This post first appeared on Upswing's blog on July 30, 2018.
What is tutoring? This is a question I don’t often think about, but probably should. Maybe it’s because I’ve been a tutor for so long. I started peer tutoring back when I was earning my Bachelor’s degree in 2004! At first, I thought tutoring was something that paid the bills while I was going to school. I quickly learned, however, that tutoring was (and is) so much more for me.
Even though I was earning my degree in English, I wasn’t planning on being a teacher. It wasn’t until I took some time away from tutoring that I realized how much it had become a part of me. I switched gears and got my Master’s in teaching, and two weeks after graduating, I started teaching at a college full time. I loved it. (I still do!)
But there was something missing… I blamed it on teacher burnout, but after about a year, I lessened my teaching load so I could tutor in the evenings… with Upswing!
You might be wondering why I would do that. Aren’t teaching and tutoring the same thing? I want to address some common themes and misconceptions, because they’re not exactly the same.
Tutoring is coaching
I love that Upswing calls their tutors coaches. Think about it for a minute. What does a coach do? Well, a coach mentors and guides and even cheers you on, right? It’s the same with a tutor. Like a soccer coach who can’t play the game for you, tutors can’t write your essay or take your test. It wouldn’t be fair. But we can give guidance, share our experiences, and encourage students not to give up.
I don’t know why, but some students feel like they should seek tutoring only after they run into problems…or the week before finals! Can you imagine getting a soccer coach the day before the championship game? Sure, some people are talented enough to play soccer without having a coach, I suppose. But truly successful players will tell you that they wouldn’t be as good if they hadn’t had some kind coaching from time to time, even from fellow teammates.
As a writing coach, I cannot stress this enough. Of course I am happy to help with editing. But please remember that I’m a coach. (Not an editor.) That means that I can help at every stage of the writing process: from generating ideas to understanding how to research and/or cite sources, to formulating a solid thesis statement and building coherence and unity in paragraphs… and much more!
Tutoring is one-on-one instruction
Don’t get me wrong. I love teaching in front of the classroom, but tutoring is where I see the most lightbulbs go on. Just because students nod their heads in class when the teacher asks them if they understand doesn’t always mean that they do. Am I right? That one-on-one experience with a tutor is sometimes the only place students feel comfortable asking questions, things that they’d never want to ask in front of a whole class!
When I teach, I often try to hold conferences with students, which is an opportunity for them to ask me questions about their projects… one-on-one. These kinds of experiences, however, are limited as an instructor. It’s not easy to set aside an entire week (for example) to meet with students like that, and as much as I beg my students to come to my office hours, they usually don’t. Tutoring reaches those students who would, otherwise, silently drown.
Tutoring is a career, too
Remember how I said I lessened my teaching load to make room for tutoring? Last year, I applied to be the tutor coordinator at my college. Now I tutor in the day and — guess what — I still tutor in the evenings for Upswing.
Am I really that desperate for money? Not really. I just love what I do! Nothing is more rewarding to me than coaching a student from start to finish on a writing project. I’m so glad I decided to be a peer tutor back in 2004. Who knew it would change my entire career path and make me who I am today?
The short answer: No. We do so much more than "check the grammar." <3 <3
Tutors can guide you through the writing process
The writing process can be explained in a lot of different ways. Liz Gilbert talks about how there is a genius (or genie) in side each of us that assists in our process for developing ideas. It's fickle and frustrating most of the time, but that's the nature of creating art. Writing takes persistence and determination!
Earnest Hemingway described it like "bleeding at a type writer." These are supposed to be the professionals! If they have difficulty navigating the wild writing process safari, what hope do we have? That's where tutors (or critique partners or beta readers) can come in. They can guide you through this messy, heart-wrenching, scary, exhilarating process. And, trust me, we all need them...
Quick Review of the Writing Process
When I teach the writing process, I often explain or review the steps of the writing process as:
In other words....
Tutors can help at any and all stages of the writing process, from understanding the prompt or goal for your assignment, to brainstorming and drafting ideas (organizing them using a thesis statement, topic sentences, etc), to revising (reordering those ideas or asking questions about your unity or coherence, etc.)---all the way to supporting your self-editing endeavors by helping you identify grammatical-error patterns and talking you through audience expectations and/or formatting expectations like MLA and APA.
