2: Teachers have it tough too


Graphic by Minjae Chun

In our strange vernacular, the “nice” teachers are not kind in the conventional sense. More often than not, being “nice” is a compliment directed at a teacher’s generous grading style rather than his or her character. For many of us, the two are largely synonymous since we are prone to think that the “easy-100” graders are nice, kind-hearted souls because they reduce our burdens as students.

However, the flip side of that logic is we often criticize teachers who set the 100 as a challenging bar for students. We judge teachers without fully fathoming the tough positions that they may be in. We need to better understand the difficulties that teachers face and adjust the attitudes we bring to our teachers. 

Teachers have far more to consider than how students may react when deciding how they will grade. Every teacher holds the ethical and professional duty to give students apt scores that reflect their degree of mastery. Not only that, teachers cannot logistically hand out 100s to every student.

In other words, teachers work to minimize the additional stress they place on students, but that is one of many factors that influence their grading choices. 

“My first year or two was a period of adjustment, finding balance,” Rose Tyvand, AP Chemistry teacher, said. “It is a balance between fairly scoring students for their abilities and understanding the very real stresses and pressures that exist at our school.”

Beyond what is visible to students, teachers devote much time and effort to developing a grading system that works for both teachers and students. This is not to say the system is perfect, and feedback from students can help teachers make adjustments and improvements.

“I completely understand students who want to dig deeper into what they got wrong and how they can improve,” Patrick Young, high school English teacher, said. “The nature of essays is that they are both science and art, and that makes them tricky. There is bound to be some confusion about elements of essays that just cannot be captured by rubrics, so I get why students would have questions. However, sometimes when students say they want a conference to understand their essay grade, they really just want to argue for more points.  Those conversations are less productive because the students have a different objective for the conference than I do.”

When these grade grubbers come knocking on the door is where the true problem begins. As students consult teachers time and time again only for the sake of salvaging another summative point, they inevitably put teachers on the defensive; these empty complaints become inconsiderate burdens for teachers. 

But grade grubbing is more often than not fruitless for students too. Rather than stubbornly arguing for a raise in grade, students can demonstrate their ability to overcome challenges by focusing on improving. And when teachers evaluate students for recommendations, they look beyond numerical grades to these attributes of resilience and character. 

“When writing recommendations, grit and resilience are what I look for,” Dr. Tyvand said. “This is why individual test grades are not the end-all-be-all. How students respond to disappointment is truly the difference-maker, and colleges, in fact, know that grit is one of the best predictors of future success.”

This is one of many ways teachers value and look to understand the person behind the name on a test sheet. To reciprocate, we should also understand that there is more to teachers than the grades they give out. 

Even for matters that concern grades, we should adjust our attitudes to value the learning process and visit teachers prior to summatives, not afterward. Doing so can slowly help bring down the barrier of grades that stands between students and teachers.