Grading participation

Every day, (Good) P.E. teachers evaluate effort, and grade students on participation. Let’s examine just how difficult that is to do well.

[Side note: regarding my use of (Good). Earlier today I was thinking about how tough it must be to be a police officer right now. This led me to wonder what the perception of teachers, or any profession, would be if the bottom 1% of the profession were filmed doing their job badly and those clips went viral. This led me back to my original thought — cops (and P.E. teachers) need better PR.]

Where is the line between acceptable effort, and unacceptable? It would have to vary from student to student, right? You’re evaluating effort on a scale, and that scale depends on a bevy of variables. You cannot grade based on natural ability, that would be the equivalent on grading academics based on current IQ (whatever that means *eye roll*). You can’t make a “test” that everyone has to pass at a certain rate. When it comes to effort, not only is it tough to come up with a percentage via observation, but the percentage you’re looking for differs greatly – there is no predetermined universal rate. When it comes to grading, classroom teachers have it easy.

All the P.E. teachers at my school grade on effort. There are occasional quizzes, too, but the grade is participation-grounded. Students are given a certain allotment of points per day, and they can only lose them. Losing points affects your grade real quick. As far as I know, the grading philosophy of every P.E. teacher at our school can be traced back to our first-ever Grammar School P.E. teacher. She had a Masters in Physical Education, and is a bit of a legend (RIP Cami).

Here’s a snippet of my first-ever interaction with her, paraphrased:

Her: …and then I got my Masters in P.E.

Me (before a single day of being a P.E. teacher): Wait, you can’t get a Masters in P.E., can you?

Her: I have a Masters in Physical Education.

I still wince, thinking about it. I knew nothing.

Anyway, the system I stole from her is CPR. Cooperation, Participation, Respect. Three points per day. It allows a lot of flexibility for the teacher, which is good and bad. Good, because the teacher has a lot of control over grades. Bad, because the teacher has a lot of control over grades.

Okay, imagine this. Students are running the mile in P.E. This is a required class and a mandatory activity. How slow is too slow? At what point do you call someone out for dogging it, and dock their grade?

Just so we’re clear, you have to draw the line somewhere. You can’t just “punt” on making a decision. If you don’t hold students accountable, eventually someone is going to just stay there at the starting line until class ends. And if they get away with it, then more students will move that direction or adopt that strategy. If you understand that is the inevitable outcome of an incentive structure flawed in that particular way, you address the potential flaw before it becomes a perverse incentive.

Once you realize you have to draw a line, the next step is to realize the line is in different places for different students. To do your job well, you have to know where the line is for every student in your class, for every activity.

One thing I consistently tell students in my mandatory P.E. classes is this: I’m looking for you to prove your brain is in control of your body. Prove it to me. Once you prove it, my standards change.

Example: if you’re on the cross country team and run several miles a day at practice, I’m not going to expect you to push for a PR in the mile every other week in P.E. In fact, the best thing for you might be to run the P.E. mile at a recovery pace. Compare that to someone who is terrified of the mile and has never managed to complete it without walking. If I’m doing my job, I’m going to find ways to motivate that student to keep getting better/faster, and, more importantly, not be afraid of physical discomfort. If you’re running one mile two times per month, I want you to beat or approach your PR every time.

Seriously, I’m up front about this. “This is not the Olympics. I’m not expecting you to collapse and/or throw up after you finish the mile every week. I am expecting you to give a reasonable effort.” The definition of “reasonable effort” varies from situation to situation, and every week I do have students who give their all and collapse after finishing. My students also have a notebook where they record various repeatable physical tests, the best use of it being our weekly “distance day”. I mix in different things, including sprints and fartleks, but the two we lean on are the mile and the “progressive aerobic cardiovascular endurance run” (PACER) test. My hope is if 1) their teacher is highly invested in their numbers and improvement, and 2) they are recording it themselves, then they will start to pay attention and care about those things themselves.

Let’s take that same varying standard to injuries. Imagine a student who loves P.E. and competes hard day after day. That student comes up to you one day and says “Coach, I rolled my ankle at home yesterday, can I sit out today?” Sure.

Compare that to a student who openly hates P.E. and does everything they can to avoid participating. That student comes up to you one day and says “Coach, I rolled my ankle at home yesterday, can I sit out today?” Hmm…

To be consistent, the teacher needs to ask for a parent and/or doctor’s note in both of the above situations. But, most of the time, you know — the note is just a technicality.

This is the jumping off point from my previous post / critique of #BelieveAllWomen. If someone is benefiting by faking/lying, the worst response is to let them take advantage of the system, over and over. And when I say “worst”, I literally mean it tears apart the fabric of society. The obvious solution is in this case is bringing in a third-party. The first tier is a parent, but I’ve certainly had cases where the student and parent are conspiring against participating in P.E., and if that’s what you suspect is happening, you should certainly get a medical expert involved.

If P.E. teachers took a #BelieveAllInjuries approach, a significant percentage of their class would never participate. Maybe it’s a quarter of the class or less, depending on the group, but it’s definitely a large chunk. A certain percentage love P.E., a big middle percentage are neither enthused nor disenchanted and could go either way depending on the teacher and environment, and a certain percentage come into the class determined to do the absolute minimum (#resist).

[Side note: At the start of this year I had a brief conversation with our other P.E. teachers about the best approach to having a “distance day” every week. Should the day be predictable or unpredictable? My approach is predictable. Cons: students can plan their injuries (and doctor’s appointments) in advance. Pros: you can coach the class into having a healthy mental approach (/resignation), and the inevitability makes it impersonal. If it’s unpredictable, the class’s first reaction is going to be to attempt to convince you to pick any other day, and once that fails, a negative mood, then effort, will prevail.]

Grading participation is tough when you are evaluating individuals doing individual tasks. When it comes to team competitions, it’s even more difficult. It’s nearly impossible to force students to play team sports when they don’t want to. For example, when we play dodgeball, I almost always provide an alternative. (Same thing when we go outside in *extreme* temperatures. It’s just a good idea to make those sorts of things voluntary. #separateblogpost) But think about it. If the coach is splitting up teams, it’s pretty important to know what level of effort the individuals will be competing at. Playing to win the game is sacred, and if anyone on either side is not playing to win, the competition is undermined. For this reason, I have developed the following policy: if you don’t want to compete, tell me before I split up teams. You can walk laps around the field/gym instead, and you won’t lose any points. If you don’t compete with adequate effort during the game, I’m going to kick you out of the game to walk laps, and in that case you do lose a point (at least). On top of those options, when we do play games, there are at least two options, one in the gym and one on the field. This entire system changes in the fourth quarter, when I have students assigned to permanent teams (#separateblogpost).

When I kick students out of team competitions for lack of effort, they are often incredulous, and for good reason. By doing so, I am claiming to 1) know their intentions and 2) understand their potential. It’s borderline crazy to assert you have a grasp on either of those things, but I do. And that’s the beautiful thing about my current situation. I have spent my life competing and watching other people compete. I spend most of my everyday life working with these students. I do understand effort and potential, and I do understand my students. Do I get it right every time? No. Is it an effective way to encourage their level of effort to stay well above the grey area? Yes.

Something is “Good” if it fulfills its purpose. A “Good” P.E. teacher is one who teaches students to give their best effort, to be a “sweaty try-hard”. The rest is just details. Grade participation.

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