Remembering important teachers, part 3: Ms. Fair

The Herring Building @ Friends

The Herring Building @ Friends

Emily Auerswald and Steve Soden, siblings who are six years apart, were both fortunate to attend Friends Academy in Dartmouth, MA in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They fondly remember a legendary history teacher, Ms. Fair.

Emily: One of my main memories of Ms. Fair – aside from her apt name – was the Middle Ages unit. Did you have that? It was terrific – learn different facts and do projects to move up the ranks from serf to King (or Queen, as the case may be). I clearly recall creating the “princess hat,” as I called it. I made a fabric-covered conical hat that was akin to the fairies’ in Sleeping Beauty. While I thought that this should have earned me the highest grade possible – it was a thing of beauty – I was given a lesser grade because of historical inaccuracy. In the same unit, at the highest level, a classmate made an intricate model of Versailles. You could peek in the windows and see the Hall of Mirrors! This student, too, was downgraded – the assignment had been to construct a model of a castle. Versailles is a palace, and these are not the same thing, at all.

So here we have the bar set high, and in middle school, no less. It was not unkind of her to give us a lower grade for inaccurate work – it was actually helping us learn. To this day, I can describe the difference between a palace and a castle. And I’m much better at following directions. Getting the answer wrong was not a thing of shame but a chance to strive towards that bar.

Steve: More than any of the individual assignments, I remember how she treated everyone fairly. There were no favorites, as you mentioned above, and the assignments were graded based on the grade the assignment deserved. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, now that I’m a teacher myself, she never felt the need to explain to us that she cared about us or wanted us to do our best. The way she went about her work said it all. We could tell that she cared deeply about our knowledge and understanding of the material because, as you explained, she graded it, not us. If we could do better, she expected it of us. Hence, she cared about our development. Her grading, while sometimes tough, was never really open for debate; there was never any room for debate, because to argue against getting marked down for historical inaccuracy in history class would be an exercise in futility. She worked hard to make us better, which showed us that she cared.

Emily: Now that it seems like parents – and students – are more willing to argue grades, do you think that her approach can still be successful? Or would this just be the teacher beating her head against the wall?

Steve: Good question. I have to say that I don’t really get grade arguments, and my style is similar to what she used. In my estimation, kids and parents argue about grades when the grades are not well explained or if the kids think their complaints will work. Ms. Fair did a good job of leaving no wiggle room in her explanation. If she took off points for historical inaccuracies, there wasn’t really any room for discussion. Parents want high marks, and many will complain, but they will typically not do so if the teacher is competent, covers his or her bases with good explanations of grades, and clearly cares about the kid. The last point there is actually the most important. Ms. Fair very clearly cared about her students, so those grades were always given for the work. There was no wiggle room there, which was a reflection of her cache with students and parents.

Emily: I have only had one aggressive case of parents arguing a grade. Their 9th grader turned in an essay that did not answer the question posed. Even he acknowledged that. It turned out, however, that the parents had had, shall we say, a very heavy hand in the writing of the essay, so their argument was not actually about whether or not the essay addressed the question, but about the fact that they each had an English degree from Princeton and should have scored better on a 9th grade English essay. Ahem.

So, aside from isolated cases like this one, I think you’re on to something: “Parents want high marks, and many will complain, but they will typically not do so if the teacher is competent, covers his or her bases with good explanations of grades, and clearly cares about the kid.”

Steve: My final thought in all of this is that at the time, Ms. Fair didn’t seem extraordinary in any way. She did what good teachers do: She separated what she thought of the student from his or her performance, held the student to high standards, and truly cared about the student as a person. She was utterly competent and confident, but more than anything, I think she had a great deal of empathy. While she was never touchy-feely in her approach with me, that’s because she knew me and knew what I needed in order to learn. She “individualized” her instruction before it was a buzzword.

I got the above image here.

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