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Low Marks for Good Grades
By Tammy Takahashi

math teacher with apple
Photo (c) Hemera Technologies/

When I was in high school, I finally figured out how to earn good grades. It’s all about pleasing the teacher. I knew this instinctually until about eighth grade. Around that time, when I really began to understand what I was doing to get good grades, I couldn’t help myself but to struggle against the idea. I wanted to earn my grades for my work, but year after year, class after class, (with a few glorious exceptions) my grade was based on how well I lived up to my teacher’s expectations.

I’d been the “teacher’s pet” student for all my life until suddenly in middle school, I started to ask questions: Why do we do things this way? Oh, if only I could have been able to curb that part of my personality, I would have been a much “better” student. I slowly moved from being the “straight A” student to the “marginalized know-it-all who couldn’t stop talking and trying to do things her own way.” By high school, I was no longer the “good student.” But I wasn’t a bad student either. I generally did my best to learn as much as I could, holding my tongue (usually) about the boredom I was feeling. I struggled with my desire to conform (wouldn’t that be a lot easier?) and my instinct to stand up and say, “What the hell is going on here?”

In ninth grade, my suspicions were confirmed. My trigonometry teacher openly disliked me. To this day I’m not sure why, although I have my suspicions. I had loved math, but I didn’t like doing repetitive math homework. I was willing to work hard but I also asked a lot of questions and tended to “chit chat” about my epiphanies (some things never change.) But in this class, such things were frowned upon.

This was not a place to enjoy the subject, not a place to be excited and certainly not a place to question the usefulness of doing 50 nearly-exact problems I obviously understood already. Nor was it a place to ask for her to slow down if I needed clarification. All I would get was more worksheets of the problems I didn’t understand. I’m a talker, a writer, an analyzer. She wasn’t. We did not get along. At. All. I wasn’t who she wanted me to be. There was nothing I could do.

In one semester, I went from a “Wow, this kid really knows math instinctually and aces her tests” kind of student to barely earning a D. I don’t remember much of what happened in that class, but I do remember that by the end of the semester, I was angry, bitter and didn’t care what grade I got. I just wanted it over. I nearly failed my trig class and it had nothing to do with my math ability.

“So here we are at home, studying math and language and everything else without grades or assessment, using it in context with the real world. My children’s relationship with math has absolutely nothing to do with me. And their relationship with me has nothing to do with math, even though we learn math, in our own ways, every single day.”

So the next semester, I retook trigonometry so that I wouldn’t have a D on my transcripts. This trigonometry teacher was the polar opposite of the previous teacher. He didn’t teach math. He kept us busy. And he was so “friendly” that he wanted everyone to have an A+.

In the beginning, it worked. I aced every test. However, it wasn’t my secret math knowledge that gave me the good grades on the test. I received extraordinarily high marks because the teacher set the tests up in such a way that none of us needed to understand how to do the math in order to figure out the answer. In other words, he set it up a multiple choice answer set (in trig!) where only one answer made any sense at all. I finished all his tests in about five minutes. Nobody got less than an A-.

This babying and superficial testing ate away at me until I could no longer sit in silence. So, one day, I complained about it. I said, “I want to learn trig and I want the tests to challenge my understanding of that math. Would you make the tests require that we do the math?” (Can you imagine? Yes, I was one of those annoying kids in class who didn’t like getting free grades. And I have always liked taking tests. I also made the false assumption that everyone else felt the way I did.) So what did he do? He made the tests so hard that nobody could figure it out. Take a guess whether or not it leaked out which student caused him to do that. Suddenly, my relationship with the teacher (and the other kids in the class) changed. So did my grades.

In the end, I ended up getting a B in that class. I had enough A+++ tests from the beginning of the semester to make up for the low grades I got at the end (mine were far lower than anyone else’s because he used extra scrutiny on my exams “like I asked him to”.) Over the course of the class, I was able to learn quite a bit by studying on my own since he was so lax in the beginning with homework and tests. But not nearly enough to earn the B. My final grade had nothing to do with my understanding of the subject. It was based on our relationship. If I had gone along, had kept my mouth shut and had been the “good student,” I would have had an A on my high school transcripts – an A that would have meant very little.

Later, in college, I knew that even though my B qualified me to take calculus as a freshman, trig and I weren’t done with each other just yet. So, even though I did not receive college credit, I took trig for a third time. This was a 300-plus student lecture class. Homework was optional and was corrected but not graded. There was a discussion available every week where we could ask questions. I was so happy to be in that class. It was hard work, but I loved it. Not everyone felt that way. I remember some of my friends saying, “Without required homework, how will I ever learn this stuff?” I found the tests to be appropriate and manageable. Looking back, I wonder if knowing that I wasn’t going to get credit for the class changed my perspective on my responsibility to do the homework.

