On “Reportese”, Teacher Comments & Saying What We Mean

Teacher Comments

Image by AJ Cann via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/6Cn9ne

So, this popped up in my Twitter feed last week:

I often see things pop up via non-teacher friends on Facebook who have school age kids that are in the vein of “what your child’s teacher says, and what she really means”. I know these things exist, but every time I see teachers engaging in them, I’m a bit shocked. As both a middle school teacher and as a teacher educator, I am fairly invested in the language we use when we talk about students and in helping others to use that language. That said, I do see how, as Kevin Bartlett calls it, “reportese” can end up feeling like a the punchline of a joke. And we really should be able to laugh at ourselves. But I still have some problems with these lists, partially because the “what the teacher really means” generally makes us sound like insensitive jerks, rather than people who care about kids and their progress.

There are reasons why in teacher comments, we try to phrase things positively:

  • We’re trying to focus on observable behaviors or what a student has reported and withhold judgment. It’s impossible to know what’s going on in someone else. Educators do have the training to look at a number of different sources of data and make inferences about motivation, ability, and skill in our students. But those observable behaviors are just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t want to make an inference about what’s causing a student’s behavior until I’m absolutely sure.
  • We know that if we talk about things in a positive manner, rather than using terms like “lazy” we’re more likely to keep a positive mindset about the student and to look for ways to help her improve.  It’s my job to figure out how to teach all of the students in my class, and my job to collaborate with parents to help students improve. It’s also my job to help leverage and develop student strengths (such as being social and enjoying collaboration), as well as to help students improve in areas of weakness (knowing when it’s time to work independently).

But, in spite of our best efforts, the comments often seem jargony and designed to be unclear or vague and hide what’s really going on with the student.  For example, saying that “Kate struggles to apply herself”, doesn’t give much insight into Kate’s behavior, her strengths, or her weaknesses. The reason comments like this are seen as duplicitous or or disingenuous–like, well, we really mean that Kate is lazy and are afraid we’ll get in trouble for calling it like we see it–is that they’re so vague. Is Kate completing classwork, but having difficulty following up with homework? Does she participate fully in class discussions, but doesn’t do very well when she’s asked to write about a topic independently? How can we still maintain a non-judgmental voice that talks about students in a positive way, but still be specific and realistic about a student’s accomplishments?

  • Write your comment to the student–not to next year’s teacher and not to the parent. One of my colleagues gave me this idea, and I’m trying to use it more in my practice. Parent communication is a big part of report writing, but it shouldn’t be our only avenue. When we write to the student (even if someone else needs to read it to them), we (or at least I) seem to shift into more understandable, honest-sounding language. This is, of course, totally different than what I ask my grad students to do (sorry, everyone–clinical language is the program standard).
  • Be genuine with your compliments. Find something good–improvement, positive attitude, enthusiasm, and start with it. Don’t qualify it. Just say it.
  • Start with observations, and then infer or question. Don’t just jump right in with the inferences about student needs or motivation. Talk about what you’re seeing in a clear and non-judgmental way, and then talk about why you think it’s happening.
  • Set goals and offer solutions. How will the whole team (teacher, student, and parent) work together to get the student on track? Or to help the student extend her thinking or expand his creativity?

How do you make sure you’re clearly communicating in your written reports? Do you like the idea of writing directly to the student? Or do you think reports should be directed toward parents?

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