complicating “good, prairie-girl” & grades

I grew up thinking of myself as a farm-girl. I’ve lived in southern Saskatchewan my entire life, and am from a farm near Kelliher, about an hour north of Fort Qu’appelle. I feel like I belong in this place, that being a prairie-girl is part of my identity and had a part in producing who I was and am as a student and a teacher. For instance, being a good girl who did what her parents asked (most of the time), and received praise for it, filtered into my schooling experiences. I had a really lovely childhood, and was mostly a happy and obedient kid. Also, I was (and am) a good student, partly because doing what the teacher asked and then getting good grades made me feel good, just like at home. I think this also contributed to the kind of teacher I became and am becoming.

At first, I think, all I really wanted was to teach students who were like me – comfortably middle-class, white, farm kids who also tried hard to do well in school. And, for the most part, I did. School seemed safe to me. Math was my major, and it also seemed safe – there were right answers, I thought, and I could know what they were and how to get them. I suppose I have a tendency to be a little naive or innocent, and very much wanted everything to be that straightforward. Mostly, I was able to believe that it was. I believed that students should learn from their mistakes, so that if they got a question wrong on a quiz, they could work on it later and hopefully come to a better understanding of where they’d went wrong. In this way, they would then know how to do it right the next time. This is partly how I thought learning worked – I liked to keep it quite simple. Yet, I remember a moment, during my second year of teaching, marking grade 10 math tests in the staff work room at SHHS in Yorkton, and surprisingly questioning this process and its affects on one’s identity.

Somehow, I suddenly felt uncomfortable – if a student was “good”, and did what I expected, and learned from their mistakes, wouldn’t this process then make all previous marks from earlier assessments inaccurate? That is, it wouldn’t really reflect what they now know! And, since I was always a good student, I was thoroughly attached to how marks could say something about what kind of person you were. So, I felt like this was a bit of a crisis! Up until then, I thought marking math was pretty simple, cut & dry, easy & obviously objective. But all of a sudden it occurred to me that this could be a flawed system! I hadn’t yet let myself seriously question the arbitrary nature of grading. Wait a minute, though, teaching (math) isn’t supposed to be complicated! Is it?! There had been other moments, earlier on in my career, when I had found teaching to be difficult, but I think this was one of the first instances where I couldn’t find an answer that I could cherish as “right”.

I remember asking a more experienced teacher about what they thought of this issue… They tried to reassure me that they believed marks are like little snapshots of what a student knows at a particular time, and that it can help show growth or tell a story even, but that an overall grade is not actually a “true” reflection of what they know.

But, then, I wondered if this meant that students’ identities, and mine included, have little to do with marks. This definitely upset that foundation of safety and goodness that I had built around what I thought about myself and school. What if marks don’t actually tell who a person is? What if getting good grades doesn’t really represent what I know or don’t know?! I couldn’t really shake this feeling of the ground shifting ever so slightly. In a way, my prairie-good-girl, teacher self felt a little shattered or at least quite confused. However, it didn’t cause me to do anything different yet, I tried to continue on as usual, holding on as tightly as I could to teaching and learning as a simple thing. Still, in the wee corners of my consciousness, though I rarely let myself think about it, I wondered if teaching and learning and schooling and curriculum and assessment were all much more complicated than I wanted to admit.

However, now, much more than straightforwardness, curriculum as complicated has become one of my favourite things to think and talk (and write) about. I’m especially interested in how little moments like this, of questioning ourselves and our lives might help us to think differently about who we are as teachers, or becoming-teachers, or students or prairie-girls or whoever we have come to believe ourselves to be. I totally enjoy considering the complexity of our schooled selves and what school makes possible and impossible. I have found that complicating my stories and myself is much more interesting than trying to keep it simple. What if I can be otherwise, other than a good-prairie-girl who likes to be right. Instead, can I be someone who is okay with feeling a little shaken or shattered or unsettled or uncomfortable when considering my identity and what it means to teach and learn? I think that letting in a bit of ambiguity with these kinds of conversations and questioning is part of the process of potentially becoming unsettled.

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2 thoughts on “complicating “good, prairie-girl” & grades

  1. I love your honesty about yourself and your teacher identity!

    I can definitely relate to being attached to getting good marks because it feels good. I guess that means we have to think about what it feels like for our students who don’t get good marks, even when they’re really trying. And what if those marks don’t truly reflect where they are at?? You’re right that it’s complicated.

    I also really like your goal of “becoming unsettled.” Thanks for sharing!!

  2. Thank you for commenting Raquel!
    Along with considering “what it feels like for our students who don’t get good marks, even when they’re really trying”, I truly wonder if the kinds of grades someone earns/receives/gets really has very little to do with what they know, or how “smart” or “good” they are… That is, if we begin to question an attachment to grades for telling us who we/people are, then, could it be, that life is opened up a little bit more? Perhaps we aren’t who our grades tell us we are – what if we can be “good” and “smart” and worthy no matter our score. How “freeing” this might be! I suppose, in attempting to “become unsettled”, I’m also trying to disrupt some of the commonsense assumptions of being involved in processes of learning. Furthermore, by talking about “good”, I don’t mean to suggest that the only other option is “bad”. The struggle to blur such binaries, along with questioning our fondest attachments, is an important one, I think.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments!

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