This lesson I learned was over two decades ago when I was a teacher for adults in Surrey, Canada. No, don’t rush to correct me and say, ‘You taught a lesson, not learned it;’ because ‘The object of education is learning; not teaching.’ Regardless of whether you are a teacher or a learner you are constantly learning lessons – some more important things rather than others.
To start this story at the beginning let me explain that I was teaching adults Mathematics and Accounting. These adults ranged in age from 19 to 75 and were learning important lessons. Most of them were trying to get a valued High School Diploma to enable them to further their education so that they could get jobs in the new economy. The most important courses were some level of Mathematics at the XI standard level. They could not ‘graduate’ (i.e. get a High School Diploma) without this.
The school was unique in that there has been continuous entry, independent learning, and self-directed with teachers acting as facilitators of learning and mentors. I loved my job as I found that adults were in school because they wanted to be not because they had to be.
That day was no different from others. I started a few new students as I mingled with my existing students, cleared their doubts, and marked their assignments. One of the, fairly young, new students that day was John (name changed.) John started Accounting XI and told me he was determined to finish the course as that was the only credit he needed to complete his High School. He shared with me his background, what I already knew from his Social Worker that he had been a drug user and had only recently cleaned up. He was unemployed and needed this course to join a vocational college.
John worked hard and steadily. He completed his assignments and didn’t miss any class. He was maintaining a ‘B’ average and seemed on target to complete the course that term.
Then, about halfway through the course, John did particularly well in an assignment. He succeeded in getting 97/100. In each assignment I included an especially tough ‘Bonus Question.’ In this chapter, John attempted the Bonus Question and got it partially right. In general if the Bonus question was not perfect I did not give any bonus marks. That day, however, I decided to give 3 marks for John’s partial answer. Thus I marked the assignment 97+3=100/100.
When John saw the assignment he was thrilled. “Oh man! I’ve NEVER aced a test before!!” He cried. After that he worked doubly hard.
Just two weeks later, however, John was absent. He missed two days in a row, which was quite unlike him. I wondered if he was sick, or had started using drugs again. I called his Social Worker and she didn’t know anything either. I was really disappointed. It was Tuesday.
On Thursday who should show up but John. “Hey! John my man! What’s up? Where have you been?” I accosted him cheerfully.
“Mala! can we talk in your office, ” John asked somberly.
“Sure,” I replied leading him in.
John was practically in tears. “Mala! last week when I went home I found my mom dead on the floor. She’d had a heart attack. She’s the only family I have. The funeral’s on Saturday.” “I’m so sorry,” I said shocked. “What can I do to help?
“Well, I’ve got everything taken care of but I do need a small favour.”
“Sure, John, what can I do?”
“You know that assignment I got 100% on, could I have a copy of it? That’s the first time I got a ‘Perfect Score;’ I want to place it in my mom’s casket. I want her to know I can be perfect.”
I began to fight back tears as I rushed out, copied the assignment from his file, and handed it over to him with a hug.
That was the hardest lesson I learned. We, as teachers are so blasé about our function of marking. Little do we realize the impact our assessment has on our students. If this is how my adult student felt imagine how much more young impressionable minds may want to please their parents.
I learned the hard way that Robert Heinlein was right when he said, “When one teaches, two learn.”