Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Minor Tragedies

Senior Night is a tradition within our division, a last bash for those graduating this week. Being my first year as full-time faculty, and the first time I felt close to a batch, I finally attended the fete the other night. Nothing fancy and more low-key than I expected such a party to be; plenty of good-natured ribbing and very loud cheering. Good clean fun, and I suppose, after four years of toil and tears, a fine way to cap off their last days of student life.

For all the joy of that evening, I couldn't dispel the wisp of sadness. Graduation was a couple of days away, but one of the students I knew well wouldn't be able to march. He already had all the requirements lined up but for one snag--he failed one of his minor subjects. Would that he had been really and truly delinquent in his classes, but no, he missed the mark by just that much.

Ateneo de Davao follows a number grade system, not letter grades. 100 is the highest grade you can get, 60 the lowest, and the passing cutoff at 75. In our division, we never give a final grade of 74. "It's a malicious grade," a co-teacher told me. Any person of common sense and compassion should be able to see why.

If you were the teacher of a minor subject, say Philosophy, and you had a graduating student who had been attending your classes fairly regularly but did badly in your exams and ultimately failed to make the cut, would you: a) stick with your numbers, or b) fudge the figures to give a passing grade? Or how about a third option: additional for-credit work?

* * *

When I started teaching again two years ago, I resolved that, if I could help it, I wouldn't flunk any students. It's not that I wanted to take it easy, or that I wanted to popular, or I felt any large sense of misplaced compassion. Instead, I wanted my students to have a safety net of sorts and use the time they had to explore within the wide boundaries of the subjects I was teaching. Even if I didn't tell them about my own resolution, I hoped it would be implicit enough. It helped that the courses I taught had extensive practical components and no dependent subjects down the line.

Looking back at my own days as a student, I think I would have learned more if I enjoyed what I was studying and had more freedom to follow what I wanted. So as a teacher, I wanted to remove the fear of failure; quite the opposite, I wanted to encourage experimentation. I would be the coach, guide, and troubleshooter.

To a large degree, I think I've been successful (as I've already written here before). The motivated students have gone further than I expected them to go. As for my unmotivated students? If the carrot failed, I don't think a stick would have been much more help.

Up until this semester, I have only had to break that resolution because some students, perhaps working through issues of their own, just stopped coming to class. Those cases can't be helped. But next semester, I'm going to adjust my policy to be more stringent and less forgiving, at least as far as the lower years are concerned.

* * *

This week has been a bloodbath for many of our third year students.

The second semester of the junior year is the most difficult for the students of our division. Apart from their other subjects, they have two major commitments: their thesis proposal and their systems project. Both undertakings have to undergo panel defense, and they come within a week of each other. It's not that they're impossible -- all the students in one section passed with flying colors and another two sections managed to eke by -- but they require time management and dedication.

But in one section, only two groups--that's six students in a class of 24--made the grade for their systems project. Sad, yes, but I can't say that that outcome was entirely unexpected. Really, when these students don't show up for consultations with their teacher or their adviser throughout the sem, how else should it have ended?

Last term, though, the fate was already apparent. I taught this section in their Operating Systems class, and by far this was the worst. Poor academic performance I might have managed, perhaps by adjusting goals, or even excused altogether. No, this section just rubbed me the wrong way in every way possible: slouching and sprawling in their chairs during my lectures, unprepared for their presentations, muddling through Facebook during the labs. Every little gesture, every little look was meant to say: I'm not interested in this course, I'd rather be elsewhere.

Only a handful of students acted this way, but I'm afraid it colored my perception of the section as a whole. The rest followed as best as they could, but in the face of such accidie from their peers, I thought I could sense listlessness and resignation: if my classmates aren't even going to try, why should I?

Yet even with what I saw, I opted to err on the side of compassion and understanding. Everyone passed (except for one who dropped the class because he wanted to prove a point to his parents.)

In hindsight, the excess of kindness may have been a mistake. I view this more in principle than from any specific case. In letting the undeserving through, I have transferred the burden to the next teacher of the next subject. That teacher might even be me!

Neither, I think, is it fair to their classmates or to the students themselves. Evaluating these past few semesters, the students whom I should have failed exhibited foremost a lack of interest in the program. As such, their continued presence constitutes a distraction to their classmates. Perhaps they really do want to be booted out because they were put into that course against their will.

Still, it's hard for me to put down that failing mark. I don't know why. Maybe I'm thinking about the parents of these students. So much investment, financially and morally...what a waste, really.

But sooner or later, the weeks and months of neglect eventually catch up with truants. Even if they squeak by me, the next class or project will be sure to catch them. It may be easy to fool a teacher like me, but the chances are less with a combined panel. However, a crash with the panel is only so much more spectacular and bloody.

* * *

If there are teachers like me, lenient to a fault, there are also teachers on the opposite extreme.

Another student, already two years delayed from graduation, on the verge of that march for the diploma, fell on the iffy edge of a 75 for his final grade in a minor subject. He should have done much better, certainly, and that would have eliminated all doubt. After recomputation, it turns out that the teacher made an error and he should have passed after all.

The story should have had a happy ending, but the teacher wasn't quite satisfied. Three days to graduation day, the teacher gave a final exam. One day before the graduation on Saturday, he still had not released the grades as he ought to have.

When teachers from our division asked him if he could turn in the grades, he said no. "I'm not checking the papers until Wednesday next week." Nothing could convince him to change his mind.

My co-teachers made one last attempt. "He's at the library," someone said. Two of our most affable fellows headed over to make one last effort. As they neared, they heard him shouting from one floor down.

"No! N! O! I will NOT submit his grades before Wednesday!" He was screaming at a middle-aged couple. The student's parents had themselves come to plead their son's case. Shocked at his vehemence, they could say nothing. My friends decided not to put in an appearance and retreated quietly.

For his parting shot, the teacher said: "Oh, he'll pass. But he won't march this Saturday. That's in exchange for his passing grade."

It makes me pause to think what the parents must have thought of this...person.

* * *

In a week marred by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and civil war in Libya, incidents like these seem inconsequential by comparison. You fail a subject, you take it again or you switch schools. You don't march in your toga this year, there's the next year. The damage isn't permanent (not unless you count the record on a report card) and you can -- you should! -- bounce back. But that's a view from someone not at the receiving end of failing mark, and probably small consolation from the person more deeply involved.

I don't know if I'll be able to stolid enough to hold fast to my resolution; all I can do is, I suppose, is try. But it seems to me that, caught between compassion and strict standards, I would much rather take the err on the side of the former. Lord knows there's too much misery in the world already. I'd rather be the cause of joy than sadness.

1 comment:

  1. Sadista jud. Maybe he was bullied when he was younger. The parents shouldn't have pleaded. Just bear a grudge, someday that bully will get what he deserve.