“The End Game Should Not Be a Grade”

An Interview with Michael Norr, Public School Teacher, Los Angeles

Michael Norr is the kind of teacher who gets to know his kids as individuals and communicates with them differently based on their social and academic needs. He’s had a huge effect on at least one of his students: my 9-year-old son, Archer—an intellect, introvert, and all-around amazing kid. I am acutely aware of how lucky we are to have a teacher like Mr. Norr—someone who, in Archer’s words, “just gets it.”

RW: You’ve been Archer’s teacher for two years in a row, and I’ve watched him flourish under your incredible guidance. You have been a monumental influence in his life. I am continually impressed with your innate ability to know when to push him but also recognize immediately when to respect his need for quiet. Has this come with experience? Do you teach your students as you would want to be taught? Where does instinct play into your role as a guide and teacher?

MN: To me, teaching is a combination of both “street” and “book” smarts. To stand in front of an elementary school classroom every day requires not only a deep knowledge about a wide array of subjects but also how to teach that material to children of various ages and development. But to reach, motivate, and inspire the 20-30+ unique individuals in a classroom requires connecting on a level that can’t be read about or learned. This is where teaching becomes very much about art and less science, and where instinct, informed by experience, is crucial.

Every year is different, and every class is different. I know what I want to teach, but how I teach and the way I attempt to connect with each student is different every year, as it should be. I don’t think I necessarily teach the way I would want to be taught because then I’d only be creating an environment for people who are like me. I try to create a positive, energetic, and safe atmosphere, teach in a way that is lively and entertaining, and convey to all students that they are respected as individuals.

This notion of individuals can’t be stressed enough: each child is unique, which means learning is different for each student, which in turn means the relationship I form with each child needs to be personalized. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work.

RW: All children are unique, and yet there is little time to teach to children on a case-by-case basis. You manage to do this with aplomb. How?

MN: I make it a priority, and I allow myself to fail. Too often people make decisions about what to do based on what it is they think they can’t do. Meeting individually with students on a regular basis is difficult, especially when you consider the amount of time it takes, and if that’s the focus, then it’s easy not to do it. But to me the payoff, in terms of not just academic growth but also in the bond formed with students during this time, makes it worth it. So I make it something I commit to every day even if it’s just a few students for a few minutes each. I design my instructional day with periods of meaningful and challenging independent work time, which allows me to conference with students individually.

The other part I stated, which is equally important, is I allow myself to fail (something I encourage my students to do). The reality of any plan, or really any endeavor in life, is that things don’t always go as planned, and we all have the ability to choose how we are going to react to this when it happens. I choose to not let it impact me or affect the goals I set for myself or the manner in which I conduct myself. If I can’t meet individually with students today, I’ll do it tomorrow.

RW: Archer recently wrote you an email, and it was your response that inspired me to interview you for my first column, here at Quiet, because your response, like all of your responses, not only respects Archer’s nature but applauds it. Is it tricky to applaud rule-bending in a public school setting?

MN: For me, it’s not tricky to applaud rule-bending, though it’s not something I go out there and actively promote. I’ve never been someone who was fond of rules just for the sake of following rules. The thing I do believe in is a sense of justice or what makes sense and what is right. I believe in having opinions and being passionate about something and being able to express yourself and support those opinions.

RW: You give every one of your students the opportunity to speak up if they disagree with the grade(s) you have given them. This has empowered Archer on multiple occasions to speak up when it isn’t in his nature to do so. What has been your experience with this? How do your students typically respond? Are grades always malleable? How so?

MN: The endgame, in terms of academics, should not be a grade. It should be understanding. The most important thing to me is that at the end of whatever unit of study we’re working on, students thoroughly understand the concepts that were the focus of our studies. So yes, grades are always malleable. A grade on a test is an arbitrary indicator of knowledge at a particular point in time. To have that grade be written in stone doesn’t allow for the possibility of change or growth.

I always preach that mistakes are okay because they give us insight into what it is we need to work on in order to possess a thorough and complete understanding of a subject. In order to practice what I preach, I encourage my students to review whatever it is they’ve missed (or what they disagree with me about), reflect on the reason(s), and then submit in writing a correct answer that highlights their thorough understanding of the content missed. In doing this, I put in their hands the tools that truly ensure they accomplish what’s most important—understanding.

RW: How does one teach a child to recognize her own strengths?

MN: You need to seize on moments and recognize them from the obvious and easily recognizable achievements to the hidden gems found in the minutiae. You need to at times recognize the strengths for the student and then create opportunities so that he/she will come to see them as well.

I also think it is necessary to share personal stories with students in order to better connect with them. This opens the door to the possibility that they might discover something about themselves in my tales. My students know of my successes and failures, my shining moments and my embarrassments, and my weaknesses and my strengths. They know that I was too nervous to give speeches in high school, that I succeeded as a distance runner even though my coach didn’t think much of me, that there are songs that make me cry, that I make mistakes and have regrets, that my brother is the life of the party and I’m the guy in the corner not talking, that the only time I attempted a field goal, I missed the ball, that I trained for over six months to compete in an Ironman Triathlon, and so much more.

RW: When children in your class are quiet, how do you hear them? And what if they don’t want to be heard?

MN: I give them opportunities to be heard that respects their desire to be quiet such as one-on-one conferences or writing, which can vary from journal writing to notes to email.

RW: Is it possible for non-competitive, sensitive, and introverted children to excel in classrooms full of competitive extroverts?

MN: Absolutely, but it’s up to the teacher to create an environment that allows this to happen. In reading about introverts in classrooms, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was already utilizing strategies proven to be effective in doing this. I suspect it’s due to a combination of experience, instinct, and recognizing some of the things I would have appreciated as an introverted student. There’s a big push for collaboration and working in groups, something I never liked when I was a student, but something I’m now encouraged to promote as a teacher, which I do. However, I vary the structure, often allowing students to self-select partners and the number of people they’d like to work with. And I give students the freedom to pick workspaces that work best for them. As long as they are focused and productive, students may work at desks, under desks, on the carpet, or in the hall.

For introverts (or anyone) to excel, it’s important to allow them to be who they are. I may nudge, encourage, or suggest stepping outside of their comfort levels in order to grow, but never at the expense of being true to themselves.

I need to look no further than myself to be reminded of this lesson every day. I stand up every day and speak in front of a group; years ago I wrote and performed in a sketch comedy show at Second City; in college, I was part of a traveling speech group—but in high school, I took Fs in speech rather than getting in front of my peers and talk. One-on-one, I will talk for hours about various subjects, but if I walk into a crowded room of strangers, I’ll find a corner and talk to no one. Personality-wise, we are who we are. And that person should be celebrated and appreciated.