Should a teacher read student cumulative files before school starts?

When we look at students as the unique individuals they are instead of mentally putting them in a cubbyhole based on test scores or a cum file, we will be better able to make our teaching relevant to them

My mother, Marjorie Hart, teaching English at Garh High in Cerritos, California in the 1970's
My mother, Marjorie Hart, teaching English at Garh High in Cerritos, California in the 1970's

I didn’t do this, even though I was about to teach sophomore  ESEA classes — students not working up to grade level because they were unmotivated.   I had only been teaching for one semester, and I had taken over the classes of my master teacher at midyear when he was advanced to a new position.  They were all senior classes, and even the ESEA students had worked hard enough to be senior and wanted to graduate.  I also had some college prep classes, some of whom I’m still in touch with. The next year I was moved to a different school where all my students would be sophomores.  The biggest difference was that these students didn’t care if they graduated, and most hated English and every other school subject before they stepped into my classroom. I was very green and the special class I’d taken on teaching ESEA students spent a lot of time building sympathy for these students and little time on managing and motivating the classes.

I will never forget my seventh period class. It was mostly female, since many boys were out for sports. ESEA students, for those unfamiliar with these government programs, were for the students who weren’t succeeding in regular classrooms — not because they couldn’t do the work, but because they didn’t care about learning. These students fell behind, and most were in broken or dysfunctional families.

I always tried to show respect for my students, and had not heard the “Don’t smile before Christmas” advice many teachers later shared with me. I approached the class in a friendly manner and tried to get to know them a bit during the first week of classes. My lack of experience was probably evident, since I was still challenged by some when trying to enter the teacher’s lounge, and the year before a senior young man had asked me to be his walking partner during graduation practice. I might add that toughness was not in my nature. Many of the few male students in the class tried to take advantage of this, but when they started in on me, Lindy, a student in the front row, turned to the rest of the class and simply told them to shape up — they weren’t to heckle me. And they stopped challenging me.

I always liked Lindy. I could see she was a bright young lady and that she had leadership traits. She later told me that her parents were divorced and she lived with her mother and her father didn’t care. She said her mother often urged her to stay home from school to drink with her.

I was leaving campus late one afternoon and ran into Lindy. I asked why she was there so late and she said she’d been in detention. I must have seemed surprised when I asked her what she was there for, since she always behaved in my class. She replied that she’d ditched chorus  because they were just practicing for the spring concert, and no one from her family would be there anyway. She had never ditched my class. My heart went out to her. I think by the time this happened the concert was over, or I would have let her know I’d be there to see her.

Toward the end of that year, many of the other ESEA teachers in core subjects told me that Lindy had been a huge problem in middle school — sort of a gang leader type. She also acted up in their classes. They were surprised I’d never had a problem with her. Maybe she sensed I cared and that I hadn’t already labeled her as a hopeless problem. Maybe it was good I hadn’t read the cum file as the others did, and had met Lindy without any preconceived notions on how she would behave.

It’s so easy to use test scores and cum files to label students and form our expectations of students according to those labels. My English teacher used them to put the wrong label on me. Many of Lindy’s teachers used the cum files to decide what students were like before having the opportunity to see them without the labels. To me students have always been individuals unlike any other individuals. I’m still in touch with two of them I found or was found by on — after 30 years. I wish I’d known how to keep in touch with Lindy, but so far she’s not registered.

I’ve always believed that the student-teacher relationship is an important part of the learning equation. Students remember the teachers who stood out, for better or worse, much better than they remember the content that was taught in any particular year.

I never learned much geography in ninth grade, but I do remember that my teacher had a habit of sitting on her desk while teaching. She would  then get up to write on the board and fall into the wastebasket beside her desk. The entire class would be focused on when this would happen next, rather than on what she was trying to teach us.

I also remember the algebra teacher who spent her class time talking about England and telling us the first day of class that the person in the front corner desk would probably get an A because she was blond and the blond who sat in that seat last year got an A. I had to get an outside tutor for algebra and my parents managed to get me transferred to a different teacher for the next semester and I got an A.

Probably the teacher I remember most was my Latin teacher, Mrs. Cargill. I and many of my friends took her class for two years straight. Some poor souls were in her Latin classes because their counselors couldn’t figure out what other class would fit into their schedules. They were not college prep students as the rest of us were, and had no interest at all in Latin. Mrs. Cargill wanted to help motivate them, so she formed the Latin Club. It was a very active group with parties and special events almost every month and regular lunchtime meetings. Mrs. Cargill wanted to keep these students socially integrated with motivated students. It worked with at least one of those students. He came into Latin with  a D average . He now has a PhD in theology, with an undergraduate major in Geology.

When the school went on half day sessions the next year, Mrs. Cargill and her husband took five of us to the beach every Friday afternoon in the back of their Model A pick-up. (Her husband taught auto shop in a school where I later joined the faculty for my student teaching). We loved being able to know our favorite teacher and her family better. Many of the Latin Club events had been in her home, so it was not just the five beach-goers that were able to know her outside of class. Because Mrs. Cargill reached out to her students, we were even more motivated to work hard in her classes. My senior year I was also able to take a world literature class from her. She was from Spain, and was able to add a lot of insight that was not in the textbook.

I understand that these kind of activities are often discouraged today. I think part of this is because of liability issues. Fortunately, when I taught at Poly High in Long Beach, California, it was not an issue yet.  I was able to invite my classes to my home to practice a play we were recording. I also had a party at home for all of them one Good Friday night and quite a few came. Many of those students stayed in touch while they were in college, and even after they got married.

In ancient times, adults used to follow teachers they wanted to learn from, and were known as disciples. Probably the best known of these teachers is Jesus, whose disciples followed him everywhere, and lived and worked with him. Disciples were able to see if the teachers they followed practiced what they taught.

Today,though they don’t follow us around, the way we treat them tells them whether we practice what we teach about respect and the worth of the individual. If we show them that we not only care about them, but also show enthusiasm for the subject we teach, they  will  more easily “catch” what we teach.