The Love Language of Professional Judgment

When Mackenzie* walked into my class, she was pale, illuminating the dark circles under her eyes. Her mom had dropped her off on the way to the ER so she could find out what she was going to miss in English. She winced and pressed her lips together as she tried to speak. I immediately put my arm around her and asked her what was going on. She recounted a long history of pain and no answers from doctors. The pain became so excruciating every few weeks that she had to go to the ER not only for pain relief but to keep pushing doctors to investigate her illness with more depth. Now in grade 10, she furiously worried about receiving the appropriate graduation credits and did want to fall behind.

I did not want to keep her for too long, so I cut to the chase and told her not to worry about missing any learning in English. She gawked at me in bewilderment and questioned if I was sure, carefully balancing a duotang, textbook, and several worksheets in her arms, assignments, I assumed, she received from her other teachers. I explained to her that I had already received two creative writing pieces from her and that the opinion essay she will miss, was unnecessary because there would be an opportunity to show her technical writing prowess when she wrote a thematic essay the next month. I added that despite having no evidence of learning for the opinion with evidence competency, I would come up with something just for her when she returned to school and even suggested we could do it orally. She hugged me heartily and I escorted her downstairs to the front entrance.

I did not cut Mackenzie any slack. I consider cutting someone’s slack as excusing them from learning. Learning was not excused; I felt I had enough of it in one area, knew there would be another opportunity in the future, and could plan an opportunity just for her to weigh in on the third. I recognized that Mackenzie’s health was a barrier to her learning, and it was unjust of me to expect her to provide not just evidence but quality evidence while she was so ill. If there is no way to provide adequate supports in situations where students cannot provide their best evidence of learning, I believe we should not expect it and need to come up with ways they can show it later when either the barrier is removed or supports are viable.

In those moments, I realized that not only was my professional judgment part of my assessment pedagogy, it was my love language.

When people typically think about love language, they likely think about gushy and sappy words and phrases related to “couple goals.” I think love language is integral to strengthening our learning community.  I love my students. I do not love them like my own children, my husband, or my parents, but I do indeed love them. I look at them as important parts of the school community. It believe it is my responsibility as an educator to prepare them as best as I can for the world outside of school from inside school. The world outside of school can be a terrifying place, so I need to be careful that my love language will equip them to maneuver in society but not traumatize them. So many of my students are traumatized enough. Some of our students are just trying to survive. Should we not try to love them as much as we can?

This is not to say that we need to exclude them from rigour and effort. How can we balance rigour and effort with assessment practices that make students feel welcome and appreciated? Can assessment be an expression of love?

Professional judgment becomes a love language when educators match performance to a level of quality. In their book, Concise Answers to Frequently Asked Questions,  Dimich, Erkens, Miller, Schimmer, and White write that when professional judgment is based on transparent criteria, “this goes a long way to preventing learners from thinking that their grade, score, or level has anythingto do with how the teacher feels about them,” and educators should “calibrate along that performance criteria to ensure that professional judgments are aligned and consistent so a student’s grade, level or score is not dependent on who their teacher is” (pg. 127-128). In other words, my professional judgment about where a student is at on the proficiency scale for a standard is not determined because I like them for coming on time every day (they are so close to Proficient and they work so hard…) or don’t appreciate that they disrupt other students in a class (they are so close to Proficient but don’t deserve it compared to student X…), but because their evidence of learning corresponds to criteria. It is a love language because students do not have to play games to win the teacher’s support. It is a love language for them because they do not have to try to justify what homework to do or what test to blow off or if they should cheat. After all, they will be assessed on criteria universal across their course and grade.

Consider this. Standards-based grading involves uniting educators to develop criteria for standards. That alone makes classes more equitable because if educators in the same department can agree on criteria, then students know that no matter whose class they are in, the criteria will be the same. The learning opportunities and delivery will be unique to each educator, but how students are assessed will be consistent. When educators have unique assessment platforms with varying categories and overall grades determined by electronic grade books and confusing algorithms, it confuses students, breeds resentment amongst educators (bonus marks, late marks, counting practice, completion marks, oh my!), and entices students to chase percentages rather than learning because the overall percentage is the only part of the assessment process consistent among all educators.

But Shannon, if we do not use categories and give final exams, we aren’t doing these kids any favours? We are not preparing them for universities that use category weighting and final exams.

