Dear students (of all ages, schools, fields) & their parents:

If you’re like me, you may have a practical mindset 90% of the time, and still get unreasonably nervous over the word “grade.” To those awaiting grades (parents awaiting report cards, too), analyzing scores, studying for EOCs, or preparing for performance evaluations (teaching / professional friends), this letter from Harvard Law’s Faculty Grades Initiative might help you keep a level perspective. I figured someone out there may also need this.

We live in a high-stakes-assessment-driven world. Kids, even in the professional world, you’ll likely get performance evaluations. Ask any teacher. They are assessed on their own high-stakes measures and others’ high-stakes assessment results. Some even get performance-based pay for others’ test scores.

As a former teacher, former teacher evaluator, and former member on the district-wide teacher evaluation committee (who did not favor high-stakes testing as a measure of teacher performance), remember that the benchmark of a successful professional is not found in a number on a single “test,” “exam,” or “assessment.”

Reading the Faculty Grades Initiative letter had me reflecting on my own experiences. Obviously, I’m no professor, and I have no published books to boast, but I have experienced some small, personal successes throughout the years. I was a pretty competent veteran teacher. If careers were a game of Super Mario Brothers, then I’d say I’d at least reached Bowser’s castle.

Then, after making some headway, I just up and turned off the game. Crazier still, I started a new game I’d never played. Some might find my leaving a comfortable career of teaching and jumping into an uncertain legal career gutsy, maybe reckless. There are no guarantees I’ll have the level of success I had in teaching. But thinking back, there were no guarantees in teaching when I began. Failure is guaranteed in any endeavor. Success isn’t. Failure is easy. Success takes work.

I failed plenty in teaching before I succeeded. Had I let my first teaching “assessment” define my career, I would never have known I was capable of professional achievement. Had I listened when other people said I couldn’t possibly succeed, I would have quit before starting.

The same is true now. It’s a fact of life. There will be plenty of voices trying to get in your head. “You got a C–you’ll never get hired…you got a bad evaluation–you’re done in this district…without an A on your EOC, you might as well throw that scholarship application out the window.” They’d have you believe one assessment makes or breaks your career.

Don’t listen.

In teaching, I learned there were two factors more determinative of success than tests, grades, or random observations: a dedication to one’s work (teaching students) and a passion for one’s subject-matter. These trumped the hollow indicators above.

Hard Times Make for Hard Choices

My first teaching evaluation was terrible. Horrible. No, it was worse than horrible. My route to teaching was not traditional; it was alternative. My husband was a Marine, and he’d been deployed many times. Timewise, he was finally up for a B Billet, a non-deployable tour-of-duty. But we were at war. He would not get to stay state-side.

He faced leaving the Corps or leaving our one-year-old son for a year-long deployment in Afghanistan building up to Iraq. He did not mind deploying. He was the kind of guy who liked getting off the bench and into the game. But he chose our son over the Corps. It was one of the toughest decisions he’s ever made (the young man my husband trained to take his place was later killed in Iraq).

He exited with no career plan. His MOS was computer repair specialist, and he needed more education to get work in the civilian world. I’d already given up going to law school, deciding teaching would be easier on the family during his transition, and I’d finished half of my MAT English program for traditional teaching certification. But I needed immediate work, steady income, and benefits.

Someone told me about the PACE program—Program of Alternative Certification for Educators. I could get benefits, earn income, and work towards certification while my husband used his GI Bill to go to school.  Entering PACE would mean quitting my graduate program halfway through, and that was tough given I’d completed so much. Still, the family’s needs trumped my own goals, so I left my program work in limbo. PACE seemed the best solution for our family.

What I didn’t know was the poor regard other educators had for the PACE program. I passed the PRAXIS, had a good undergraduate GPA, but couldn’t find a job. Plenty of schools had listed openings, but no one would even interview me. I didn’t get it until a friend said this, “It may be different for you, but I’ve never seen a teacher do well who came out of that program. Like, ever.”