Tutors are collaborators
As mentioned above, writing tutors can help at any and all stages of the writing process. Nothing makes us happier, actually, than helping a writer from start to finish.
What else do writing tutors do?
Writing tutors give personal experiences in combating and taming the wild writing process and college life. We mediate for professors or teachers, helping students understand why their teacher is assigning "this homework." Writing tutors can help prevent disasters (if students come in early enough), so they don't turn in something the teacher doesn't want.
We rejoice. We cry. We teach. We ask critical questions. And... yes... we can answer questions centered around grammar, too.
The next time you talk to a writing tutor, think about what kind of help you want from them. It's not just about making writing better. It's about making you a better writer. Don't just say, "I want you to fix the grammar" or "I need your help to edit my paper."
Think about your project. What are your goals? Where do you feel you're lacking? Is it length? Is it organization? Are you at the beginning of the project, unsure where to begin? Are you at the end of the project and unhappy with your conclusion? Or are you somewhere in the middle of this messy process? If you still think it's grammar that you need help with, that's okay. Just remember that as writing tutors, we can help with so much more! So don't hesitate to ask.
My writing coordinator used to always say,"we help writers, not just writing." It's become my personal creed as a tutor.
National Tutor Appreciation Week is always the first week of October, but why wait? Tell a tutor today why you value them. If you're a tutor, learn how to certify and level-up your tutoring skills with CRLA. Perhaps the school you tutor for is accredited with them.
Introducing... the syllabus-shoots-and-ladders!
Either way, in small groups or as a class, you will want to explain how the ladders and slides work. Students often don't understand that you can't climb the slides, for example. I like the template I provided because it numbers the squares. This helps students go in the right direction. These are things that you might not think about, but when you teach ESL, you really need to, especially if you're going to try this with intermediate or even lower levels.
For each roll, students will answer a question about the syllabus. I have a stack of questions so I don't have to come up with them on the spot, and it makes it easier to do it as a small group activity. I'll include the template below, but questions you can include would be things like:
I've been doing this for about a year now, and I feel like it's made a difference. Students learn that they can find answers to their questions in the syllabus. I tell them that this is true for all of their college classes, that they can figure out what they need to do to earn a good grade by reviewing and using the syllabus as a guide.
Of course, I naturally do this activity the first day and/or the second. (Sometimes I'll do it the first and second day.) But I think you could do it half way through the semester, too. It's good, I think, to reinforce the need for the syllabus.
Anyway, just a quick first-day tip! Feel free to download the documents below, adapt them, etc. to your classroom needs. Even if you don't teach ESL, this could be a really fun way to teach your students the policies of the class.
Part 1 of this blog talked about why I feel it's important to teach peer review skills to ESL, and Part 2 began dissecting my current methodology and practices for teaching peer review to advanced ESL writers. If you haven't checked those out, or my post on balancing feedback in ESL writing, do that, and then come back to this one...
As I mentioned, my methodology for teaching peer review is not full proof. I can't promise it will work in your classroom or for all levels and ages. Even I have to tweak it (I teach the same course every semester), depending on the dynamics of the members of my class. With some variation, though, I generally go through these phases of teaching peer review, sometimes repeating and/or emphasizing some aspects more or less, depending on the group I have:
I've shared my thoughts on phases one and two, so let's jump into the third aspect of my teaching peer review to ESL students.
Even if I could, my students will go on to other classes, like freshman comp, where the teacher might not spend as much time explaining the types of suggestions they need to be writing on each other's papers. And, I've been there. I know what it's like to receive stink reviews from peers. For me, it's hit and miss. It'll be the same for my students.
So, while they can't always control the kind of feedback they receive, they can control the kind of feedback they give. This phase in teaching peer review, then, is all about helping them give the right kinds of feedback.
What this looks like in my teaching
4. PEER REVIEW TAKES TIME AND PRACTICE
Before I break them into peer review partners, I tell them to share their contact details (phone, email, etc.). "You won't finish this activity in-class. If you do, you're doing it wrong." I remind them of this, again, at the end, just before letting them go, and encourage them to plan a time and place to continue the activity. The library? The tutoring center?
