Not Exceptional Enough

My little sister works for a marketing company. As someone who used to do blind taste tests with Skittles, I know that this job is particularly appropriate for her strengths and passions. She also is a remarkably hilarious story-teller, and a few weeks ago she told me a story about a struggle that she was facing with her job. I thought her tale particularly relates to education, so I am sharing it here with her permission.

My sister, let’s call her Paige for the sake of privacy, walked into the kitchen of my parents’ home for our weekly family dinner night. She slumped down on one of the comfy chairs and with a good-natured-but-at-the-edge-of-my-limits smile told me about a client who was giving her trouble.

“I’m supposed to make this brochure for the client, but the client won’t tell me what they want. All this lady says is, ‘the brochure needs to be exceptional.’ So I give her a cool brochure, she rejects it, and her only explanation is, ‘It’s not exceptional enough.’ I re-do the brochure, thinking that this has got to be exceptional, only to get rejected again because, ‘it’s not exceptional enough.’ When I ask her to give me some details or hints about what her kind of exceptional might look like, she says in this snooty voice, ‘if you don’t know what exceptional looks like, then maybe we shouldn’t be working together.'”

Of course, this is a hilarious story and a brilliant commentary on some of the ridiculousness of the business world, but I think it is also a reflection of the 20th century educational world.

Who can remember when teachers used to just put three check marks on a paper and write “C+ Solid Effort” on top of a paper? I can. I’ve done it! Clearly, the paper “wasn’t exceptional enough” but the educator didn’t give one hint about what exceptional might look like.

How can Paige’s client expect her to meet expectations if she doesn’t know what the expectations are?

How can we, as teachers, demand our students to meet our expectations, unless we make those expectations clear? It’s time to stop “hiding the ball,” as one of my colleagues has said.

How do we do this? Standards Based Grading, Gusky type rubrics and scoring systems, and backwards design can help us begin.

As the school year winds up, my goal for this year is to utilize a clear assessment system. I want my students to know what “Exceptional” looks like and hit it every time.

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