Recently at a professional development in California, we were doing a session on workload simplification and a colleague raised her hand and asked the following:
I get what you're saying about satisficing our email inboxes. But what happens to me at least once a week is a student or family member emailing me for a list of things the student can do to ‘get their grade up.' These emails often take me a lot of time — I have to look up the student in the gradebook, make a list of things that are still improvable for the student, and then make that list intelligible and actionable for the person who is emailing me. And then, they often result in very little change for the student — so, I spend a lot of time, but often times nothing happens with it. How would you satisfice this kind of situation?
I loved this question because it's something lots of us run into.
Here's what I told her.
The best thing we can do is meet
An adage we've all heard is, “You shouldn't work harder than your students.” Great in theory, very hard in practice. To bring the saying to life, you've got to deeply understand student motivation and how people learn, and you've got to regularly analyze your practice for repetitive inefficiencies.
One of those repetitive inefficiencies in my experience is what this teacher is describing. A ninth grader's grade is lower than a parent or guardian wants, and the parent or guardian begins placing pressure on the ninth grader to improve their grade (read: takes away the cell phone or the PlayStation), and the ninth grader and/or the parent send an email that essentially says,
“Hi. I'd like to get my grade up to a ____. What work am I missing? What work can I make up? What can I do?”
This is where I used to take the time to log into PowerSchool, look up the student, analyze their scoresheet for areas for improvement, and then try to explain these areas in a written communication.
And very frequently, I'd end up with the same result as the teacher in California: the work wouldn't happen.
Here's why I think emailed responses to grading inquiries don't work
- Email is supremely ignorable. Lots of us ignore lots of emails just because as finite creatures we have to. There's too much coming at us. Sometimes, it just comes down to ignore emails or ignore sleep. (I pick emails.)
- Too much of the work is on you. You're trading a 30-second “What can I do to improve my grade?” email for 10+ minutes of gradebook analysis, summarization, and advising. It's not that it's an unfair trade — your job is to know the gradebook and know the paths to improvement. It's just that it's an imbalanced one — they don't get to invest much into learning the path to improvement.
These things set the stage for low follow-through on the student's side.
Here's why I think a 15-minute meeting does so much more
Instead, I like to offer a 15-minute meeting, with the following slots in order of my preference:
- After school
- During lunch
- Before school
In the 15 minutes with the student, here's what I do:
- Sit next to the student and look at their gradebook for my class in PowerSchool. I want us together to see what the gradebook says, and then I want to quickly teach them what I'd do if I were them, in terms of getting up my grade.
- As we find action items, I grab an index card and write them down for the student. Once we find the three most promising avenues for improving their grade, I hand them the index card and ask them if they'd like to use the rest of their time with me getting started on the work.
That's really it. I've spent less effort analyzing their gradebook than I would have responding to the email, and they've gained a lot more than they would have had I emailed back a summary with advice.
I'm happy to answer any questions in the comments. This isn't some master plan of mine. It's just something that I find works better than what used to be my default approach to situations like these.
Best to you,