I also tell my students that they will be graded on the peer review they give to the peer I assigned; however, they are more than welcome to set up additional peer review partners of their own choosing from our class. They just need to follow the guidelines/ steps I give them. I emphasize, again, the idea that it's better to give than receive, but also that peer review is a skill that needs to be practiced. The more they do it, the more comfortable and confident they'll be in it--- and their writing will improve because of their peer reviewing efforts. Believe it or not, some students take me up on this suggestion. They'll have two or three different peer review partners, and they'll do it at different stages of their process. Yes! *fist pump*
What this looks like in my teaching
As I mentioned in part 1 in this blog, I believe teaching peer review skills to ESL is important--- essential. It needs to be part of their writing process. English is challenging. If they don't ever ask for help from a peer, tutor, or instructor, they may forever drown and/or think they are bad a writing, when it's really the process that they struggle with.
I'm still tweaking my methodology, so don't think I'll forever teach it like this, but these are the aspects of peer review my ESL students need to learn and relearn.
I times the anxiety, stress, writers block, and discouragement I've felt as a writer by at least double when I think about my ESL students. They're writing in a second language (sometimes third or fourth language!). That's amazing. While teaching writing to ESL, please, always keep that perspective, and help students keep that perspective, too. What they are doing is challenging. Not impossible, but challenging.
HOW TO TEACH PEER REVIEW TO ESL
As I mentioned in the first part of this blog, my methodology for teaching peer review is not full proof. I can't promise it will work in your classroom or for all levels and ages. Even I have to tweak it (I teach the same course every semester), depending on the dynamics of the members of my class. With some variation, though, I generally go through these phases of teaching peer review, sometimes repeating and/or emphasizing some aspects more or less, depending on the group I have:
Writing isn't like that. I've learned that the writing process is not linear. The steps are often repeated over and over. It's messy. It's time consuming. So that's the first thing I teach my students. After I feel like I've hammered that idea, I then start in on the cultural implications of peer review, which is a unique aspect of the writing process.
Americans love to collaborate
I often ask my students if they've ever done peer review. I usually have one or two hands go up. The rest just stare at me with blank faces. It could be that I teach freshmen, and they are the masters of blank stares, but I also believe that peer review is a unique thing that we teach in our American (western-culture) colleges.
We're all about collaboration, working in teams, small groups and getting individualized and personalized feedback. We value the "average-Joe" or individual voice, so when we write, we need to make our ideas original and help each other express our ideas the best we can. And, as ESL, we can use all the help we can get! (Most students believe that part.)
What this looks like when I'm teaching
2. PEER REVIEW ISN'T EDITING OR POINTING OUT ERRORS
This is the probably the aspect in peer review I emphasize the most for my ESL students. I often go around during peer review to make sure students are practicing this because a lot of them have it in their head that the only feedback you can get (and give) in writing is grammar.
It's this misunderstanding that causes most of my students to have poor experience with peer review. They get "bad" or "wrong" advice from peers. It's also the thing that makes students feel like they can't be good peer reviewers. They don't feel qualified to do the "teacher's" job.
If they happen to know the correct past tense for a particular irregular verb or spelling of a difficult word, they can comment on it, but they don't have to. Their job is not to check the grammar. Their job is to share their opinion--- as a reader!--- and what the writer could do to better express his or her ideas. This can come from good questions about the content, looking for and commenting on the effectiveness of the thesis, etc.
What this looks like when I'm teaching
A tutor sits down for a session in the writing center with an English as a second language (ESL) student. “What are you working on?” the tutor asks. Digging through his backpack, the student says, “Paper for class. I just need help with grammar.” Finding the paper, he places it on the desk. “Fix it..” The student pushes the paper towards the tutor.
Maybe it is for some people, but after a few years of teaching, I'm finding that it's pretty much the same thing for me. I find students highly concerned about grammatical errors when what they really need is a solid thesis statement.
I know you're probably anticipating the part 2 to my "Peer Review" blog post, but I wanted to establish a few things about teaching writing before we jump into teaching our students to teach each other. (AKA: Peer Review)
The first things to consider
As a tutor, I always ask a few questions to the writer before I dig into their writing. My first writing center coordinator always said, "We help writers, not just writing." I have about four questions that I ask before I look at their writing, but the three in the picture below are essential for tutoring, I think. (And for student-teacher conferences.)
