Report Cards, Shmeport Shmards?

by Laurie Bellet

It is that time of year when many thoughts, and sighs, turn towards report cards. We don’t always call them report cards anymore. We might call them ‘progress notes,’ ‘assessments,’ or ‘evaluations;’ or, we might call them, just plain ‘onerous.’ If I think back several years, I used to answer a lot of questions that referred to the format of the report card and, I dedicated a few columns to writing narratives that were engaging and comments that were meaningful. The questions I receive now, about report cards, are more fundamental. The major questions today seem to be, “Are report cards a reasonable undertaking?” “Do evaluations serve any purpose when teachers, in supplemental programs, only see their students once or twice weekly?” “Is the outcome worth the burden of work?”

After much thought, and another 150 report cards written, I believe that the answer to each of those questions is, “yes!” Here for you, are my top 5 reasons to prove my case regarding the value of report cards (progress notes, assessments, evaluations, etc.).

Every school director/principal I have ever met has a strict rule about report card writing. Parents are never to first learn anything negative, about their child, in the report card. This means that, when a child has a classroom problem, the teacher must either work to remedy the situation or telephone the parents. The telephone route has always been loathsome to me, because telephoning a parent, to report student misbehavior, opens a teacher to a parent’s reactive criticism. Knowing that report cards are looming, causes me to examine a student challenge closely, and act to change the dynamic or, at least, to find a positive glimmer to report on. It is worth teacher energy, to move beyond the catch phrase, ‘when positively focused…’ and actually find something, anything that ‘positively focuses’ that student. At the other end of the student spectrum is the ‘delight to teach.’ A teacher in a synagogue school can go through an entire year without ever actually speaking to a parent about a child’s virtues. A quality assessment demands that a teacher explore, specifically, why a certain child is a ‘positive addition to any classroom.’

When I taught in a once weekly, evening teen program, I could expect, in October, to receive an e-mail reminding all faculty members that, if we did not know every student by name, we should make certain to do so, very soon. It seemed to me, as I looked into that abyss of adolescent faces each Wednesday night, that those teenage students looked astoundingly alike. To not let on that I had yet to learn student names, I would ask another student (likely one whose name I did know) to take attendance, so I could start class. The good news was that my attendance was always filed. The bad news was that this was yet another reason I failed to learn which name attached to which face. In order to avoid the comment, ‘……is an avid listener and an astute observer…’ I really did have to learn the names of my students.

When writing evaluations, a teacher has the opportunity to reflect on the bigger questions, notable in the course of the classroom experience. Although it might feel satisfying to report that a class is on chapter 32, in the history of the Jews, from Abram to the present, it is far more rewarding, to document how an individual student can relate an historical event to a present situation; how a student can problem-solve, Jewishly; how a student connects, as a unique individual, to the greater Jewish community.

Supplemental school directors and teachers lament the lack of interest they perceive in the parents of their students. The phenomenon of the ‘Drive-thru Parent’ is the subject of endless conversations. Yet, how could we possibly consider that not issuing report cards would, in any way, heighten parent support of our programs. Well written assessments validate, for parents, the significance of our programs. “Look,” we can attest. “This is why you are investing in your child’s Jewish life.” Without a periodic, written account, the synagogue teacher risks being seen, as a quality, Jewish, child-care provider. Written accountability adds to the professionalism of the supplemental teacher.

Most importantly, I believe, is that assessment writing causes, or should cause, a teacher to reflect on his/her performance and potential for growth. Somewhere, a long time ago, I read the obvious, “The only thing you can change about your class is yourself.” Writing the report card narrative provides a teacher with an observation point in the cycle of the year. What is going well? How can I take it to the next level of significance? Where am I feeling dissatisfied? Is there a way to alleviate my frustration and offer my students a more compelling experience?

Pick any one of the above. I believe that your report cards (progress notes, assessments, evaluations…) are, most assuredly, worth your time and energy, if you take the initiative, and the outlook, to make it so.

I almost forgot – December was the birth month of important artists of Jewish heritage. Helen Frankenthaler, Ad Reinhardt and Raphael Soyer were all born in December.

Our January artists are – Jack Levine, Alfred Stieglitz and Barnett Newman.