You Have No Potential


Marci Laevens shared a story on her blog yesterday, in which she recounted her father’s tale of being seated in French class on the basis of test scores. Her father, apparently, always wound up with the last, or second to last, seat based on having the lowest scores.

Reading it took me right back to high school Global Studies. We changed teachers every term in high school, but I managed to wind up in the same Global section for two consecutive terms. Therefore, I had the experience of being in the classroom of one of the more knowledgeable, passionate, eccentric teachers I had in those four years.

This man knew his history and had a real love of it. He also had a special way of making sure students were staying awake. He would walk up and down the rows with his voice getting progressively quieter as he zeroed in on the offending target. At the point when his voice was barely a whisper, he would be standing right above a sleeping student, and here, he would ENUNCIATE HIS POINT IN THE LOUDEST VOICE POSSIBLE! (“Genghis Khan, the founder of the MONGOLS!”) Then he’d return to his lecture as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened (while the formerly sleeping student looked around in a daze struggling to comprehend).

There was a girl in the class by the name of Yonique, and without fail, every time he took attendance, this teacher would come to her name, look at it, cock his head on a 45 degree angle, look in the distance, and say, “Yonique. Huh! That’s … unique.” Every. Single. Time. He also taught us the proper way to open and fold a copy of the New York Times (you have no idea the importance of the elbows and wrists) and introduced a story about his wife by saying, “Yes, that’s not a fact many people know about me: I AM married.”

Anyway, he also had a rather eccentric way of returning test papers to the class. His belief was that anyone with a score over 65 should be recognized in a public forum. So, as he paced the front of the room, stopping at each row with each scantron, he announced all passing grades. “Bobby, 74. Jane 92. Sam, double-sixes. Ann, top score.”  There was no choice in the matter. He just proceeded to give the tests out, sharing the scores with the world regardless of whether you wanted to be a part of his broadcast. The man was oblivious – or indifferent – to the games he was playing with our heads.

Many thoughts passed through my head as tests were distributed, and no doubt the thoughts were largely dictated by what my score was. I thought about the kids who scored well and said to myself, “Well, aren’t they special?” I thought about the kids who just barely passed (often times myself) and said to myself, “A 66 is nothing worth being proud of.” And I thought about the kids who received their paper accompanied by silence and said to myself, “Well, we know he tanked.”

The result: three groups of kids trying to learn in a system of superiority and inferiority all dictated by the misguided means of one man. Did I ever feel more motivated when I had “double-sixes”? Um, no. I simply wasn’t interested in the content. I didn’t aspire to be like the kids who were doing better than me. I knew I had other academic areas in which I could shine.

How about the kids who got their tests back in silence, though? I was on that side of the fence once or twice. It embarrassed me, and that embarrassment led directly to resent. I don’t recall if I resented my poor effort, but I know I resented the public flogging that was used to punish me.

But I was only in that category a couple of times. Trust me, there were kids who were in it for every single test. Score (pass it back), score (pass it back), score (pass it back), silence (pass it back), score (pass it back). That’s an uncomfortable spot to be in. It’s an embarrassing spot to be in. It’s not a place anyone wants to be, and having the class know it was not an efficient motivator.

What must have become of those kids who got the scantron silent treatment for each test? These were the same kids who were struggling in all their other classes, too. How many of them felt motivated to do better because of it? How many felt motivated to do something stupid because they saw no way to make a life built on success in school? Surely these kids had potential to do well, but at so many points along the way – like in my Global class – they were made to feel that their potential wasn’t worth a damn.

So what was the point, then? To further pump up the egos of the kids who did well? To harm the egos of the kids who didn’t? I don’t think there was any point. It was just another man’s ill-conceived idea of the merit of grade-based rewards and punishments.

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One response to “You Have No Potential

  1. Pingback: What Testing Does to This Teacher | From the Desk of Mr. Foteah

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