Suddenly, I understood. I was a PACE applicant, and surely, I was just another subpar, second-rate teacher. Another friend said, “I cannot imagine how I would have survived my first year without my [highly acclaimed university’s] teacher education program, and my student-teaching field experience. More power to you, girl.”

Relentless applying paid off. Finally, I got a job. I was going to teach Reading at the toughest Title I school in the state, a school that offered teachers a $10,000 annual stipend in order to fill positions. It was a school against which a teacher had just filed a harassment suit and won more than $300,000. Yep. That was the only job I could land.

I was hired on a Thursday, and I started that Friday. The school was desperate. I was the desperate choice. My dad worked in Circulation at our local newspaper, and he was friends with the then-editor of education. She told him that this Title I school’s hiring me was “sending the lamb to slaughter.”

Voices on all sides had plenty to say. I was being set up to fail. There was no way I’d survive. I was getting in over my head. I had no clue. They were partially right—it was tough, and I had no clue. They were also wrong. I didn’t fail, mostly.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Teaching Evaluation

That first Friday, I had nothing—no curriculum, no rosters, no pencils. I walked in, was handed a box of books, and let loose. I didn’t even know the book the class was reading. One kid particularly lifted my spirits, asking me, “Why’d you want to work here? Didn’t anybody tell you how bad this school is?”

That Friday night, I read the entire novel. Saturday night, I wrote an entire unit plan. Sunday, I bought three boxes of pencils and two packs of paper. Monday, I returned to teach. Enter evaluator. The new assistant principal came in and observed me for an entire 45-minute period. She left her feedback in my box, and I picked it up that afternoon. Opening that form was worse than opening the results of my SAT exam in high school.

Was there any positive feedback? Yes. But my eyes didn’t see it. All I saw was this:

Classroom Environment: 0 of 5, this place is sterile; there’s no student work, you’re missing your goals / objectives, you have no word wall, nothing. Needs significant work.

Checking for Understanding: 2 of 5, lesson was good, but where was your formative assessment? Where was your scaffolding? And what about the kids who never answered a question? Needs improvement.

I didn’t even know what “formative assessment” or “scaffolding” meant. When I got in my car and started driving, the floodgates opened. Wide. I cried. And cried. And then I cried some more. It was my second day of teaching, I’d spent my entire weekend reading and creating lessons, I was too broke to buy classroom décor, and I stunk as a teacher. I stunk as a human. I was a failure. I wallowed for one whole night.

Then I worked.

The Will to Succeed

My husband says I worked insanely, without pause, for the next ten years. It wasn’t about me. It was about the nature of my work: kids depended on me, so if I stunk, I wasn’t failing myself. I was failing them. I bought poster board, a pack of markers, scissors, a few packs of glue, and some construction paper; then, I worked more. Drawing, cutting, gluing, pasting. I arrived in the dark with the morning custodian, and I left in the dark with the evening janitors. Bulletin boards, participation charts, a behavior points system, active reading strategies on hand-drawn novel posters, encouraging quotes—I had it all up within a week.

That year wasn’t a failure. It was the hardest year of my professional life—working before dawn and past dusk, completing PACE coursework, taking required graduate classes, traveling to Columbia for in-service trainings, learning how to teach, reading middle grades novels, planning middle grades units, grading papers, and, of course, teaching. Oh yeah, I was also a mom to a four-year-old and an infant who was hospitalized that year for digestive issues.

I succeeded that year by working through failure. I think I can safely say my teaching career had more successes than failures. That first evaluation didn’t doom my work. The same is true for you in your field. Your passion for your field and your dedication to your work will determine your work’s quality and your success. Good luck on your exams, and be sure to celebrate anything positive–even a grade–that comes from hard work. But remember this: you are a person, not a number.  One subpar score can’t keep you from success. A lack of will to work through it can.