The teacher who let his students pick their grades

Bill Henderson was an “undercover rebel in jeans, glasses, and a big mug of coffee.”

An “undercover rebel in jeans, glasses, and a big mug of coffee.”

That’s Bill Henderson, according to an FVC reader who told us about Henderson when we asked for stories of teachers who made a difference in kid’s lives.

We collected stories of two dozen such teachers here and here.

Henderson was a longtime woodworking and tech teacher at Robert Bateman Secondary School in Abbotsford. He won a national teaching award, was consulted by provincial officials on curriculum development, and helped nurture a legion of students who would advance to high-paying gigs at major companies.

But he also made a difference at a smaller, more personal level.

Our reader, Katherine, wrote that Henderson was known for teaching life skills and making school a fun place to go. He had a policy where all his students “graded themselves”—but then had to justify those grades. And he also was known for creating safe spaces for gay students and for pushing back against homophobic jokes.

Henderson is now retired and living on an acreage in Alberta, but we recently called him up to hear more about bucking trends, connecting with students, working in—and around—an inflexible school system, and the joys of teaching shop class.

Henderson started teaching in 1980 at Clearbrook Junior Secondary School. Early on he realized that his teaching methods were working—but often didn’t fit the precise mould prescribed by school officials. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

“I had one of the school board inspectors come by and tell me I was doing a garbage job. And I was kind of offended by that because the students were sure enjoying what they were doing and they were learning a lot. But I didn't have the structure that he was looking for. So I guess that's when I started realizing [you need] to understand how the system works so you can work around it. And you can use the system to your benefit. That's one of the lessons that was definitely part of my interaction with students: we are living and working within a system called a school, so how do we maximize the opportunities for the students without getting in trouble?”

“When I started teaching back in 1980 I didn't really think of the impact a teacher had on kids. I realized that I rapidly became sort of a big brother or an uncle to a lot of the kids. I was a shop teacher, so I'm teaching in an area where the kids have the most value, and the school system has the least value. So it's great, you get to play in that little fine area where the kids are going to be successful because they're in a space where they want to be successful, and you're not impeded by a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense about a curriculum that you have to cover. In fact, in the 90s, I was involved in creating the curriculum, specifically so that a student could actually challenge the teacher and say, no.” [Our phone connection briefly broke up here.]

Being a shop teacher allowed Henderson to explore different ways to teach both skills, and accountability.

“The way I looked at it, being a shop teacher, I realized that the shop was an area where a lot of kids really found relevance in school. For a lot of kids, the only reason they stayed in school was for shop class. So I was always like, ‘OK, well, just because you're in shop, it doesn't mean we're not going to mark your English.’ It's not just ‘You're in metalwork, so we're going to learn how to weld.’ No, you still have to be able to speak and communicate and get to work on time. And all those life lessons, which aren't part of the curriculum, but ironically, every employer, that's what they're looking for.

“So I ran my courses very much sort of along the lines of, I want to say more like a hobby than a really hard structured class. It gave us a lot of freedom to try different things and experiment. One of my favorite quotes was ‘You’ve gotta go out on a branch to pick the best fruit and that branch will break unless it’s supported.’ So my job was to support the branches and let the kids go find the best fruits and harvest those ones.

“And apparently it worked, because I've got grad students scattered all over the world now. I've got a whole bunch of what I call grand-students and also great-grand-students where I've had students go on and become teachers and they've approached their career the same way that they experienced learning.

“One of my students, Ryan, works at a college over in Rwanda. Ryan named his son after me, ironically, and he is working in a post-secondary facility with the same approach: it doesn't matter what I teach you, it's going to be obsolete, so I've got to teach you how to learn for yourself so you're a resilient employee and a resilient person rather than somebody who just learned how to make the grade.

As the years went on, Henderson learned the ins and outs of the school system—and how to avoid its traps. 

“In education, there's so many artificial boundaries that have been created for a variety of reasons. Some of them are for very good reasons. But at the end of the day, if you have a relationship with the students and their parents, they know you're not going to do anything that’s really dangerous or insane but you're not going to limit the students learning by what the teacher knows, or what the curriculum says, because curriculums were written 20/30 years ago, they're kind of out of date, especially in a world of technology.

“I think that's one of the reasons why… on the Apple Vision Pro that just was released, one of the lead designers on that was one of our students, and [he said] basically, was that what he learned when he was in high school, and this goes back now to the 90s, was, as an individual, you weren't restricted by what your boss—in this case, the teachers—said you can do. And there's just a great example of an individual who's gone off and just had fabulous success in his career.

