Coping with Mediocrity

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Lately, I’ve been very disappointed in student work.  Not all student work, but lots of student work.  Not because it isn’t done (that’s a whole other can of worms) but because it just isn’t great.  It’s “good enough.”  It’s “a pass.”  It’s “the bare minimum.”  We at the secondary school level especially (I can’t speak for my intermediate or elementary colleagues) have been running into mediocrity at ever-increasing rate in recent years, and boy, it is a hard hit to the teacher-ego.  We sing, we dance, we give inquiry opportunities.  I find that in my classes I have a sliding scale: 15-20% is AMAZING,  15-20% is done well,15-20% isn’t done,and the remainder falls into the bare-minimum, or “mediocre” category.  The question is…why?

Is it my teaching?  Assignments?  Length of time given to complete work?

It is school culture?  Student apathy?

Is it lack of consequences?  Is my rubric allowing mediocrity to become the status quo?

Galit Zolkower and Debra Munk, in Educational Leadership, wrote an article (http://bit.ly/1oWqTGb) disseminating ways to get beyond mediocrity, with a school out of Maryland. They talk about three major areas that required addressing by their administration team in order to push their school “out of mediocrity.”   They looked at instruction, rigor and school culture, all of which fit my above questions. It is through those three areas that I am currently examining my own classroom and determining how to also move out of mediocrity.

In terms of instruction, I’ve changed my assignments a lot in the last 6 years.  I expand on big ideas, and give students more individualization opportunities.  In visual arts and computer science, this allows for students who aren’t necessarily in my class because they love computers to use topics or visuals that they are interested in to complete the assignment.  I find that even the most interesting projects (I use Sphero robotics in two programming classes) still don’t motivate my most apathetic students.  This has been incredibly frustrating (hello, ROBOTS!?).

I will say that there doesn’t seem to be many ramifications for mediocrity, or even failure in today’s schools.  Incomplete Packages are offered to students who don’t pass, late work is always accepted, and as long as we get something (anything) we are usually okay.  I get that its hard to push students, and I also know that it is hard to find time to push 100 students + to redo work that technically is handed in, and already marked.  One thing that I know will help with finding time is the revised curriculum–it will open up opportunities for me to individualize assignments and projects more (I am already doing this with my Grade 12 classes) but it may also give me time to figure out why students are apathetic about their work in my classes, and meet one-on-one to determine what will motivate them.  I know I am not alone in this, so to those who also struggle with mediocrity in their classrooms—take heart.  It won’t be an easy fix, it will take time but also, it’s not only up to you…students need to confront their own mediocrity in order to overcome it.

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