Taking a Teacher Mulligan

Jeff from Trust Me – I’m a Math Teacher writes about his kids bombing a quiz:

Sometimes, despite trying to do my best job possible as a teacher, I screw up. I’m pretty sure it’s healthy to accept that it happens from time to time.


This happened on a Friday afternoon. I thought about what to do all weekend. I came back to my students on Monday and, in each class, just laid it out for them:

“Guys, nobody did well on this quiz. I’m sorry. I blame myself for that. When nobody does well, that tells me that I probably did something wrong with my teaching. So, I’m not going to include these quizzes in your grade for now. We’ll come back to it next week, I’ll try to teach differently, and we’ll re-take this quiz. Does that sound fair?”

This scenario reminded me of one I wrote about a couple years ago. I felt like I’d screwed up, I must not have taught the lesson well, I took the blame and we set about correcting the problems they’d struggled with on the test.

All this was fine, until I started reading their test corrections.  The first question on the page asks “How did you study for the test?”  Page after page had answers such as “I didn’t” or “I read my notes” or “I flipped through notes right before the test.”

Turned out I needed to take some of the blame, but the students needed to take some responsibility too, with 2-4 days between classes they had to do more than flip through their notes to be ready for an assessment.  I wondered where Jeff’s students fell on the spectrum of blame. Three days later he added a comment to the original post:

Good news, though! The students re-took the quiz this week and did SO MUCH BETTER!

I’m thrilled for him and his students, but I am left wondering – when is it the students’ job to ask more questions, practice more on their own and take more responsibility for their learning, and when is it the teacher’s job to go back and spend more time on past lessons? Do you expect students to study on their own time or should they have mastered the material during class? What’s the difference between needing to review and having misconceptions? Can you tell whether the students would have done better with more independent practice or if they’re totally lost just by looking at an assessment?

8 thoughts on “Taking a Teacher Mulligan

  1. Wendy Menard says:

    Tina, I’m with you. One of my classes of ‘gifted’ students asks no questions, and offers little in participation in spite of my barely-short-of-Herculean efforts to engage them. I do everything I can to make my classroom a safe space in which to ask for help, make mistakes, and wonder about things. I view it my job to bring my best game to class, whatever that means – whether it is direct instruction, collaborative activity, or an afternoon of Solve Crumple Toss. I put my notes on line, and make videos with tutorials. So when a kid tells me after a quiz or a test, “I just didn’t get it,” I will not take the blame for that. I know I am a reflective teacher, always looking at what I can do better, but I spent the first 5 years of my career taking ALL the blame for student failure. Sometimes in life we get second chances, and sometimes we don’t. I think we especially do a disservice to those students about to enter college [where rules are rules and deadlines are deadlines] when we don’t show them exactly how much of the responsibility is theirs.

    • Tina C. says:

      It’s a struggle. I offer second chances, but 90% of the time it’s on a student’s own time – they need to take the responsibility to see me if they want to retake something and also if they need extra support. I did do one whole class retake this year, on the very first quiz.

  2. mrdardy says:

    Curious about your take on the re-take. Does the first effort completely disappear from any record? Are there students who do worse the second time around? In classes where I am the only teacher, I will sometimes offer a retake opportunity but I always keep a record (in some way – not always a 50-50 split) of the first grade earned. I want to show them my willingness to (a) help them overcome a disappointing grade and (b) help them LEARN. But I also want to convey that they need to be responsible for their own learning to an important degree. I know that there are no black/white answers here. One of the hundreds of challenges in this career…

    • Tina C. says:

      The new score replaces the old score (for precalc even if it’s worse, for geometry I don’t know that I’d hold to that). The students are responsible for keeping a running record of their scores, I like the sheet I’m using this year, I should blog about it.

  3. To clear up one or two things about my particular situation: I’m in my 5th year of teaching, 3rd year teaching just seniors. I have high expectations for them. Deadlines are deadlines. I give some direct instruction, put notes on-line, design learning modules, etc.; but, I expect my students to ask questions of me and of each other when working in class. I have a lot of one-on-one interactions with my students and do a lot of questioning to probe their thinking and steer them back if they’re going off-course.

    I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve completely re-done a lesson or section of material and done a whole-class re-take (I think the instance described above is only the third time, and the first time I’ve done it with seniors). I’ve had no qualms whatsoever about giving students the grades they have earned, good or bad. If a student isn’t asking for help or isn’t completing in-class practice work, problem tasks, or homework, then that’s that.

    This was a rare case where students *were* asking for help, doing their work, etc. and *everybody* did poorly when it came to the assessment. A couple of my colleagues and I sat down and looked over the assessment, and decided some parts were poorly-written (that was a factor I’d forgotten about when writing the blog post Tina quoted above). So, partly it was that the assessment itself was not a good one. I also think it was partly that the students needed more time and practice on the skill than I’d given them (sometimes I have a tendency to move through things too fast). So I actually didn’t really do much “re-teaching,” but rather I just gave them some time to ask more questions and develop a better understanding of what they were doing.

    I really love the conversation here — it’s given me a lot to think about.

    (And Tina, thanks for thinking enough of my post to re-post bits of it here! Yay!)

    • Tina C. says:

      Thanks for commenting and sharing your original post! Glad this has you thinking, posting on this blog still makes me nervous that other people will have a negative connotation if I label their post as being about “struggle.”

  4. I’ve been thinking a lot about whether our students know what it means to study. I found this (arrogant but articulate) blog post from the guy who taught himself the MIT computer-science curriculum to be a very practical, thorough, challenging explanation of what it means to study.

    I wonder how students would feel reading it.


    • Tina C. says:

      Wow. Not sure I’d want to share with kids – rushing isn’t the goal in High School – but he has good ideas. “The goal of coverage and practice questions is to get you to a point where you know what you don’t understand.”

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