Teaching practical skills also came with practical benefits for the student, the teacher, and the school itself.

“When I was involved in managing the school networks, computer networks, it was infinitely easier for me to get the students to do all of the work. [Laughs] It's phenomenal when students graduate and they go on to post-secondary, and they come back and say, ‘Well, I’ve got 99.5%, and the instructor doesn't have a clue what they're talking about, because I’ve got more experience than they do.’ And you know, this is an 18-year-old who, in this one particular case, I made responsible for the entire school network. And there were 200 computers, and we had different operating systems and all sorts of things.

“Whereas in a regular class or regular learning environment, it's like, ‘OK, we're gonna learn how to do Microsoft Word today or whatever.’ And [a student would think] ‘I don't want to learn how to do Word today, I want to get out there and make a snowman.’ So I just tried to create that environment where everybody had their learning outcomes. It wasn't like a free-range / completely off the map. But it's so wonderful when I have students say they taught themselves. That ‘I learned how to do this all on my own.’ And I'm quite excited by that comment because they can say that because somebody taught them how to learn on their own. And I think that's a more important life skill than saying, ‘I learned how to use a table saw safely in this class.’ No, it’s ‘I learned how to use this table saw to make somebody's house.’

It's a larger view that you sort of narrow down and see if they can focus on the small part.

Henderson said his idea to get kids to grade themselves was pulled from the working world.

“That's self evaluation. If you don't become good at assessing your own work, if you always rely on a teacher or a boss to tell you if your work is good or bad, then you're just producing for some other reason; you're not producing for yourself.

“So I turned the tables on the kids and said, ‘OK, you're gonna pick your letter grade but you're going to have to show me the work and the justification to back that up.’ And we didn't get bogged down in all kinds of fancy words. We just made it really simple. Like: What letter grade do you want?

“And [a kid would go] ‘Oh, well, I think I deserve an A.’ [ Henderson would reply:] OK. Cool. Here are the qualities of an A student. [The student would counter:] ‘Yes, I understand that. That's why I'm asking for an A.’

“Sure, there's going to be one or two kids that will try ‘I think I deserve an A’ and it's like, ‘Well, show me the work for it.’

“Likewise, when we had parent teacher interviews, I wouldn't take a mark book with me. I would just go and talk about what the students were doing. And if the parents brought their child along with it, I'd ask the students ‘So what was your mark and why did you get that mark?’ Because again, like in any job, if you can articulate why you are successful, that's where you want to be.

This year, the BC government moved to stop letter grades up to Grade 9 in favour of a “proficiency grade.” The idea was assailed by opponents and generated considerable discussion, but moving from a letter-grade to a grade described with a word was relatively tame compared to Henderson’s mark-yourself scheme.

“Self assessments start sounding like you don't need a teacher there. And to a bureaucrat, or administrator or somebody like that, they're going to get their head lost thinking ‘Oh, gee, self assessment, I guess we don't need a teacher,’

“I had a really great opportunity to sit down at the Ministry of Education one time—I guess this was back around 2010, or something—and they wanted us to come up with a working model for what the school of the future would be.

Henderson thought about how schools work to credential knowledge, and assign students to appropriate grade levels. Or, as he put it, determine “how do we put you onto a big huge graph.”

“OK, so if that's the way it is, why can't a student in the future be given the learning outcomes, and then find the activities that help address those learning outcomes. I mean, this was all before we had YouTube and stuff like that. And I hacked together a little working copy for the deputy minister and showed her—at the time I was working with online students and [the students] were doing exactly that: I gave them the list of the learning outcomes for the course, I showed them how teachers take the learning outcomes and turn those into a course outlines, and how outlines get turned into actual projects and activities.

“And one kid said, ‘When do we actually learn about the course?’

“I said, ‘Well, that comes after you learn how to learn. Because there actually isn't much of the course here. One of my neighbors where we just moved, he's a 12-year-old, and he came over because he heard that I know about animation and programming. And I handed him a drone. And I said here you go. I took away the instructions. I said, ‘So you're gonna have to do all the research to figure out what software you have to download. Bottom line is, you have to write the manual that I've taken away.’

“And here's this 12-year-old and he's just out there. And sure he's flown the drone into a bunch of trees and things like that but he's on a learning path that he's in control of. He's not following what somebody else has told him and because he's starting to realize that there is this thing, like a learning path, that he's starting to stitch together his own ideas and go like, ‘OK, so can we take what we're doing here on this mini drone and how can we can we apply this? I want to fly a drone across the lake.’

