Time to Grow: To Grade or to Kick Butt?

Amethyst Hinton Sainz Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership

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Today, a student resentfully announced in class that there was no grade in the gradebook for an essay he wrote.  A month ago.

I couldn’t argue.  It has been sitting in the “Speedgrader” of my digital classroom for several weeks. Last week, I was really going to focus on getting those finished.  The essays are personal narratives about family histories, nothing I can really just skim-and-grade (which I rarely force myself to do anyhow). I really want to read them. But the moments when I can focus like that on getting to know students… I have to create them in my hectic days.  Clearly I haven’t managed well when it comes to those essays.

But what would I have given up last week and weekend if I had graded essays?

I would have missed out on Arizona’s first Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers conference, for one.  The 1 ½ day conference focused on helping teacher leaders identify an area of passion, come up with a concrete goal, and craft a message, refining it for various audiences.  An elevator speech, if you will.  The educational community (at least, the segments not dominated by political ideology and corporate interests) agrees that teachers MUST join the conversation on policy, and yet most of us need this critical kind of training to even begin to imagine ourselves breaching those visible and invisible barriers keeping us inside our classroom walls. The conference was full of validating stories and powerful messages about individual teachers becoming leaders and shaping their schools, districts and communities.  How often do I get an opportunity like that?  This is the first one I’ve had.

If I had been grading essays, I would also have missed out on preparing for and enjoying a visit from the Honorable Juan Mendez, from the Arizona House of Representatives, who graciously accepted my invitation to be Taken to School.  Take Your Legislator to School Week is this week, and I felt lucky to have someone who was willing to spend the entire day with me.  More details than I anticipated filled my time as I prepared: last-minute touches to the classroom; making sure ALL lesson materials and preparation were done– no last minute copies or typing up bellwork! (Ignore that.  I never do that.); inviting key folks on campus to photograph, videotape, interview, meet-and-greet, tour; designing prompts which would allow him to observe some of the less obvious aspects of what makes a classroom work.  The visit was, I thought, a wonderful beginning to what hopefully becomes an ongoing dialogue, and Mr. Mendez was a more willing subject than I had thought, engaging the students, reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus, helping distribute materials, and being a good sport about having lunch in the cafeteria.  Whew! No essays got graded those days, either. However, one more state legislator has spent a day at school before developing and voting on policy.  And who can argue with that?

So, I must apologize to my sophomores.  The past couple of weeks, when it comes to grading your essays, I have put my own growth above yours.  I can’t say it doesn’t eat at me, but I can promise you that I will use what I have learned to try to make school the type of place where everyone has the time and resources to accomplish what they need to do to continue to learn, grow, achieve and lead.


Amethyst Hinton Sainz is National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts, and is constantly trying to live up to that standard! This year she will begin teaching at Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona as an interventionist. She has taught junior high ELD and high school English in Arizona for 25 years. She has been a Stories from School blogger since 2012. Amethyst’s alma maters are Blue Ridge High School, the University of Arizona and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. Her bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led her toward the College of Education, and she soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel her throughout her career. Her love of language, literature, and culture led her to Bread Loaf for her master's in English Literature. She is a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for her. As a board member of the Mesa NBCT Network, she works with other NBCT’s to promote this powerful process throughout the district. She supports candidates for National Board Certification, and loves seeing teachers realize and articulate their teaching and leadership power! She enjoys teaching students across the spectrum of academic abilities, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education. Last year she had the privilege of running our school garden, and will really miss that this year. She is currently learning more about social and racial justice and is striving to be an antiracist educator. She lives in Mesa, Arizona with her family. She enjoys time with them, as well as with her vegetable garden, backyard chickens, and the two dogs. She also enjoys reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), kayaking, camping, and travel, among other things.

Comments 4

  1. Donnie

    I think you hit on one of the most upsetting struggles for a teacher. Our needs versus the needs of our students. I always tell myself that I am no good to my students if I do not take care of myself. Just like on an airplane, an adult has to put on their gas mask first.

  2. Sandy Merz

    Good post Amethyst and nice comment, Donnie. What a struggle to figure out what to do with time. I try to teacher my students that in engineering you always have to choose between competing and often self-defeating objectives. For example, the goal of transportation is to go fast, safe, and cheap – but speed and safety are what make a system expensive so if you go cheap…
    In teaching it’s the same. I was pleased with our administrators the other day. I posed the question – what do you want us to do if we only have half an hour before go home and yet still have hours of work? In other words, when we have to make a choice, what would you rather we left undone.
    By golly, they came through. Clearly, a lot of it is situational, and left up to our professional discretion, but they sent out a First Things First list and I thought that was pretty cool.

  3. Jess Ledbetter

    Hi, Amethyst! I felt a similar sense of “guilt” as I left midday Friday for the conference (leaving my students in very capable hands). I felt the duality of being both a teacher and a leader. The steps away from my students felt like a splitting of identity. But then, as I was driving I started thinking, “I do this stuff for them.” It feels like I do these things for me, but really, being an advocate for education is really all about my students. In fact, all of the leadership I do on my school site and district-wide is related to keeping more good teachers in classrooms with kids…my kids as they grow older. It was an interesting 60 minute drive arguing with myself and sorting out that duality. But I liked the conclusion I came to. Hopefully, I won’t feel so split next time.

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