Larry Efird: Conduct grades go both ways

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 3, 2016

During the past year, I came across all of my old report cards which had been safely tucked away in a green cardboard filing box at my childhood home for the past four decades. There they were, 12 concrete artifacts which recorded the truth of my life from grades 1-12. (Kindergarten was optional when I was 5, so I decided to drop out, maybe because I inherently knew that I would be going to school for a total of 20 years, not just 12.)

I have to confess that I was somewhat afraid to begin opening them, one by one, for fear that any false notions of how brilliant and wonderful I had been as a kid would soon be dispelled, and I would see the undeniable truth in blue ink on white cardstock paper, condemned by the signatures of all my teachers in perfect cursive writing.

I wasn’t one of those kids who made all A’s and B’s the whole time I was growing up, so the academic grades weren’t that big of a surprise. The grade that caught my attention on every report card was my citizenship grade. Up until that moment I did not realize that I never made above a B+ in citizenship until I reached the seventh grade. I also never made below a B-, so that was some small consolation.

The only hard evidence I could find which showed the reason for this perpetual conduct grade was found in a few teacher comments. My first grade teacher marked “X,” not a check, in the column that said I played well with others after my first six weeks in school. My fourth-grade teacher made a point to say that my “only trouble” was that I talked and laughed too much, but I was a good student. My fifth-grade teacher noted after the first six week grading period, “Larry whispers too loudly!” She said much the same thing after the fourth six weeks but added, “Larry continues to whisper quite loudly!” (She used exclamation points both times.)

After a moment of humble reflection, I accepted the harsh reality of having been “normal,” and realized things could’ve been worse, because no one ever had to send me to the principal’s office. The most traumatic event, however, happened in second grade, when the teacher washed my mouth out with a few drops of pink, industrial soap, which she moistened on a scratchy, brown paper towel from the dispenser by the classroom sink. I’m not sure exactly what I had said to deserve such public humiliation, but maybe I said something was “stupid,” or even worse, used a double negative.

Settling into a new year or a new semester with a new batch of students is always a challenge. Invariably, there is always someone who is going to challenge the teacher’s authority. I remember one young lady who was acting out on a regular basis and never appreciated even my subtle insinuations that she was not fully cooperating with my set of classroom rules. I looked at her once and said, “You don’t like me very much, do you?” To that she muttered, “You’re all right.”

As part of a teacher’s effectiveness, students now evaluate their teachers anonymously by completing a standard survey after they’ve completed the course. College students have done this for years, but having high school students do it is one of the state’s newest ideas to improve classroom instruction. Ironically, it’s almost as if the students are grading their teachers, behaviorally, as well as professionally.

After reading my first round of surveys, I wasn’t exactly depressed, but I wasn’t encouraged either. Some teachers started looking for new careers! I had to realize that the same kids who rated me as an average teacher were probably the same kids I saw as average students. And the same kids who had trouble liking me were possibly the same ones I had trouble liking as well.

Rather than look for a new career myself, I decided to interpret the information as saying, “You’re all right.” And most of my colleagues were deemed to be “all right” as well. We just hope our government understands what “all right” means, especially to a teenager.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School.