Yesterday, I came across this study, which found that more teachers than you’d think let their personal feelings impact the way they graded their students. For me it was more than just the actual grading. Instead, my fledgling sense of perspective was brutally body-checked by my science teacher’s decision that he just wasn’t down with my killer vests, gap-toothed, quiet self.
I was, admittedly, not a straight-A student in my middle school years. Sixth and seventh grade were particularly tough (for me and THE UNIVERSE). I didn’t have any close friends, and spent most of my waking hours terrified that the cliche Queen who allowed me to join her gang for lunch and recess would find an arbitrary reason to drop me and leave me totally alone.
The social drama unrolled at a Melrose-Place-type rate. I remember sitting in classes wishing I could disappear, or at least banish the constant nausea that characterized my anxious days. Subjects like English, History, and Art were cakewalks compared to the daily horrors of wondering whether or not my jeans would pass muster.
Science and math have always presented me with challenges, and middle school was no exception. I’d hunker down at my desk and frantically try to understand the rapid-fire facts my science teacher Mr. Miller* tried to work into my brain. Too scared to speak up, I’d stay up late nights, foundering, confused and close to tears.
Mr. Miller didn’t like me. I’d raise my hand and he’d roll his eyes. I’d write out homework on the board and he heckled me in a way only the 12-year-olds in the room could appreciate. I didn’t say anything to anyone. I worried if I did, my mother would tell me I was being silly, or worse, call Mr. Miller and talk to him about it -- which, in bully-world, as any bullied kid knew, only made things worse.
On my end of year report card, with the knowledge he’d never have to see me again, he wrote, “Rebecca is a loud, volatile, rude distraction. She doesn’t understand the material and shares her disdain with the class. When she isn’t distracting herself, she is distracting others with her wild antics. The situation is serious.”
My parents confronted me with the report card and I was speechless. They knew I’d been struggling, and they were understanding, encouraging me to seek help. To their way of thinking, grades were one thing, but treating people well, being respectful and polite -- that was just a given. The girl Mr. Miller was writing about was so far from being me that my parents worried something was really, really wrong. It didn’t take a lot to convince them that this wasn’t how I behaved.
If his comments had been even slightly less extreme, my parents might have believed him -- and that is what makes him one of the biggest bullies of my middle school career. The note sounded so completely unlike who I was that I wondered if there had been some sort of mistake and his notes had been swapped out for another girl’s, one he clearly had a vendetta against.
Being a student and receiving a grade should have been the perfect place for me to realize that not everything is a personal attack. Where better but a classroom to have your brain and spirit nurtured, right? Sorry, I’m back, I was just felled by a paroxysm of near-fatal laughter at the idea that classrooms -- especially middle school classrooms -- are happy, soul-cleansing places.
Sure, there are good teachers and bad teachers -- because teachers are people and thus, human. You might get the impression that a teacher doesn’t like you, but for the most part, you don’t worry about how their personal feelings for you are going to impact your grades.
In middle school, if you're a teacher, you’re not only tasked with educating the minds of tomorrow, but with taking up the sword of decency. It’s your responsibility to remind those hateful little hormone machines that not all adults are evil and out to screw them over, and if they learn the assigned facts and demonstrate them, they will get a good grade -- cause and effect and a little pat on the back.
But it doesn’t always happen. Humanity gets in the way. Even the best teachers queried in the study admitted that their personal feelings could impact the way they graded a student. When those personal feelings are concern for a child’s development or a fondness for certain traits in a student, that’s all well and good. But when the feelings are -- like human feelings have a tendency be -- irrational, how much of a responsibility does the teacher have to quell their dislike and grade by the book? Are we asking too much of an already victimized and under compensated profession?
With age, perspective is supposed to arrive, but when I think of those comments written on my report card, I still get red. My embarrassment does not come out of shame, but out of a sureness that these comments weren’t coming from a teacher helping me grow. Yhey were coming from a man -- an adult -- who didn’t just didn’t like me, and wanted to make sure his feelings were known.
*Not his real name. Because unlike him, I am not a dick.