Burgeoning on Failure and Success

by 'PixelPlacebo'

Without wasting too much space, let’s start with some background.  First, the movie Waiting for Superman.  The main problem I had with the premise of the movie is if, as the teacher, I was responsible for a student’s failure, by this logic, I’m also responsible for that student’s success.  As such, if I am to be accountable for a student failing, I should receive accolades for their success as neither, failure or success, are due to the student.  (Which, to me, is the premise of merit pay in the education system, but I digress.)  I knew this was wrong.  However, I shuffled it off to the side of my mind as a stand-alone-idea, a critique of a segment of education, but not indicative of a cultural belief, not a paradigm.  Second, the prevailing theme in any student conference, parent conference, staff meeting, goal-team meeting (High Schools That Work anyone?), and professional learning community in my district is a single question.  If a student is failing, had I, as the teacher, done everything I possibly could to help them?  This would be the first question any administrator would ask.  It’s answer would be paramount.

Now about this past the semester.  After going to my first NSTA convention and spending this past summer jumping into the twitterverse, the power of Web 2.0 in the classroom, and reading Out of Our Minds, I saw that I needed to modify my instruction to reach and prepare more 21st century students (the digital natives) with the technological skills important for success as they move within and beyond high school.  The result was the incorporation of blogs (including joining forces with Terie Engelbrecht to have our freshmen comment on each other’s blogs), using Diigo for all research and bibliographies, using a wiki as the platform for a freshman cross-curricular project I stole from the EdTechInnovators, using whiteboards for small and paired problem solving, incorporating case studies, and flipping my class.

Flash forward and I have very mixed reviews; the successes and failures of the semester are not cut and dried.  The flipped class, as I read someone comment on the ning, is not a ‘silver bullet.’  Yet, when I had students do it and use it as it could be used, it worked.  This wasn’t exactly shocking, I had hoped for this.  What I did have difficulty grasping was the apathy of several students, the academic choice to not take the notes at all, and the genuine confusion about the connection between this lack of studying and their poor/limited understanding.  I was bumfuzzled.  It seemed obvious: no study, i.e., no notes and no effort outside of class, would result in difficulty with the material; especially in Chemistry where, as a colleague put it, “You have to be able to put two synapses together.”  Anatomy aside, her point was lost on some of my students.

My incorporation of whiteboards was not stellar either, though, I’m quite sure it’s in large part to my uncertainty and lack of creativity in using it.  Simply, gotta fix this; I know it’s worth while, but it can’t be what it was or it’s a waste of everyone’s time.  The case studies are multi-system, which I thought would be their strength, but I didn’t have the expected pay off with this global approach.  Again, I think it’s in part due to my lack.  I dropped the ball in not developing a specific rubric or clear expectation of what needed to be in the summary of learning for each case study, I stuck to generalities.

Then there’s the wiki.  I think I suffered from delusions of grandeur as freshmen are not juniors/seniors.  As such, it needs scaffolding, some sort of defined framework.  This way the students can build from it rather than trying to create something this big and undefined from scratch.  The blogs were a semi-success, though, I settled for too few of them; and, again, freshmen (especially fall freshmen straight out of middle school) are lacking the self-discipline to follow-up on comments independently.  I definitely need to supervise this more closely.

And, at last, why I wrote this: I have never worked so hard in a semester, put in so many extra hours, and had students not.  It’s not their fault, it’s mine.  You see, I finally realized I had bought into the fallacy I had criticized in Waiting for Superman; I had bought into the question framing education: am I really doing everything I can?  I participated in the disenfranchisement of students from their own learning.  I had done more than just allow them to abrogate their responsibility as learners, I had lead the charge because I was constantly being expected by students, parents, colleagues, administrators, and myself to justify and demonstrate how much I was doing to ensure every student learned.  The question framing education should be personal and student-centered, not teacher-centered.  Has the student done everything possible?  What has the student done to help him/herself?  I’m not saying I’m irrelevant, but I’m replaceable (every teacher is), especially if I truly want to be the ‘guide on the side’ and not the ‘sage on the stage.’  This, I think (sometimes without conscious realization) is the heart of current reform and changes in instructional practices: a need to incorporate real student accountability, a need to put students back in charge of their learning.

In this upcoming semester, I want students have a stake in their education.  I want them to know: struggle is not a bad thing; failure is not to be avoided; hard and work are not ugly four letter words, quit is.  I want the students to know there is an expectation of, a responsibility held by each individual, to learn.

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Too cliche?  Probably, but I don’t want another ambivalent semester.  I want a blaze of glory or abject failure for my students and myself; not a quiet pfft.



  1. Michael G.

    Whilst you are too hard on yourself I praise you for your determination and ability to reflect objectively.

    You sound like a caring, hard working and wonderful teacher.

    Keep up the good work!

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