It is easy for some to talk about the goals they want their students to attain from their place of privilege. As a white woman who was able to take advantage of her huge head start compared to marginalized individuals who had to struggle and claw their way to get to where they are, I am trying to include my most vulnerable student’s stories in my assessment pedagogy. I will not assume they all want to take the same education route as me and even if they do, I am aware they will not have the same access to support as I did and still do. What I can do is make their high school journey an equitable one. I can give them access to supports, along with all their peers, and use assessment in more equitable ways. Just because many universities use averages, category weighting, and final exams, does not justify my following suit.  In fact, it should be the impetus to do it differently. As Brené Brown says, “doing nothing to address inequality is supporting inequality. There are oppressive systems in place, and our words and actions either support those existing systems or dismantle them” (

I am going to use the love language of professional judgment to get my students to succeed. This means fairness will not always be equal. Trust me when I say that it feels weird at first, but beautiful over time.

I feel like we owe it to students to give our whole selves to them. In his book, Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect, Will Guidara writes, “If hospitality is about making people feel seen, the best way to treat them is not like a commodity but as a unique individual. Unreasonable hospitality means that one size fits one.” Now Guidara is writing about his journey as a restauranteur (he was the co-owner of Eleven Madison Park in New York, named the world’s best restaurant in 2017), but the quote about the art of service could also fit assessment practices. We are, after all, in the service industry with students as our clientele. In the book, Guidara discusses how he made sure every client was treated specially, going above and beyond to make their experience at this restaurant a memorable one. The best part, his ambition was not simply his alone. His infectious desire to move his customers resonated with his workers and they wanted to do the same. Let us consider this regarding equity and assessment.

Remember Mackenzie. I used the love language of professional judgment to evaluate her unique situation. I recognized that she had enough evidence of learning to skip a learning opportunity so she could take care of her health. Another teacher might give an extension or insist the learning opportunity be handed in on the required due date or at some point. That is a sure-fire recipe for a crappy essay submission because it will get done out of compliance rather than an interest in improvement. Compounded with grade book averaging, that one ineffective submission has pointlessly (pardon the pun) lowered their overall grade. I argue that removing that learning opportunity off of Mackenzie’s plate relieved some of the pressure so she could provide better quality in her other classes. I capitalized on the power of the love language of professional judgment, and I treated her with hospitality.

Educators often worry about fairness and insist on every student doing the same learning in the same way at the same time. What about how fair it is to Mackenzie that she drops a letter grade because she has a health problem she did not ask for? What about the students who experience trauma, eating disorders, OCD, ADHD, mental health problems, and abuse? What about the students who feel they must compete with school to live out their dreams to attend basketball camps, try out for AAA hockey teams, go to slam poetry conferences, volunteer for a charity, and compete nationally in Esports competitions?

Let me be clear. Students who attend every class and do all the learning may gain from that learning. Some do. They garner feedback and apply that feedback to improve. But sometimes students do not need to do every learning opportunity to prove their proficiency. When students miss out on learning, they may not improve, or they may improve. I am not advocating for missing time in class. I am suggesting that we honour the students who miss time in class and give them as much grace as those who are in class.

Have you ever got to report card time, looked at the grade the assessment program spit out for a student, and wondered how they have that grade when you figured it should be a different grade?  Using your gut, you have this overall idea of the grade the student deserves based on what you have witnessed over time, but the program does not mesh with your appraisal, so you play around with the categories and weighting, lifting the 15% for projects to 25% because their project was exceptional, reducing the homework bin to 5% from 15% to offset the new projects percentage, “excusing” a few homework assignments, adding a column with an extra “assignment” but hide them from view so stakeholders don’t see them, and then, when the overall grade matches what your gut told you, you feel better about the grade, print off the progress report and move on to the next student.

There is something wrong here.

Grading programs in combination with category weighting prevented you from using the love language of professional judgment to determine the achievement of your student.

Grading programs have shackled educators to their algorithms and mean average when they were screaming to use their professional judgment. And category weighting? There is no research on the validity of this. Ken O’Connor writes,

Traditionally, teachers have organized their evidence of student achievement for all learning goals simply in categories based on the type of assessments, such as tests, projects, and homework assignments in the order collected over time. For each collection, they distill the individual scores into a single summary grade and report that grade. What is not recorded and therefore not reported is vital information revealing how well each student has mastered each learning goal. In other words, although each student’s performance can be summarized with a single symbol/grade, this approach provides no basis for reporting direct evidence of student performance on each learning goal. (A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, 3rd edition, pg. 96)

In their Edutopia article, “3 Grading Practices That Should Change,” Alexis Tamony writes, “In reality, with a 60/40 split of assessments and classwork/homework, a student could fail every test (averaging 33 percent) but do all of the “work” and still pass. The student doesn’t know the content, but they’ll pass.”

