The Report Card Season of My Discontent

NB: I am reposting this essay as it is, yet again, report card season. Not the one that coincides with New England mud season, as indicated in this piece, but the one that coincides with the heat of early summer and an office without an air conditioner. It's always something.

This year, winter term report cards fall during the famous New Hampshire mud season, and I am discontent. The asparagus is beginning to heave its way skyward, the bears are emerging from their dens with cubs at their heels, and the earth is waking up from its long winter's nap. The last thing I want to do is tabulate point totals and write narrative comments explaining Dick’s low quiz scores or Jane’s lack of class participation.

It’s not as if I did not know this task was part of the deal – like tests, teacher evaluations and curriculum mapping, report cards are one of the less enjoyable aspects of a job I otherwise adore. I have worked in a few different schools, both public and private, and until recently, report cards demanded little more than a letter grade and maybe a sentence in which the teacher reports a fondness for Dick or Jane, that he or she is a pleasure to have in the classroom. Based on my mother’s recollection, one or two sentences were all my parents expected to find on my report cards when I was in school. However, parents expect much more than a line or two these days, and the pressure is on teachers to execute a very delicate dance, toeing the very thin line between outrage and constructive criticism, positive feedback and empty platitudes. This line – let me stress this - it is so very, very thin, and the implications when one oversteps said line are so very, very unpleasant.

The real meat of the report card lies in narrative section, and these words, as all teachers know, are where we must prove our mettle and succeed or fail in front of the audience that ultimately decides our fate: parents. The successful execution of this narrative demands that teachers act as writers, spin-doctors, therapists and jurists. These comments are treacherous territory, and each one requires careful planning, execution, and editing.

That said, I am also the parent of a middle school student, so I absolutely get it – report cards are a window on a parallel universe. We entrust our children to relative strangers for eight hours a day, and many kids spend more time with their teachers than they do with their parents. Report cards are a tangible verdict on all those stressful hours of homework, hard-won test scores and angst.

To that end, I do my best to throw that window open and offer parents the best possible view. Some love the view, others would rather close the curtains, but I offer it to them in case they want to take it in. The first paragraph of any successful report card comment must begin on a positive note, a sentence intended to ground parents in their happy place. Once there, I am able to follow up with a sentence or two about general concerns, buffered by a final positive sentiment - a lovely, soft topper on the delicious and nutritious criticism sandwich I've created. I then detail the overall trimester grade and how it breaks down in to category percentages such as participation, homework, composition, and assessments.. All that’s left is to add is a judgment-neutral transitional sentence to cushion the harsh reality of the numbers.

Paragraph two discusses specific issues – the student is capable but coasting, the student needs work on his organization, the student is absolutely killing me because she fails to bring her materials to class, the student tends to create a gravitational black hole of inattention in the back of my classroom…that sort of thing. The words must be backed up with specific examples, honest but safely distanced from anger, and absolutely free of wishy-washy language. Oh, hang on - a tip for new teachers out there: I have found that even the most well-intentioned and witty jokes don’t work in this context. Even if it made you giggle when you wrote it – heck, especially if it made you giggle, dump it. Trust me. It will go over like a lead balloon in the context of a report card comment.

Paragraph three is key to the success of the report card. The comment must end on a positive, hopeful, and enthusiastic note. I look forward to the rest of my year with your child and fully expect that he or she will mature into a fine scholar, that sort of thing. This final sentiment puts parents safely back in their happy place, and paves the way for a productive and non-confrontational parent-teacher conference.

Multiply all of my students in each section by the number of requisite paragraphs, and that's roughly 126 paragraphs of painstakingly constructed feedback. One hundred and twenty-six. Every spare moment outside of class time is consumed by report writing. I write after my kids have gone to bed, during lunch break, in between classes, before work over my morning coffee. Oh - another note to new teachers: I have learned to wait until after coffee to write comments. Before coffee is a very bad time to write report cards.

I could take advantage of a shortcut, if I'm so inclined. I could purchase this horrifying crutch, for example. According to the promotional literature on the website, teachers can "Save valuable time by simply inserting student’s name into the comment that best matches level of recorded achievement." Think of the time savings! If I opted for the method, my life would be so much simpler (“Why spend time writing your own?”)! The long season of my discontent would be reduced to a few hours of cut-and-paste convenience! Comments so bland as to be impervious to criticism! Pre-proofread!

All for just $29.95 and an abdication of my professional standards.

Thanks for the offer,, but I think I will stick with my inefficient and antiquated method of crafting unique reports for each student. I expect my students to show up to class ready to participate in their education; the least I can do is take the time to create a report card that genuinely reflects each student’s individual efforts, personalities, and attitudes.