First-Year-Teacher Blues

First, I’d like to start with a disclaimer. I am a Type-A personality – I like to know what to expect, I like to have a plan, and I’m a total perfectionist. I also read too many math teacher blogs. Seriously, it’s probably not good for my mental health to be constantly reading about these amazing math teachers when I know I will not even come close. (I started reading Mathy McMatherson‘s archives from the very beginning tonight, which was a little more encouraging.) Additionally, I’m an “Intern Teacher” this year. This is a fancy way of saying I already have my bachelor’s degree, and I’m impatient and don’t want to wait and do traditional student teaching. So I don’t even have that experience to fall back on.

Anyway, on to my problem. (It’s sort of like a first-world problem, and if I was planning on having a brand-new laptop and a fancy SmartBoard in my class, I might call it that. But I’m not getting that stuff.)

I’m really struggling to come up with a grading structure/testing policy/homework policy that serves my purposes, partly because I have so many purposes. First, I’ve spent too much time reading about Standards-Based Grading this summer (thanks to my friend Liz over at Thinking Too Hard About Teaching Math and Science, who I’m blaming for all of this). I wholeheartedly agree with the point Shawn Cornally made regarding working for points in the classroom:

Problem: Kids want to play games to get points in order to get an ‘A’. This is a problem because it puts emphasis on accumulating points and not on what the points are supposed represent: learning.

I did this myself. This is how I know it’s true. I was a straight-A student all the way through high school, and I’ll be the first to tell you I have very little memory of my high school Chemistry class, and no memory at all of Geometry, Physics, Trig, and Pre-Calc. Well, I remember stuff, but not the stuff I was supposed to learn. I did exactly as much work as I needed to get my precious As, and no more. Hell, I’m still doing this in my Calculus class and the classes for my teacher certification program. (I’m forcing myself to NOT do the math to determine whether I can still get a C in my Calc class without doing one of the projects. That would be very bad for my motivation.)

Therefore, Purpose #1 is that I really want to implement an SBG mentality in my classroom to emphasize the importance of actually learning concepts to my students.

(Note, if you’re not familiar with SBG, please go to this page on Shawn Cornally’s blog and read it all. All of the articles. I did, and I’ve never been the same. Thanks a lot, Liz.)

However, because I’m brand new to the school, I don’t want to make lots of waves this year. I don’t want to completely re-vamp the Algebra 1 class, I don’t want to use a totally new and foreign grading system, and I don’t really want to have to sit down and plan an entire curriculum from scratch. I report in a week, and school starts in 18 days. Not only do I not have the time, I’m also not the only person teaching Algebra 1. We need to be sort of aligned.

So Purpose #2 is that I don’t want to go all-in with SBG for the reasons I just listed.

What I really want is to be able to implement some of the main tenets of SBG, enough to create a mastery-based mindset in my classroom, but not have to introduce a new grading concept to my colleagues, students, and parents. I need a compromise.

Here’s what I’m thinking now:

  • I’ll keep percentage-based grades, which I think of as being “traditional”. I’ll still weight those grades by percentage as well.
  • I’ll give tests at the end of the chapter.
  • I believe that it doesn’t matter when a student masters a skill, as long as it eventually happens. For this reason, I’ll allow students to improve their test scores later, but I can’t decide between offering test corrections to do this or actual re-testing. I think I’d prefer re-testing.
  • I’ll give quizzes often, maybe once per week or even once every couple of days. These quizzes will be short and will focus on a small number of objectives at a time.
  • I’ll assign homework every night and go over it quickly every day.

Here’s what I’m not so sure about:

  • Should I record grades for homework? How often? Should the grades be based on completeness or correctness?
  • If I don’t record grades for homework, how should I break down my grading structure? And will the students actually do the homework? They are freshmen, after all…
  • Along those same lines, should I grade my students on their in-class work – bellwork, end-of-class learning logs, participation, in-class assignments?
  • How should re-testing work for the students? What will offer them what they need while still preserving my sanity? (Part of my problem here is that I don’t know my students – I don’t know what they will do about this.)

