When Improvement Doesn’t Mean Better Grades

This is the fourth part of my Reflection Series for 2017 – a self-reflection of my teaching this year.

Which student in your class do you think showed the most improvement? Why do you think this student did so well?

In order to answer this question, I feel like I am reducing the success of every single student I taught this year.

I wouldn’t say that every single student improved significantly under my teaching, but I know they all did to some degree. For some students this meant getting a D grade instead of an E, or actually passing science/math for the first time. For others it meant finally learning how to sit still for more than 5 minutes without interrupting the class. For yet others it meant being able to respond without a thick layer of attitude. These are all successes and evidence of ‘improvement’ to me!

At the end of year staff meeting, we were asked to think about (and then discuss) an achievement. The majority of those who spoke focused on academic outcomes where students had achieved highly. I dislike how strong a focus that was. School is about a lot more than just getting an A-grade. But I digress.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on a small group of my year 9 math students. A small group of boys to be exact.

Boy was this a tough class. Anyone with a year 9 class knows how tough they can be. It’s actually a biological and biochemical time of turmoil for students when they are around the age of 14. They literally go mental, and they can’t control it.

So having a math class, with one of our three lessons being last thing on a Friday afternoon, full of these teenagers made for a very interesting time for me. Particularly because there were a lot of boys in this class who liked to clown around, avoid the work at all costs, and even try to alpha-male me.

We started out the year with a fair bit of difficulty. They were extremely disruptive and also extremely lazy. I would spend time explaining the work to the whole class, then let them free to practice it, only to have each one of these boys requesting me to explain it to them again, individually. One right after the other. Even though they were sitting next to each other.

I had to coax, tease, threaten, discipline, call home, play silly games, and generally use every trick under the sun to get them to do the work (sometimes all of the above in a single lesson).

As soon as I turned my attention away, they would grind to a halt. Sometimes they even had the audacity to ask me to explain it yet again to them personally, just to avoid doing the work.

They didn’t care about their grades too much either (said explicitly to me in their own words). Behaviour and encouragement conversations happened on a bi-weekly basis at least. I just couldn’t seem to get through to them.

Spending so much time and energy on their behaviour and attitude meant that I had much less time and energy than I would have liked to give to the other students in the class, who were just as needful of my help. I fear I let those other students down somewhat this year, and it breaks my heart.

But I kept at them. I kept at those boys like a bloodhound.

Even when we had the pre-service teachers teaching them, I kept at them. I bought supplies so they couldn’t use that excuse (fifth week in a row with no book or pen? Don’t even worry about it kid – I have it all here ready for you!). I hassled them, and continually built on our relationships. I had so many discussions about my concerns for them that I felt like a parent. I told them I didn’t even care if they didn’t pass, as long as they were doing the best they could for themselves. I gave them as much help as they would let me.

It was exhausting, but in the end it was worth it.

Slowly, ever so slowly, they started coming around. Once one boy saw he could do a part of the content well, he didn’t want to be distracted by the others. He physically got up and moved to a different part of the room so he could concentrate better. Once another saw that I was actually helping him understand, he wanted to listen from the beginning.

Eventually the majority of this little group decided they could do math. They decided they were good enough to be able to do it. They trusted themselves enough to give it a go, knowing I really didn’t care if they got it wrong as long as they were open to working with me to see exactly how and where, and then have another go at it.

They even started encouraging and helping each other. That was such a beautiful thing to watch evolve. Year 9 boys, all alpha-males, actively helping each other out with their math work, and finally not being embarrassed about giving or receiving that help.

By the end of the year they would (usually) actively choose to separate themselves from those friends who were most distracting. They would (usually) actively seek my help, or help from their neighbour, instead of just giving up at the first opportunity. They let themselves learn. They even sometimes wanted to learn. And they usually still didn’t listen to instructions the first time around, but hey, we can’t win it all.

Did they all improve their grades drastically? No. Did they all even pass? Nope. They came to the table far too late in the year for it to have a drastic impact in that sense. But I’m hoping the attitude change will stick around next year – then they will see that sort of improvement.

In getting that group of year 9 boys to that point, I count that as my ‘most improved’.


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About the Author:

Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia, who is currently on maternity leave with her first child. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, creating hilarious teaching memes, and drinking tea and wine. You can see more posts from Emily here!


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