Today was the first-ish day of the last quarter of the craziest year I’ve ever taught. First-ish because yesterday was technically the first day but since we “pivoted” (grr) to online learning during our Spring Break, teachers sort of got a day to regroup. Today was also the day that report cards were due for the third quarter. (You can, no doubt, imagine that prepping for new classes and writing report cards for the day after those classes began did not, in fact, lead to a restful break, but I made do.) I finished my comments last night, quadrupled checked the marks and turned everything in.
One of my students did not pass the course.
I have wrestled and wrestled with this failure. We are in a global pandemic and many teens are experiencing trauma as a result. I am regularly astonished that they can turn in anything, much less the high quality work they’ve often been doing. I’m trying to help them out: I’ve reduced the number of required assignments to the bare minimum – well, ok, a *little* more than the bare minimum, but only so that there is time for practice and improvement. I’m using running records to give credit for learning I observe even when not everything arrives in the format I hoped for. I accept late work with no grade penalty. I nag, I prod, I talk to families, and I offer extra support. In short, I think I do a pretty darn good job of helping students find their way to show me their best self.
And yet, some fail. In fact, pretty much every year someone fails one of my classes, pandemic or no. And every time I find myself reflecting on what could have gone differently. What caused this failure? What does it mean for the student? For their family? For their peers? Failure doesn’t occur in a vaccuum.
After I finished up my new class – for the record, they are delightful – I went to a meeting where a group of teachers discussed our school board’s plan to destream math and English, at least at the grade 9 level. Statistics and anecdotes both suggest that our current system is racist. More Black children are streamed into lower class levels and, from there, they become less likely to graduate, less likely to attend post-secondary. The numbers are startling and undeniable. Still, teachers in the group worried about failure. For destreaming to work, we will need to change our teaching practices, change the books we teach, change the class sizes and the adults in the room and and and… it feels overwhelming, even though almost no one objects to the idea. As the meeting ends, the unspoken question lingered: “what if we fail?”
I had to call the family of the student who failed to let them know. Their experience of the class, of my attempts at communication, was different than my perception of it. No one was happy. Again, I struggled because I believe that I was very clear about what was happening; I tried to hear their truth. I tried to make sense of it all.
Sometimes, I tell myself that failure is a gift, that the student must come to terms with what is necessary to pass a course or that they need to understand which skills need improvement. I believe that students should be allowed to choose to fail – I really do. Heck, Jessica Lahey wrote a whole book called The Gift of Failure and business people use the phrase “fail forward” so much that it’s cliche. But our school system is allergic to failure, for students and teachers. We sometimes tell students that they need to take risks to really succeed, but there is little wiggle room if a risk doesn’t pan out. Right up until the pandemic, students would occasionally cry on my shoulder after another teacher in the building gave their annual lecture that “screwing up even one test can be the difference between getting into a good university and a mediocre university.” In my class, I try to de-emphasize grades, but at the end of the day, we all know that the mark matters most once you step foot outside of the classroom. No matter how much I reassured them, the students believed the other teacher far more than they believed me.
Teachers are afraid of student failure, too. If a student fails our class, our burden increases significantly. Suddenly administrators and family members want to see our gradebooks (or evidence records, in our case). We have to explain why the child failed (this week I ticked off boxes on a checklist – missing assignments, significant absences – check, check) and call the family to deliver the news. Often people argue. Sometimes students plead. The pressure to change the grade can be enormous. I’ve heard more than one teacher say that they don’t fail students because “it’s just not worth it.”
I don’t know the answer to all of this. I’ve been writing this post off and on for hours – I almost failed to get it published today, but I’ll slip it in under the wire. But if I didn’t, nothing much would happen; my risks are moderated. Still, here’s what I know for sure: somehow, we have to find the balance where failure has enough sting to spur us onward in a system with enough give to help us bounce. We’re not there yet.