Over the next few years, I think it’s very likely that I will move toward a more full implementation of SBG, with scores reflecting mastery of skills and nothing else. I’m just trying to come up with a compromise that I can implement right now, and work toward something more ideal later.


2 thoughts on “First-Year-Teacher Blues

  1. Gregory Taylor (@mathtans)

    First, I get where you’re coming from. I’m also the type to plan out the length of units from Day 1, even if I know flex days will be needed in there as I go. Second, sounds like you’ve got a handle on not trying to change too much too fast – as much for your own sanity as for the school where you’ll be. I’m still easing into SBG and it’s been a few years. As to answering the questions… let me address re-testing first.

    For context, I teach in Ontario, Canada, where we have a set of “curriculum expectations”, effectively a number of overall items students should learn in the course. I put them at the tops of the tests – those are the key items. Some questions may cover more than one, and some of them may be covered in multiple questions. But those are the things to re-test, ideally in a much SHORTER format, to cut down on marking workload. You’ll also want to schedule in only one or two times for re-testing, so that you: a) don’t have to come up with 25 different versions of it; b) don’t have to sacrifice every lunch on THEIR time for the chance, just that one Friday when everyone will do it.

    Now, what’s to prevent students from the attitude of “well, if I don’t study now, it doesn’t matter, I’ll have the chance for a (shorter) retest”? A couple of options:
    1) Set an entry expectation for the re-test. For example, a student has to demonstrate that they have done and checked all the review for the unit, or have written out all their corrections for the prior test (or both!), otherwise, they don’t get the do-over. Simple as that. Now the re-test actually means more work, and to a deadline.
    2) Set a mark limit for the re-test. Those who do the re-test cannot achieve a mark of over 70% for that unit. This not only encourages work the first time, it means you’ll less swamped by people re-testing, because only those under 70% will partake. A student isn’t necessarily stuck at 75% either — that’s where remediation at the END of the year comes in, either in the form of a boost for a particular unit, or in the form of the exam which can boost everything. So they have another chance, but again, in a method that’s not as convenient as simply studying the first time around.

    Regarding recording grades for homework and participation and such… doing daily recordings is a time sink, no matter how you look at it. Consider weekly, or perhaps by unit… if you do it at all. For me, I DO take it on informally, without assigning a particular “number” (and in Ontario it goes to “learning strategies”, not their mark anyway), so I have some data to ask them or their parents about post-test. For homework I go based on effort, which is sort of like completeness, but more that they’ve attempted everything. I keep an eye on one or two questions for ‘correctness’ and assume they’re checking the rest — if not, I’ll know after a couple quizzes and address it individually then! Plus, you can always decide later what ‘weight’ you want to give to these sorts of informal assessments (again, if any).

    Hm. Hopefully that’s of some help to you at least. All the best!

    1. melomania Post author

      Lots to think about, Gregory. Thanks for those suggestions. Oddly, my family is originally from Ontario (Toronto), and I still have a few relatives living there.

      I like the idea of having a few specific standards written on each test to remind students of what they are actually working toward. And you’re right – I need to think about how I want to schedule re-tests. At this point, I had been planning to leave that up to the students – you are responsible for setting up an appointment with me to re-test. I suspect that will be fine until the end of the semester when all of my students come in the last day before the final and want to make up all their tests from the semester. I’m trying to decide between a few different ways to do this – one of which is to warn them that I won’t allow that and then make sure I stick with that when they try it.

      I prefer your option #1 for preventing students from relying on re-tests, and have been planning on requiring them to prove to me in some form that their second attempt will actually change something (i.e. show me what you have done to prepare for this re-test before I’ll let you do it).

      After a long conversation with a friend of mine today, I’m leaning toward collecting homework only occasionally – once every week or two (or so). I also know that I would prefer to grade based on “effort” or problems attempted/corrected. I suspect walking around while they’re doing bellwork and checking a couple of specific problems for correctness will also help me determine how well they understood the homework, as you suggested.

      Thank you for the tips and advice! I’m so glad to get to hear about what other teachers are doing, and how they’re implementing some of the things I’m considering.


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