Global versus Local concerns
It has been a common belief among tutors, students and faculty that a tutor cannot discuss global concerns before first addressing any and all grammatical errors in second language students’ writing. Gillespie and Lerner (2000) strongly dispute this myth, claiming that most who come into the center asking for grammar help generally need more than that (p.121), including “clarity, focus, and organization” (Blau & Hall, 2002, p. 35).
I learned in my MTESOL that, even though ESL often tend to struggle with English grammar more than native language speakers--- (Let's be honest, the language is crazy!)--- they also need to learn to follow the writing process, which is to (as much as possible) reserve editing exercises for the last stage of the process. When working with ESL writers, we need to read through the grammatical errors and see the ideas that are being presented and help them identify ways to improve their organization. We need to use all the tricks in our bag when working with ESL and not give up and take-over their revision process simply because the grammar sucks. If we do this, we could be teaching the student that they need an editor when the reality is that they can express their ideas in a second language fine and, with practice, get better at English grammar, too. They can become their own editors, just like native English speakers. (It just takes time and persistence.)
Nothing means more to an ESL writer than saying, "I understand your idea in this sentence or paragraph." They need to hear this despite the poor grammar choices. And let's be fair--- the majority of the grammar errors I see at the level I'm teaching are often similar to native speakers anyway: comma splices, fragments, run-ons, verb tense agreement, etc. Yes, prepositions, too, but those shouldn't hinder the reading too much. You can read through them. I'm not saying we shouldn't teach grammar. Of course we should teach grammar! But teach it when they're at the editing stage, and... teach it. Don't just give it to them.
Advice for finding balance
Recently, I gave a mini-workshop to all the writing, grammar and ESL tutors in the tutoring center I coordinate. (Yep, you read that right. I'm the tutor coordinator now, as of January 2017. Boo yeah!). I've attached my powerpoint for that workshop below. Essentially, (and this can apply to student-teacher conferences), when I meet with a student about their writing and all they want help with is grammar help, I slip in these three principles as much as possible:
Even if you're a stickler for grammar, you'll be upset if your student wrote a process essay when you asked for a comparison, right? Telling students this "secret" will help them want to work on their thesis before (or alongside) the grammar.
Even if you know the assignment instructions (heck, sometimes we've written them!), it's a good idea to read them with the student because it shows them how they can find their own answers. They can figure out the things the teacher is most concerned about (and how they'll be graded!). It will help them know what they're "supposed to write." They can identify where they went off topic in their own writing, too.
I strive for student autonomy. I want my students to become independent thinkers and writers. We're not always going to be there to tell them which modal they need, or how to start a new writing project, so it's important we help them learn the process and become self editors. It's a tricky balance, but with practice, you can get better at giving feedback to ESL writers.
First of all, let me give you a bit of context. You can read my full bio HERE, but I teach ESL (English as a Second Language) at the community college. I've taught lower levels before, but for the past three or four years I've been teaching advanced writing to ESL. I, specifically, help with what I call the "bridge" course. It's basically the writing course after all of our ESL courses (we have four levels of skills) and just before our freshman composition.
Exploring the importance of Peer Review
Over the last year or so I've been tweaking (a lot) with the idea of how to better teach peer review to ESL. As a writing tutor for ten plus years, I've had a lot of training in how to work with writers and best practices for giving useful comments that will help writers gain confidence and learn to brainstorm, draft, revise and edit on their own. And for many of those years I was a peer tutor, which means that I was a student like them, not an instructor. (Although, truth be told, peer tutoring isn't much different than tutoring as an instructor, which I currently do at the community college and online.)
My Master's thesis was, essentially, on helping students to take control of their own writing process and discussing tutor strategies for avoiding appropriation (taking-over) in a session, specifically in helping ESL writers. I called it "Finding Feedback Footing," because it's a tricky balance, especially when working with ESL students.
Why do we teach peer review to ESL?
Well, I can't speak for all ESL teachers, but I started teaching peer review in my advanced writing classes because I knew that my students would be expected to do it in their freshman comp class. I wanted them to have a head-start in it.
