For Those Teachers Who "Hate" Report Cards: Write a Story of Learning

Two days ago I read a social media status of a teacher which stated: “I dislike report cards!” The following day I saw on Twitter an educator suggesting that “I F_____ing hate report card writing!”

Wow! I was unaware at the level of angst this de facto assessment tool caused amongst my colleagues. This anger and frustration sparked some reflection on my part as to the purpose of the dreaded report card, and perhaps how we can re-envision it as a means for helping learning, teaching, and transformation.

From a pragmatic perspective, the report card is a mechanism for communicating to the learner and the parents/guardians of the progress the student has made. As a teacher, parent, and stakeholder in our community, I am a little concerned that educators might see this assessment and communication tool as an arduous and painful task. Shouldn’t this process be about reflecting on the learning and teaching that goes on in our classroom? Should it not be time consuming, rigourous, and thoughtful? Should it not be part of the conversation we are having with students throughout the year?

I know for many that report cards come down to a series of drop-down boxes and recycled comments from previous years. This is how we can “get it done” so that we can take off for the summer, right? I don’t know about you, but this makes me feel icky.

What if we looked at report cards a little differently? What if these end-of-term or end-of-year snap shots were meaningful, thoughtful, and personalized accounts of the learning, teaching, and growth that transpired throughout the term or year? What if we re-envisioned them as a means to inspire excellence in learning and teaching, as opposed to a mindless chore of matching comments with the “right type of student.” I once ran into an educator who suggested that there were five types of students and that you could predict which students in September would fit into these moulds in June. Whah?

Let’s change this…

Report cards can be stories. They can tell the story of the transformation of the learner, your story as a teacher, and the story of the relationship you have fostered with the learner. Firstly, if you hate the process of report cards, spend some time reflecting about each learner at least a few times per week. I create a Google document for each of my classes and jot things down periodically when a learner does something really impressive, or when they have struggled with a particular skill or with their thinking/logic. By this, when it comes time to writing a ten-sentence synopsis of this learner at the end of the term or end of the year, I am not just recounting test scores or reciting nonsensical statements about how well he or she gets along with others; my comments are a narrative of the development of this learner’s journey.

Secondly, report cards are a massive and critical tool to generate some reflection on our own practice. A few years ago in a graduate course, Ralph Mason, an impressive faculty member at the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba , asked the following question which has been embedded into my daily reflection: “What is excellence in teaching?” Most days, I know that I did not come close to excellence in teaching, despite trying desperately hard. I usually blow a lesson, ignore the needs of some students, and insult and annoy parents and colleagues inadvertently. By sitting and reflecting on report cards, however, I am able to think about what we, as a learning community, have learned. What were our goals when we set out? Did we meet the outcomes that the people of Manitoba set out for us? Did I provide my students with the right amount of space and/support they needed? Did I get to know my students?  For me, this is often scary, as I prove deficient in many of these areas, but the practice provides me with a lengthy “to do” list for the following term or year.

Report cards, just like any assessment tool of value, take a long time and force us to communicate effectively. I am often up to the wee hours of the night trying to meet deadlines, but at the end, I always find the process rewarding and positive. In my first year of teaching, I finished right before I had to take my wife to the hospital in order to deliver our first child. You can imagine how impressed she was with my dedication.

In any event…

If you hate or dislike report cards, change your perspective on what they are. Don’t see them as a thing, a burden – but as a chance to tell some pretty important stories. Take your time. Work hard. Look beyond the commonly conceived utility of these documents, whereby they offer a mark and a few broad statements about attitude, study habits, and behaviour. Have your students contribute to the report card and have them approve what you will submit! Do anything to make this tool meaningful. We owe it to our students and to the process of learning.