With renewed love of math, I enthusiastically signed up for calculus the semester afterwards. Guess what? We got a teacher who could barely speak English, we were required to turn in massive amounts of homework and our grade was reduced every time we failed to attend the discussion session, even if we had a good grasp of the material. I didn’t do too bad on the tests (well, until we got to matrices… man, who the heck came up with that mind-bending concept?) but my discussion and homework grades were low. The mandatory 24/7 handcuffing to math burned me out. I did not pursue higher math after that. I was interested but I was tired of struggling with the classroom approach of trying to learn math and trying to live up to the social and production expectations of the class. All the extraneous requirements were too emotionally distracting to me. Since the subject was merely a fledgling interest for me, not my major, I wasn’t willing to put up with the game in order to gain access to understanding.

“This was not a place to enjoy the subject, not a place to be excited and certainly not a place to question the usefulness of doing 50 nearly-exact problems I obviously understood already. Nor was it a place to ask for her to slow down if I needed clarification. All I would get was more worksheets of the problems I didn’t understand.”

Now, 15 years later, I still like math. I was lucky to have figured out pretty early that all the bad experiences I had with math had nothing to do with math. That concept was reinforced time and time again, in several subjects, in my high school and college experiences. The most poignant example comes from when I was placed into a remedial English class in the 10th grade because they ran out of room in the other class, and I almost failed. I can’t even begin to describe the assumptions my teacher made about me that I could never live down. If I hadn’t been aware of the importance of teacher/student relationships in how I was graded, I might have truly believed I had no capacity to write. I was one of the lucky ones. My fellow students in that class also had a wonderful capacity to write, but none of them believed it.

I remember one student showing me some of her poetry, which was marvelous. It was rough around the edges, with misspellings and some serious grammar faux pas, but it was so moving and from deep within her soul. It made me want to cry that this beautiful individual would think that she couldn’t write. She had been in remedial English classes as long as she could remember.

Ironically, all my “bad” experiences in school strengthened my appreciation of true learning. They taught me that the teachers had no control over what I learned. And it was rare that they had any interest in what I, as Tammy, learned. That was my domain. The times that I was blessed with a good teacher who recognized my spirit apart from the marks on my papers, I learned so much from their natural give and take with someone who was passionate about what they did. I learned from these few teachers how to be a teacher and a learner at the same time, just as they were. How to be unassuming. How to be accepting. How to teach without trying to teach.

By the time I finished all my schooling – 21 years of it! – I had gained the ability to easily identify which teachers and students were passionate about their work and who was working the grindstone. I could also easily see which teachers were far more interested in power and which ones were thinking critically about how they could pass on their knowledge to the group of eyes settled before them.

This intricate knowledge of the teacher’s mind (and the classroom teacher’s challenge) became one of the main reasons that I decided to educate my children at home without school. I see through teacherese like sparkling glass and I understand how much of teaching has nothing to do with education. I was a teacher. And I worked with many teachers, as teachers’ aides, as a graduate student and as a “teacher’s pet.” It was extremely rare to find a teacher who could drop the judgements and say, “This student doesn’t do things my way, but he deserves a good grade for all the work he did, or for showing how he knew his stuff, albeit in an unconventional way.” If a teacher doesn’t like a student, it shows, in the grade. It also shows in the classroom dynamic. If a teacher doesn’t like his job, it shows. If a teacher feels helpless, it shows.

However, if a teacher doesn’t concern herself too much about grades, and focuses far more on giving herself for her students to learn from in their own way, that shows as well. And I knew that the likelihood of all three of my kids having teachers who cared more about education than grades throughout their entire school career would be like winning the lottery. I don’t play the lottery, especially not with my kids.

So here we are at home, studying math and language and everything else without grades or assessment, using it in context with the real world. My children’s relationship with math has absolutely nothing to do with me. And their relationship with me has nothing to do with math, even though we learn math, in our own ways, every single day.

Tammy Takahashi lives and learns with her family in Southern California. She is the former editor of the California HomeSchooler and the author of two unschooling books, including "Deschooling Gently: A Step by Step Guide to Fearless Homeschooling and Zenschooling: Living a fabulous and fulfilling life without school." She also writes at her blog Just Enough, and Nothing More.

This article was published in Life Learning Magazine in 2007 and is one of a small number of articles that also appear for free on this website. To read more articles like it please subscribe.

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