I also wanted to do it because I'm a tutor and I strongly believe in seeking out and giving advice for writing projects. Like I said, I was a peer tutor, so I was in the Writing Center while I was earning my English degree. I often tell people that I learned everything I needed to know about academic writing while tutoring. When you teach something, you learn it better, so I really liked the idea of helping students have the opportunity to teach others, like I did.
How to teach peer review
This is something that I've been playing with since I started teaching advanced writing, and I'd like to say I have a perfect solution that will work with any class, but I can't. I don't think I could even promise you that my current methodology will work for all community colleges. Nevertheless, I'm quite proud of my teaching process, especially this week because I just witnessed a student having an ah-ha moment during peer review, and it was priceless.
So...I want to spend some time dissecting the process I go through to teaching peer review (because it's grown, especially, over the past year), but before I do that, I just want to mention that I was at AZTESOL this last weekend, and someone there mentioned that he teaches his basic writing students to practice peer review. And I thought, why not?
As I've been thinking about my lessons on peer review this week I thought about whether or not what I teach my advanced students would work for beginners or basic ESL, and I think the answer is yes! Of course, I'd have to change the language, some of the videos and examples, but the steps I teach them are applicable to them. I think it's a great idea to introduce the idea of peer review as soon as possible.
This blog is a two part. I've got a lot of thoughts on this topic, so you'll get more on my ideas for teaching peer review in the next post, but before I close this one, I just want to say some things on empathy.
Something I promised myself when I became a teacher is that I would never ask my students to do something that I haven't first done myself, so (for example) when I did my book talk assignment for the first time, I did all the steps. I chose a book, I read it, and I gave a four minute presentation (no powerpoint) to my students. I've tried to incorporate this promise to myself for peer review. I've experienced peer review throughout college, but I think the best empathy-building experiences have come as I started my creative writing certificate. I had to read my poems and short stories in front of the class, as well as share it with the whole class---not just in pairs or groups, which I've done as well.
I think it's important to remember the fear and stress I've felt sharing my own writing with others when teaching peer review. But then you have to times that fear by at least ten because these ESL students are sharing writing that is not in their first language. They are doing amazing things! Stuff that I could never do!... so that's a message that I try to share with my students as often as possible.
So, there you have it. My thoughts on why teaching peer review skills are so important. Now read about my process for teaching it in part two.
Read Part 2
You know, that feeling---the one that says you're not making a difference in the classroom, that you're no good at this teaching-thing and that some students, no matter what you do, just aren't going to pass your class? Yeah. It feels a lot like a dementor, doesn't it? Sucking your teaching-soul right out of you, making you feel like you'll never be happy... as a teacher... ever... again...
This post is somewhat in response to a two part blog a wrote awhile ago, which you should check out if you haven't already.
Dementors are Real
Dementors are one of the reasons I constantly fall back on tutoring to give me a confidence boost, although tutoring can have similar moments of doubt. (More on that another time.)
Hubby says I care too much. I don't know how not to, though. Every absence, every tardy, every missed assignment, every bombed quiz is a stab at my heart. I know how much those things hurt their grades and how doing the homework and practicing in and out of class would help their English and their confidence in writing.
I like being the "best" teacher or the "favorite," teacher, or even the generally, "liked" teacher. (Who doesn't?) So when I get a student that is angry with syllabus policies, is lazy but still wants a good grade, or flat out hates me, I get a bit drained. Like a dementor is standing over me.
I felt so much better, taking a moment to myself. Then, as I savored the last bit of chocolate, I thought about the students that were progressing in my class. (There's actually quite a few of them.) Nancy, for example, wrote a paragraph with unity. In all the time I've known her, she'd never been able to do that. Jorge told me that he loved the Book Talk Assignment and couldn't wait for his presentation at the end of the semester, and Vy was practically bouncing when I told her I liked her revised thesis for her essay. Like Harry Potter, it's important to remember those happy-moments in teaching.
I don't talk about religion too often on my blogs, but something else that has really helped me combat my dementors (especially lately) is prayer. When I know a difficult student is going to talk to me during my office hours or after class when everyone else has gone, I say a quiet plea for help. I pray that I can see things from his/her perspective, that I can convey the concern and love that I have for him/her, that I'll be able to stay fair and stick to the policies that are in place. God helps me during those tough times when I ask. When I don't ask, I'm often SOL, and I regret the exchanges I have with these difficult students.
