Throwback Thursday: Read and Follow Directions!

follow directions
“instruction # 1” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by wonder-ing

In the process of consolidating my writing spaces, I’ve discovered some items that I want to make sure I have in this space. I’ve decided to share them again as “Throwback Thursday” posts, but some are as relevant today as the day I first wrote them. I first shared this post on January 1, 2011. 

We’re going through the Friday stack of papers. He’s a good student, so there’s not much to discuss as it relates to his school work from the past week. As I get near the bottom of the stack, out of the corner of my eye, I catch him trying to sneak away.

“Where are you going? We’re still looking through your papers.”

He’s already fighting back the tears. He confesses, “I was trying to go upstairs before you see my English paper.” This boy hates to be in any trouble, and I’m upset that he thinks he’s going to be in trouble for a bad grade on school work. My wife and I have made it pretty clear that we aren’t too concerned about grades.

Sure enough, there near the bottom of the stack is a paper covered in red ink. The handout looks as though a killing spree might have happened during the English lesson. At the top of the page, a giant zero complete with sad-face markings glares at me. Scarlett underlining highlights the instructions, and the margin shouts Read and follow directions!

Having taught English for several years, I check the paper to determine how much of the concept he mastered. Not a single answer is wrong from the standpoint of his understanding. Suddenly, I’m furious about the grade, but I’m not angry at my son.

Trying to keep my face from turning the same shade as the paper’s markings, I say, “Looks like you didn’t read the directions. Did your teacher give this back and ask you to redo it following the directions?”

“No, she just gave it back today with all the other papers. I got a 0 out of 20. I’m so sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?”

“I got a bad grade.”

“Well, yeah, but, you got every problem right. You know the material. You demonstrated you understand it, but you didn’t follow directions. You made a mistake. Do you realize if you went back and wrote the same answers but followed the directions, you’d have a perfect score?” My boy tells me he understands, but the crocodile tears he’s holding back make me wonder what he’s really learning from all this.

Unfortunately, we’ve had several papers like this through the years. Often, my son knows and understands the concepts, but he forgets to read and follow the directions. The school work comes home all scratched up in crimson, and the behavior results in a lowered academic score. It’s unfortunate on several levels.

As a parent, I’ve grown to disregard the grades and scores because I’m not sure what they actually tell me. Does his “B” in language arts mean that he has yet to master the content or that he isn’t perfectly compliant? He doesn’t understand the concepts, or he is so bored by the assignments that he hurries to get it done? Is the grade an accurate reflection of his skills and learning or does it include something else, too? I’m a teacher, and I’m really not sure what to make of the numbers and letters, and there is rarely any real descriptive feedback.

I want my child to learn grammar. I also want my child to learn how to follow directions. I think it’s an important life skill, and I’d appreciate the teacher’s help in imparting it to my child. However, his inability to follow directions is separate from his understanding of grammar, and it shouldn’t be reflected in his grade. If the instructor wants to teach him to follow instructions, and I hope she does, she needs to do more than mark up his paper and mark down his grade. She needs to have a conversation with him, find out why he doesn’t follow instructions and have him do the paper again correctly. Wouldn’t that be a better approach?



B. “Wow! You knew all the right answers and would have had a perfect paper, but you didn’t read the directions. In life, we have to learn to follow directions and do things correctly. It’s a skill we use all the time to navigate our world. So, I’m not going to accept this paper. Instead, you have to do it over again until you follow the directions. Do you understand?”

Honestly, I’ve made the same mistake several times as a teacher. I’ve taken the shortcut and lowered the grade instead of taking the time to teach the life skill. It was a dumb move, and I regret it immensely. The student wasn’t served, and the moment I did it, my instruction became all about grades and no longer about learning. We don’t do that at home. If one of the kids doesn’t follow directions when we give them, we have a conversation, and they do it again…correctly. It seems to me the same thing should happen at school.

What do you think? Am I wrong? Is my frustration over this unwarranted? How do you handle this in your classroom or with your children? What approach should I take with the teacher? I’m interested in your thoughts.