Monthly Archives: April 2011

“You’re a Novice at Not Being a Jerk:” Non-Academic Standards Part I

This is a cross post from our ActiveGrade blog, which is a mix of ActiveGrade updates and pedagogical discussion.  I try to be sparing in my cross-posting, but I think this is an important piece which fits this blog well too.  I won’t cross-post part two!

“You’re a Novice at Not Being a Jerk:” Non-Academic Standards Part I

by MICHAL on APRIL 6, 2011

My question is – why isn’t a student’s ability to be a decent human being factored in to their graduation requirements?

I used to teach at a Quaker school where community was valued in several intentional, structured ways.  Every day staff and students worked on a crew (chore) to keep the school in order and learn practical skills; we had weekly meetings of the whole school to discuss policies and organize events; we spent time every day in silent reflection; and we went on wilderness trips to experience something greater than ourselves and push our comfort zones.  When I look back, it is these experiences that often feel the most meaningful, the most instructive, the most educational.

In academics, we strove to give students regular feedback to guide them toward being independent learners.  In order for students to graduate, they, of course, had to pass certain classes.  But despite the fact that community engagement was such an important part of our curriculum, we didn’t really have a way to give students feedback on these skills.  A student might not graduate if they failed US History, but if they passed all their classes it didn’t matter how big of a jerk face they were.  They could have skipped every community meeting, been rude to every student and teacher, and generally failed to understand the underlying Quaker values we were tyring to impart and it wouldn’t matter – Diploma.

These experiences led me to the central question of the post – “why isn’t a student’s ability to be a decent human being factored in to their graduation requirements?”  Of course there are some immediate arguments to be made.  First up: “maybe it’s too subjective.”  We have all encountered, or at least heard stories of others encountering, that one teacher who just didn’t seem to like us for whatever reason.  “It would suck,” we might say, “to have that teacher passing judgement on my character.”  And yet, that teacher still passes judgement on how much we understand in the class.  That teacher is already blamed for our low grades in many cases.

Another argument is that students are at school to learn skills, not values.  Home is where students learn values.  My answer to that is that we learn values in our everyday lives both at home and out in the world through the people we meet and with whom we interact.  If school is the place where students learn they are supposed to complete pre-defined tasks in order to graduate but not a place where their ability to engage in fair and meaningful relationships matters, then we are teaching them to value certain things over others – in this case task completion over relationship building.  But let’s look at our own work environments:  how often do you need to be conversant in the Civil War and how often do you need to be able to work civilly with other people; how often to you need to calculate the arc of a basketball and how often do you need to take other people’s opinions into account; How often do you need to identify and analyze a theme in classic literature and how often do you have to be comfortable doing something you don’t want to do?  I’m guessing, no matter what your job, you need the social skills more than the technical skills.

Here’s my concluding question: if we can attach a letter or number to a student’s ability to write well or explain the collapse of Rome, then why can’t we, in the same way, describe their abilities to be nice to other people or add constructive comments to a group discussion?

Please share your thoughts!  I’ll tackle the question of how to monitor these skills next time around.

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