This does not mean we need to trash the grading program, but if we use a grading program, we need to use it to grade standards. If we assess standards, we capitalize on the power of the love language of professional judgment and assess in more equitable ways. Essentially, each student competes against themselves not others. It is the teacher’s power of pausing and reflecting, Based on the evidence I have, you here…

There are many ways educators can use the love language of professional judgment to determine competency. I already outlined that generating criteria with a department is the first step. The second step is tracking and evaluating standards. I have generated three examples showing how educators could potentially use the love language of professional judgment to evaluate each standard.

In this case, each unit in French builds onto the next unit, so at the end of Unit 2, the assessment for comprehending and retelling stories includes the content from Unit 1 and Unit 2. Therefore, in their professional judgment, the teacher determined the most recent evidence of learning at Parent-teacher interviews as Emerging. By the Term 1 Report Card, which includes content from Units 1, 2, and 3, the evaluation of the competency is Developing.

In this case, there are two distinct varieties of writing taught: creative (Personal Narrative and Short Story) and technical (Thematic and Opinion essays). In their professional judgment, the teacher determined that the most relevant evidence of learning for each variety reflected the evaluation of the competency at the end of the course. They missed the essay for whatever reason, but the evidence proves they are a sophisticated writer.

In this case, the process is the same for the curricular competency from lab to lab, so with each lab, students are simply increasing competence in making predictions about findings. In their professional judgment, the teacher felt they needed to see one more lab (a Lab 5), in other words, show consistency, to justify Proficient as the evaluation for the curricular competency. This should be communicated in the report card comments.

The third step of the love language of professional judgment is about penalties and practice. In standards-based grading, students are not penalized for early learning, and, as aforementioned, relevance, recent, and consistent evidence helps educators make fair evaluations of standards. Practice is important but should not be included in these evaluations. When we use professional judgment to formatively assess practice, we promote risk-taking, prevent cheating, and foster growth mindset thinking. We do not need to mark everything! We need to assess, yes, but marking and assessment are not the same. 

Assessment expert and consultant, Tom Schimmer writes, “At its best, teachers use formative assessment to make instructional decisions rather than evaluative ones. The balance between the formative and summative purposes of assessment is akin to the relationship between practice and games,” (pg 51, Standards-based Learning in Action). Further, Dylan Wiliam and Siobhán Leahy in Embedding Formative Assessment, share that formative assessment is “about whether it will help our students learn more.” 

But if I do not grade it, they will not do it.

Um, no. Joe Feldman, former principal and teacher, and author of the acclaimed book Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms commented on the Mind/Shift podcast, that there’s “no research that F’s motivate students to do better except for a tiny slice of students. The only research that supports that F’s motivate, or that low grades motivate, is for the students who have gotten A’s historically. And when they start to get a B or a C, they scramble like mad because they don’t want to get anything lower because it implicates all aspects of the fixed mindset they have about themselves” (“Grades Have Huge Impact But Are They Effective?”).

Our professional judgment further becomes a love language for all students because the high achievers liberate themselves from chasing grades and students whom we might typically label as underperformers learn they can try, fail, and try again. Practice needs to come without penalty. Why on earth would be grade the beautifully messy process of practice?  Students have a starting point and the only reason there are endpoints is thanks to reporting periods. Reporting periods are opportunities for summative evaluations of standards, but there should always be a comment to stakeholders that this learning is also still in flux.

I want to end this piece with a comment on the connection between the love language of professional judgment and indigenous ways of knowing and learning. I am not an expert in this area and look to indigenous authors and knowledge keepers for their wisdom and guidance. In their article, “Intersections: Indigenous Pedagogies and Assessment For Learning,” in the January 2023 issue of the Canadian Assessment for Learning Network Newsletter, Jo Chrona (Ts’mysen, educator, author) and Brooke Moore (educator), show “how thinking from a Western education paradigm aligns with principles common to many Indigenous knowledge systems when it comes to effective [Assessment for Learning].”  In the accompanying chart exploring common assessment ground between Indigenous pedagogies & a Western paradigm, it is mentioned, “clarity of purpose, context, and the goal are central elements for both the process of learning and therefore the process of assessment. Success criteria matters and achievement is important for all learners – even if the path each learner takes to get there varies” (Jo Chrona, Heidi Wood, and Brooke Moore).

It is those last few words that strike me, even if the path each learner takes to get there varies. I just want to breathe that in for a minute. Let learners take different paths to reach success. I love this so much. I want this so much. I just want to rip myself away from traditional assessment practices and embrace this. I can and I will try.

Assessment in education is a social justice issue. As educators, we have been bestowed the power of professional judgment. Educators can choose to use it to armour up and weaponize our assessment practices against students in the name of that’s the way we have always done it, or see it as our responsibility to use it as a love language with their learners.  

I choose love.


*Name has been changed to honour anonymity.

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