I am normally a very logical and orderly person – I like to know where things fit and like to see them fit there. A professor of mine once said that his philosophy on grading was merely “administering justice,”  and at least at one point, I agreed with him.

But now I’m not so sure that justice will always do.

Just over a week ago, I gave a test, and it could have admittedly gone better. I was frustrated for not identifying problematic sections before I gave the test, and I was further frustrated when I finished grading some of them. Some of the scores were phenomenal – some over 100% with some (inadvertently) built-in extra credit – but some of them were abysmal. To make matters worse, I was able to identify some of the students, and the scores surprised me for them individually. Who is the one to blame: the student for not preparing and working hard to learn the material (which clearly other students had), or me for not doing everything in my power to help them learn?

Truth be told, I don’t know. My co-op, in an effort to ease some of my anxiety about possibly causing students to fail (or at least failing to help them succeed), looked back at previous grammar tests, and neither student had fared much better on them, but that didn’t seem an altogether satisfying answer. I couldn’t just leave it at that; I couldn’t just assume that I wasn’t at fault because the students had failed before. (What kind of vicious circle would that perpetuate?) After all, wasn’t I at fault for some of the test anyway? How could I be sure that at least some of the responsibility didn’t fall on me?

So yesterday (and somewhat more definitively today) I decided that I had to do something. After two separate classes, I talked to two different students alone and gave them a heads-up about their test grades (none of the classes have seen them yet – that joyous occasion will be saved for tomorrow). Neither seemed surprised, which I think demonstrates that I can’t blame myself entirely. And I verbalized what I hope I have been modelling all along – that I want them to succeed, as long as they are willing to work. Both said they were.

And now, I am left thinking about something to help them make back some points, points that they might have been able to avoid losing (but maybe not). And I will spend the time tonight – in the midst of planning a quiz, prepping for two classes, and trying to think ahead to my lessons for the next week – to find a way for them to demonstrate not only that they have a grasp of the material but that they are willing to work hard for what they do get.

Why do I do it? Why didn’t I just take the easy outs – “they didn’t study; they’re no good at grammar” – that were available?

I think the title says it all. Sometimes justice is not the means to the right end. Sometimes, we must act as though our students are human, fallible, vulnerable – because they are.

If we don’t have compassion for them, who will?

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