I've been reading about Artie W's GPA issues in his Spanish class recently, and it got me thinking about my graduate school career.
You see when I was in college, I didn't take my GPA seriously. When you're doing technical theatre professionally, no one looks at your resume to see your grades. They only care to see if you can do the job at hand. Unfortunately, the world of education doesn't quite work that way. We are requested (which the polite way of saying required) to put our GPA on our resume. This means that we have to answer questions about it (more on that later).
In my whole life, I've never received a 4.0. My sister had a 4.0 (she may have also had a 4.1 at some point, but that's neither here nor there), but I never came close.
In the final year of graduate school at St. Thomas, I had a 4.0. That was, of course, until I took Adolescent Literature.
The school had put too many students in the class but was loathe to lose any money. So, they hired a teacher to take one of the sections and then split us 50-50. Half of us (the graduate students) went with the new teacher (who, for the purposes of this post, we'll call Adam). The other half (all the undergrads) went with the teacher who normally teaches the class. This illustrates my first problem: the grads pay more than the undergrads, but we were given the guy who had never before taught the class. Oh so fair.
Adam was a nice guy. He was a cowboy of sorts (loved his horses and went riding every weekend), and he taught English out in Osseo. However, he had never taught a class at a level higher than high school, which was evident from the way he looked at us when he walked into the first day of class. We were quiet, organized, and ready to learn. Every single one of us. I don't think he was expecting that.
The description of the class fell into two parts:
1. Look at how modern literature aimed at adolescents meets their reading needs and desires.
2. Develop ways of making kids want to read those books (including lesson plans).
Adam, however, saw the class much differently than its description. His version was this:
1.Test the graduate students on their English skills.
2. Read and discuss books that have been taught at his school.
Very different in my opinion.
On the first day of class, we got our first assignments. Read the entire book of The Secret Life of Bees (ok, we had a week, not a problem), jot down five questions that you ask a class about the book (all right, annoying, but useful), prepare a five minute presentation on the chapter you're assigned following a rubric given to us by Adam (starting to realize that he doesn't know that some of us have more than one class and a job), AND write a book report (wait, wait wait....A book report?! I'm a grad student...I haven't written a book report in YEARS! What the hell?). Yes, we were required to do all that work, but the book report was insulting. What did we as teachers (almost all of us to be secondary) gain from writing book reports? Grumbling, we left our first class.
The book reports would become a major issue for everyone. Adam had not made it clear that he would not be grading us on our content, but solely on our writing skills. This was exacerbating. He couldn't have cared less if our information about the book was correct. How do I know? Well, when we read They Things They Carried, I put incorrect information into my paper on purpose. I then had two English teachers and a former English major proofread the paper. It was grammatically perfect. I got an A.
This proved it: Adam only graded us on our grammar skills. He was a Grammar Nazi. He took our first papers, copied them, and then put them on the classroom overhead and proceded to destroy us for the way we wrote. Hell, if he read this, he would comment on the fact that I am using "it" which you NEVER do...according to him. "Look, I'll start looking at your content," he said, "when you all can actually write."
As we finished the first half of the semester, NO ONE had an A. I was holding down a B, but only because I was damn lucky and great at preparing presentations. Coming home from class, I would be so angry, because I saw my 4.0 slipping away from me, and I couldn't stop it.
Our class turned into an educational version of Survivor. We lost a person a week until the end of the semester. Some were able to get into the other class (which I would later be jealous of as they actually prepared lesson plans and...oh...I don't know...learned!), while others just left the class in sheer disgust. Hell, we even had someone gain immunity every week: that person's paper wasn't put on the overhead.
As the semester came toward a close, Adam gave us our final project. A fifteen minute presentation and a four page paper. It would seem easy except there was that whole grammar issue again, and this time it would also apply to the way we speak. He was going to grade our speaking abilities. This meant no "ums," "uhs," or, "likes." (Someone later told me he was once a speech coach.) Looking at my grade, I figured out that if I got a solid A on the project, I could get an A for the class. This was exciting to me. Somehow, I was going to survive this test.
My book was Animal Farm. It was perfect, as I knew the book backwards and forwards and had a source on Orwell in the form of my father (wrote a book on it). The piece I prepared was on how Animal Farm could be used to show propaganda. It was a great piece. I still teach it today and had colleagues copy the lesson plan. My presentation time came up, and I was feeling nervous but good. I watched myself doing the presentation and never heard the offending words Adam had mentioned. Even my grammar, which is normally terrible, was in step. Feeling good about the way it went, I took questions from the audience. This, too, went well as I never was stumped, though one gal did ask me a hard question about modern propaganda in the form of pop-up ads.
I felt great. When I got home, I told my wife the whole story, and she said, "Shouldn't be a problem. You'll get that A."
Our final class, Adam gave us our grades. Much like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, I was in for major disappointment. My final grade was an A-. I had lost points during my presentation for asking someone to repeat the question. You read that right. He took off ten points (giving me a 90 instead of a 100), because I couldn't hear one girl's question and asked her, "Would you say that again, please? I couldn't hear you." Full of anger and literally seeing red spots, I asked Adam why I got an A-.
"When Cindy (not her real name) spoke, you asked her to repeat her question. That showed me that you weren't really listening to her, which you have to do in order to be a good teacher."
"But," I replied, "she was so quiet, and you set us over by the vents. How can you expect us to hear every single thing ever said? That's impossible, Adam."
"Not if you really care about students."
Suffice to say, I managed an A-, which was one of the higher grades (some people flat out failed). However, this meant that I no longer had a 4.0 in a program where ALMOST EVERYONE DOES! I was ashamed to put "3.93" on my resume.
I mean there was a gal wanting to become an English teacher who didn't know that William was Shakespeare's first name...and SHE got a 4.0. That hurts.
Everyone around me tried to reassure me:
"No looks at that."
"They won't ask you about it."
"Concentrate on the other stuff."
I rolled into the Education Fair feeling like a million bucks. "There's no way I wouldn't get interviewed," I told myself. "I have a great resume."
Yet every school I talked to asked the same question: "Tell me about your GPA. Why don't you have a 4.0?"
Are you kidding me? Never mind that I have the credentials, you're going to harp on my GPA?
In my mind I wanted to tell them about Adam. "There was this guy who was a Grammar Nazi...," but that would show I couldn't take responsibility (and you only get a short time with each person). Instead I answered, "Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you'll still fail. If you learn from it, the experience makes you a better person. I'm not perfect, but I'll never stop trying to be."
I thought it was a good answer. Most schools ended the interview there. One school (ok it was Blake) ripped up my resume right there in front of me and threw it out. Apparently I wasn't Blake material (I heard this happened to many people).
I will admit that even though I have a job now, I still think about that damn class. I was so close to perfect. The problem is that I could outteach many of the people in my class, but they all had perfect GPAs, so they were considered before me.
My students hear from me all the time that their grade point average is just a number. That's all, but in this world of competitive colleges, they are told that it is everything.
The problem is that as more people buy into the whole GPA garbage, the more some awesome minds are being left out.
I saw Adam recently, and I told him, after a long conversation, that he almost cost me having a job. His response to me was interesting, but also backhanded. He told me that a school concentrating on my GPA only cares about how it looks and not how the students are doing. Then he went on to say that I could have worked harder.
It just angers me that our educational system focuses on numbers (not unlike the business world) and not on the people.
Then again, what do I know? I'm the guy who got an A- in the "Everyone gets a 4.0" program. I could be wrong.