“So now it's like, ‘Sure those are learning steps. But before we do that, we're going to have to look at fabrication, we're going to have all these other things.’ All I'm doing is being a consultant with this 12-year-old for, I don’t know, half an hour a month? Just sort of hearing what he's thinking and doing and giving him a little bit of a redirection and getting out of the way.


“You gotta get out and make mistakes and get messy. It doesn't matter what it is. You're going to learn way more if you make your own mistakes and if you've learned from your mistakes.

“If you give me a paper and you say it's C-plus, I'm going to give it right back to you and say, OK, what was wrong with it and why can't you make it an A? Because if you're doing your self-assessment, then by default, every mark should be 100%.

“So that's my theory behind letting kids pick their own marks. It's like kids saying, ‘Everything I know, I taught myself.’ It's like, ‘Great, you think you've got to pick your own marks, you got to do whatever you wanted, then I'd say we absolutely hit a home run on this one.’

The Ministry had mixed feelings about Henderson’s ideas.

“Generally, they liked what I did, but they all always had a caveat that they realized that I was that person who really believed, like I walked my talk. It wasn’t about let's talk about self-assessment, or let's try and think of how we can create a rubric or whatever, so that we can have kids learn how to do self assessment. It was like ‘No, just do it. It will work. You’ve just got to do it.’ You can't spend time studying the problem too long. Just get out there and do it.

“And if it's not fully right, well, guess what, you're gonna get some feedback along the way. I wasn't always I wasn't always popular with the administration or the ministry, because I was that teacher who had kids inspired and wanting to do things and they were challenging the system along the way, too, which is great.”

Henderson spent much of his time teaching in an era when schools weren’t welcoming to all students. Our reader hailed Henderson for pushing back against homophobic bullying.

“It was the right thing to do. Again, it's the idea of creating a safe space and a comfortable space. So yes, I was that teacher who, it didn’t matter where I was, I had a couch. When I was in the woodshop, we had a couch. And we often had music.

“It was creating that space. Again, it ties into the idea that, if the shop or the tech area is a place where kids want to be because it's a place where you get to learn and explore without the constraints of an academic curriculum, then it's got to be safe for everybody. You know, the kid who goes running down the hall because he's being chased by kids, even if he or she is not in my classroom, they knew they could run into my room for safety and they would have the backup of a teacher. I'm not a big mean ornery person or anything like that, it's just a question of being reasonable. I mean, You can hit me if you want, but then you're gonna go to jail. So make the decision on your own buddy.

There's a fun little side story. There's a gentleman who works down at a place down Sumas Way and I walked in there, just to pick up some groceries and he recognized me and said, ‘You know, you saved my life.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’

“He said, ‘It was back in grade nine that you said, “Whenever bullies come after you just stand your ground and say, you can send me to the hospital, but I'll send you to jail.”

“And it's just common sense in my mind, right. For this young man, that's all the words of encouragement he needed to have the confidence to stand up to the bully. And here's a young guy who says his life was a better life because of those words of wisdom. And I mean, that's the power that a teacher has. You can just make such a small offhand comment, but it has so much impact.

“You’ve got to watch what you say. Likewise, I remember one conversation I had with one student, and he was coming out to me at the time… it was like, ‘Whoa!’ That's when you realize you're on the right path. You weren't making the jokes… you're actually listening and respecting the person as an individual. And it didn't matter any of that other stuff. There was just that this was a great solid person who just had something to say to me one day.

Henderson said it was important to also not be too friendly.

“Because you have that authority, you have to use it incredibly wisely. I had a professor in university who said four Fs of education: fair, firm and friendly—but not too friendly. And that sort of was one of my [rules]; my other basic core rule is you can do anything you want as long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of others.

“Yes, I'm there to be your leader and to support you, but at the same time… I mean, if I have to rat you out, that's what adults do, but rather than just rat you out to my boss, let's talk about why I need to. What have you done that causes me the level of frustration that I need to take this up to the next level?

“Lots of people would say it's an anything-goes kind of environment and I have to manage that herd of cats. The analogy there is I told the students: everybody's on a leash, some of you are on leashes that are two feet long, and some of you are on leashes that are 200 feet long. But when I pull the leash, you've got to respond. Because at the end of the day, I'm the boss, you're the lackey. If you establish relationships, it doesn't matter whether you're a teacher and student, or a boss and an employee, it's those relationships that allow everything to foster and grow.”

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