I'm sure there are other ways to combat dementors. I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below.
Just in conclusion, I think it's also important to recognize that we don't have to face these dementors alone. We have family (boy does Hubby help me!). We have coworkers and friends. Teaching is tough. Don't let anyone tell you differently.
I haven't done a ton of private teaching, I'll admit, but I've learned some things from the little experience I have, and I've heard "horror-stories" from friends of what not-to-do. I'm an optimist, so I'm going to focus on the things TO DO or must-knows, as I like to call them.
But first! Let me explain that I, personally, prefer working for a university or college. Recruiting students can be a challenge, especially if you're wanting to make private teaching your main source of income.
Sometimes students "fall into my lap," just from being an instructor at a university or college, so I sometimes end up private teaching. (That happened to me this summer. I'm teaching two Chinese students, referred to me by a fellow ESL instructor). Each time, it's adventure!
My first piece of advice when considering private teaching is...
For example, I'm used to teaching college-age, so I wouldn't feel comfortable teaching anything younger. If I'm not comfortable, I won't enjoy the teaching. Of course, you want to be open-minded, but it's still a good thing to think about and consider when you're thinking about private teaching ESL.
2. Know what you are good at.
I like reading and writing, so that's what I offer for private teaching. I'm qualified to teach Listening and Speaking, and still do a bit of that, but I tell students straight-up that my strength in teaching ESL is reading, grammar, and writing, especially academic essays and creative writing. What are your strengths? What do you enjoy?
3. Know how to assess needs.
You're assessing what they want to learn and what they already know. The first day I meet with someone for private teaching, I give him/her a little form to fill out. The first half asks general questions: how long have they been learning English? What kind of skills are they hoping to learn from me? I have them tick boxes for some of the questions, almost as a shopping list for what I can offer.
The second half is a little grammar and vocabulary assessment. Then, if I know he/she wants help with writing, I give a little writing assessment. (It usually takes about 20 minutes). I'm including my latest drafts of assessments at the bottom of this blog.
My assessments don't end there, though. People like to know they're getting what they paid for. This summer, I've started using "exit tickets," which is something you give student at the end of each lesson. It's a quick card that asks what the student liked about the lesson, what they'd like to learn more about and/or what they think would improve the lessons. I also fill out one, telling them where I think they're starting to improve in.
4. Know what to charge.
Every state and country is a little different, but most private teachers (right now) are charging somewhere between $20-$75 an hour. If you have a TESOL certification and/or degree, AND you have experience in teaching, you can charge on the higher end. Of course, if you're nice like me, I usually land in the middle ($40-$50 an hour).
The best advice given to me? Have a contract and ask for the payment upfront. It's not rude. It's business. This summer, I'm teaching a Chinese couple, and I tell them to pay me for the entire week on every Monday. Of course, you can have them pay for the month or two months in advance, depending on how you want to do it, but always get payment upfront.
Middle-Eastern students, by the way, will negotiate the price and form of payment. Other students will as well, but Middle-Eastern students are notorious for bartering. My advice is to only negotiate if you feel comfortable with it; otherwise, just state the price and stick to it. If they want lessons bad enough with you, they'll pay the price you ask for.
5. Know your personal limits.
Private teaching is unique because you're basically tailoring the learning to meet the individual. In that way, it's quite rewarding. It can, however, consume a lot of your time. Again, students want to know that they're getting their "money's worth." Your lessons need to be organized, professional, and thorough.
Don't take on too many students, especially if you have other commitments.
BONUS: Know where to meet.
If you're meeting with students via Skype or some other online mode, make sure you clean-up your room and dress professionally. It can be easy to just "go to work" in pajamas, but that can lower your credibility with students.
If you're doing it face-to-face, know where you're going to meet. My friend had a spare room in her apartment and set-up her private teaching in there, but not all of us have that luxury or feel comfortable with "strangers" in our homes. I suggest a library or some other study space. Most libraries allow you to reserve a room. Right now I'm meeting my private-teaching students on campus in one of the study lounges. That works for us. Choose somewhere that works for you and make it consistent. Try not to change the location and time of lessons too often.
