To Fail, means what exactly?

It’s nearing the end of the semester and the empty echo from some students, “what can I do to” …get the next grade, …not fail, …fill in the blank. It’s hard sometimes not to respond to the question, “Why’d I get an F?” … “because there’s no G.” The absolute careful attention to detail required to fail with such blazing vigor at times is mind boggling. I become torn by the basic tenet that I’m here to teach, not to fail students. Yet, I watch how some students, actively choosing to do nothing despite parental, counselor and teacher intervention through the semester, want to suddenly do something at the end to not fail. Then, I face another basic tenet: I would rather do right by my students than be good to them. I think this distinction is huge because if there’s never any consequence to an action (either positive or negative), there’s no impetus to grow or be better. It does beg the question, if not doing something is a conscious choice, either due to a student’s experience in previous classes and/or at home or due to circumstance or a belief that there’s limitless extra credit and make-up days because the original work was deemed unworthy, do you let a kid fail? Yes…Let. I am not working under the fallacy that students are mini-adults. They are kids; though capable of great altruism, insight, and compassion, when faced with being in trouble, will also not hesitate to throw the nearest adult under the proverbial bus. They are learning about character, they are learning about expecting more from themselves, they are learning about the friends that bring out their best (and worst). This is their job, along with getting a bit of academic knowledge along the way. I actually don’t hold it against them, they’re kids (their parents, on the other hand, are a different story and not the point here.)

The point I think is whether failure is seen as punishment or consequence; whether it is seen as the end or simply a part of the journey.

If a consequence, then, failure should not be a ‘gotcha;’ if a process, it should not be avoided at all costs. This is not a recent idea. It is an idea making a comeback (at least in education circles). It is an idea that has always been a cornerstone of good science and engineering. It is the acknowledgement that failing is a part of doing; that to improve in anything takes perseverance, grit, and the willingness to fall on one’s face in front of others. This is not a complete random extension from what is written above.

It’s important to fail; it is equally important to try again. The societal push to remove obstacles and difficulty, to require blame be shared collectively (think “Waiting for Superman”), does a greater disservice to students and their future success than failing a class in high school ever will. I have allowed students to choose to fail. This is not to say I have not bribed, cajoled, threatened, pleaded, met with them individually, enlisted parental involvement, you name it, to help and convince a student to stop settling for less than their best. [By the same token, I have yet to have a student doing what they can, struggling and frustrated though they may be, fail.] I have had several students earn an F in one of my classes (the heresy in that statement would get me banned from a few places), track me down the next semester to tell me, “My grades are great this semester” or “I have a ‘B’ in Chemistry.” They come to celebrate, share the fist-bump or high five with me; and I’m always touched by that act. Don’t get me wrong, I’m at times the bane of their existence (they’ll share that, too); but there’s a difference some way because they know I won’t let them be complacent. I will give every student every opportunity I know how to create to help them learn; to help them be self-sufficient; to help them be their best. I ultimately want my students to take control of their choices and recognize that empowerment and self-esteem should not be externally derived. These are the result of individual discovery; individual effort to overcome and work through problems and difficulties; individuals facing problems, not avoiding them. This is the result of the inherent difference between giving and earning. When student failure and lack of learning is my fault or seen as me not doing my job or because a student attended a failing school or because a student’s parents can’t help them with their homework, where is the role for the student? Does a student even have a role when we, as a society, take all the blame? Does the student have any responsibility for learning when the constant refrain is it’s not your fault?! If this is the case, if it’s all my fault, then you have to follow the logic: this means any student success is my fault as well. When a student is not responsible for any failure, they are not responsible for any success. This is rot.

This world is based on cause and effect. Students are not mini-adults, they are kids. Sometimes, you have to let them walk away and cut their nose off to spite their face. Will I do my best to convince them otherwise? Yes, that’s part of my job – tell them it’s a crappy choice, this is a terrible path, they should expect more from themselves, they should not settle, this makes things much harder; the other part is to let them choose. The opportunity for success and the freedom to fail are intertwined; you can’t, you shouldn’t, have one without the other.

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