On failure

There are lots of platitudes and Pinspirational quotes about failure. We’ve all seen them; we’re probably guilty of using them or even have a few posters in our classrooms about them.

But this past week, as I sat in front of my gradebook and frowned at a 6% (6% of what?), I realized that although my grading practices have evolved, my definition of failure has not.

So I ask you: what does it mean to fail?

When I think of failure in my life, I reflect on all the ideas or thoughts or plans that I had that haven’t panned out: I haven’t published a book. I haven’t left the country. I am not working on my Ph.D. or opening my own yoga studio.

But does that mean I’m a failure?

I’d like to think not. I don’t feel like a failure. I know I don’t always get it right, but I definitely have a collection of wins under my belt: a stable and challenging job, a beautiful and close-knit family, a curiosity and ambition that drives me to grow year after year.

I have crippling anxiety, yet I get up and go to work every day, where I stand in front of adults and teenagers alike even though I detest being the center of attention. That’s a big win.

I wonder if another adult looked at my life, how I would be graded?

And if I received an “F,” what would that mean?

Coming back to my gradebook, I asked myself what that failing grade meant. This student is capable and intelligent. I have no doubt he would perform well on any assessment of standards I placed before him.

The problem is, he simply refuses to do them.

You know this child. He’s in your room too. Sometimes he comes to class prepared and engaged. More often than not, he slinks into class quietly with earbuds tucked under his hood, hoping to fly beneath the radar. Occasionally, his temper flares when he’s asked to complete a task.

I’ve done a deep dive getting to the root of the problem. I’ve spoken with his mother, spent time going over his troubling history with the school psychologist, teamed up with our interventionist to support him with extra time, additional copies of assignments, and alternatives. Most importantly, I’ve spoken with him. I’ve asked his opinion, listened compassionately to his input, and have worked hard to establish his trust in me.

So is it failure when a student can perform but chooses not to?

There are so many things about our old-school educational system that are flawed, but none break my heart as much as this: if this child does not pass my class, if he fails, he doesn’t graduate.

What an incredible burden to put on his shoulders.

What an incredible burden to put on mine.

But more importantly, how infuriating is it that we are setting our children up to fail in this way?

I see this child winning in so many ways. He wins every day that he shows up as he lives at least 30 minutes away from the school. He wins every time he focuses long enough to read on his own, even just a few pages. He wins every time he moves a toe just one inch closer to graduation, an accomplishment that very few in his family have achieved. He wins every time he controls his temper and lets someone else’s snark slide off his back. He wins every time he asks a thought-provoking question in class.

There are other teachers who would say he should suffer the consequences of his choices, that if he couldn’t do what little work was asked of him while he was here, then he doesn’t deserve a diploma.

There are other teachers who tell me not to stress because we gave him so many chances and opportunities, but he chose not to take them.

But I refuse to give up. Because this kid is not failing.

We have failed him.

We have shuffled him along a conveyor belt of schooling not tailored to his interests or skills whatsoever. We have pigeonholed him into a reputation he didn’t deserve because of his family legacy, so what choice did he have but to mold himself into what we expected? We have punished him over and over again for not complying instead of actually teaching him what’s expected of him during the school day. We have taught him that he cannot trust us because at the end of the day, he will only get a detention or fail our classes anyway.

He and I are both trapped in a system that sets us up against each other. I can sit next to him and offer guidance and reassurances as much as I want, but when I am forced to align with grading policies and practices that go against my philosophy and my words to him — in other words, when I say one thing and do another — then both of us fail.

In my heart, I feel like I’m the one with a 6%. I represent a tiny number of adults who have seen this child for who he really is and have patiently persisted.

I have failed this child with thinking I was providing him with voice and choice, when really, I was only giving him choices to perform in ways that Isaw fit for him. In all of those conversations with both him and the other well-meaning adults in his life, I never once asked him what ideas he might have to show me his mastery of the skills he had been taught. Because my very traditional preparation for teaching taught me that I am the master who must be in charge of creating choices and options for the students rather than asking them to be part of the process, I had still only been asking for his compliance under the guise of choice.

To be frank, I want to slap a big red “F” on this system. As angry as I am about this one little letter, I am even angrier that so many teachers still do what works best for them and not what’s best for their students. I still don’t have a clear definition of this word failure, but I do have clear images of ways we can fail our students. And if we’re failing our students, then how do we pull ourselves back up to passing?

There are so many practices that need to be reimagined here, but a good place to start is to fold students into their own learning and assessment. Rather than making decisions for them and doling out grades to them, let’s be clear and concise about the skills we are looking for students to master and then ask, “How can you show me you have mastered this?” Bring students into this conversation before it’s too late.