That's about all I have for you today. Enjoy the documents below. Tweak them to your needs. Happy teaching!
In PART 1 of this blog post, I talked about calculating grades. It's something they didn't teach me when I became a teacher. I think they don't teach it because it's stressful, subjective, and sometimes boring.
Actually, I remember having a teaching coach (an experienced teacher to answer my questions) my first semester. I started as a full time instructor in an intensive ESL program. When I asked about calculating grades, my assigned teaching coach showed me how she "did it." She might have explained the whole points-thing and percentage-thing, but I just remember feeling overwhelmed with the task of navigating and entering in those grades on Blackboard and SIS. (Canvas is better, by the way!) The first time I calculated grades for my students, my hands shook; I wanted them to get A's, but some hadn't done the work, so I'd probably have to fail them. I stressed about being unfair. I worried what would happen to these students that I had to fail. I thought about the students who worked hard all semester. Was I entering in their grades in a way that would reflect their good work?
I cried at my computer desk until a coworker (thank goodness) saw me crying and put her arm around me. I called my dad (who used to teach), and he talked me through it. I got them done in time, but this first experience in calculating grades has never entirely left me.
My students' grades are important to me. I'm glad I've developed a better way of calculating grades because my students can know where they stand earlier on in the semester... and maybe do something about it. However, there are a lot of students, I've learned, who, unfortunately, don't think about (or care about) their grades until it's too late.
STUDENTS WHO CHALLENGE THEIR GRADES
Again, it's something they didn't teach me in my Master's degree. We never had a unit on "what to do or say if a student is unhappy with his/her grade." Thankfully, when I started teaching, I had a roommate offer this important mantra: Teachers don't give grades; students earn them.
I inhale this statement every time I calculate grades and/or conference with students about grades. I've put it in my email signature, adding the phrase: I'm here to help you earn the best grade possible. Because that's how I see my job as instructor.
I want my students to earn good grades. I can't force them. I can't make them do it. But I reach out as best I can throughout the semester. I've developed a "how to calculate your own grade" handout so they can experience the kind of hard work I go through every time I sit down to enter in grades. (I think students think I randomly pick a grade for them.) I'm not sure how many students utilize this resource, but I make it available at the beginning, the middle and the end of the semester. Luckily, math talks. Most of these upset students do the math at home (or with me), and they gulp the news down okay. They may not be happy with it and try to get me to accept late work (which I don't), but they, at least, understand where the grade came from.
The majority of the students that argue their grades with me are Arabic. I didn't understand why for a long time, but I finally learned an Arabic concept. For many of the Middle East countries, they have what they call wasta which is loosely translated as "nepotism" or "who you know." They often feel that they can negotiate or "talk" their way into the grade they want. It works in their country. Why not in the USA? I remember that a teacher at the intensive program I started at had a mug that said, "NO WASTA." She'd put that on her desk during finals week as a reminder that that's not how it works here.
I seem to always forget it in the heat of the moment, but there's also another Arabic phrase that helps students to accept their grades. That is Inshallah, which means, "if God wills it." It is something that tells them that it's "out of my hands now," which it is when they're asking the last day what they can do to get the grade they want. I always tell them that's a great question... for 8 or 9 weeks ago. It's too late now. Sorry. Inshallah.
Hubby is quick to point out sob stories to me. I'm getting better at it, but I tend to believe that my students don't lie. (I know, weird, huh?) The problem with sob stories is that even if they're true, there's usually not much I can do to help, especially if a student didn't communicate about it earlier in the semester. I often want to ask, "Why is this just now being brought up, the last day of the semester?" I get sob stories from all cultures, by the way. And they just make me feel horrible because, like I said, there's usually nothing I can do about them. I hate it.
There are probably other things that I wasn't taught about teaching, but grading and conferencing with unhappy students was the number one thing that I realized quickly that I never learned in grad school. The rest--- tweaking lesson plans, building rubrics, crafting assignments, etc.--- is talked about but just needs practice. I complain a lot about teaching to hubby, poor guy, but the truth is--- I love teaching! It's probably one of the most important professions. I'm a little biased, but it's true.
Tutoring ESL, college writing, reading, and English grammar since 2005!