Who can fail?

I am the parent of a stubborn child., so I wasn’t shocked when he decided not to do his art work for several months during elementary school. I wasn’t pleased, mind you, but I wasn’t shocked: he does not like to be directed in his artistic expression. As you can imagine, in our home we’re pretty alert to school things (I am a teacher, after all), so when I noticed a string of missing assignments, I asked what was going on. He assured me he had it under control. A few days later, the assignments were still missing, so I offered to help. He politely declined.

Since he was in elementary school, I could have insisted he do the work. He would have resisted; we would have fought; there might have been a tantrum. In the end, I suspect that I could have coerced him into doing it. If nothing else, I’m still bigger than he is. But I didn’t. I offered help occasionally but mostly left it up to the child and the teacher.

When report card time came, he reminded me that his Art mark wasn’t going to be very good because he hadn’t done his work. I assured him that I remembered. Then, as I opened his report card, he said it again. We looked. It was bad. His lip quivered, his eyes filled, and suddenly he was crying in my arms. It feels awful to get a terrible mark, even when you’re little. It hurts, even when you are expecting it – even when you deserve it.

I held onto him for a few minutes, stroking his hair and whispering, “I know, I know.” Eventually he calmed down, and the discussion that ensued was hard. I pointed out that the mark didn’t tell us who he was, but that he *chose* this: he had decided not to do the work and this was the result of that decision. We talked about how it felt worse than he expected, how it had been easy to decide not to do the work but much harder to experience the impact of that decision. We talked about how next time maybe he would remember this terrible feeling and choose to do his work.

He hasn’t missed an assignment since then.

Today, I worked with an inspiring dedicated group of educators from my school board. On paper, we’re working preparing for “destreaming” beginning next year (all grade 9 students will be in one level for all courses – no advanced or remedial or high or low or anything: just school). What we’re really doing is reimagining school. Research shows that streaming students is racist and upholds the status quo, but just throwing them all into one class and hoping things work out isn’t going to fix this. We need to undo generations of racist policy and systems. We need to rethink. We need to do better.

This work is hard, even for those of us dedicated to equity. We are trying to envision learning that is radically student centred in a system that is not designed for students. More than that, the system expects a product as the result of our precious PD days: we need to create something that will help teachers throughout our system do this work day in and day out. Hint: lessons and unit plans aren’t going to be enough.

When I’m with my colleagues, imagining school, we dream big, but this also leads to a lot of questions for everyone involved. Today, I left our meetings thinking about some of the students I’ve taught over the years, and thinking about my son. Sometimes, it feels like the only way a student would ever fail in a system like this is if we, the teachers, fail. After all, in this new vision, the teacher’s role involves really knowing their students, really finding out what drives them. But I wonder. Is there space in this reimagined school for a student to say no? I’ve taught students who didn’t yet have a “why” and who didn’t want to do the work. Students like my son sometimes need to test the boundaries to ask if we will hold firm in our belief that they can do good work. And some students have been failed by a system that places them in a situation where they simply do not yet have the skills to succeed. Can they fail?

Look, I know that failure can feel devastating, and I’m all too aware that most children won’t experience the type of support I was able to give my child. But… I have taught students who see no purpose in school, students who hand in no work at all, students who don’t attend most days. I have had students do this even when I have wanted to know them, tried to know them, reached out to them. I have had students who do not trust me because, well, I’m me and I’m not who they need. I have even had students fail and return the next year, knowing that the failure proved my belief that they were capable of more.

I guess I’m just wondering, in a radically student-centred system, how do we make space for students who want to say no? Who gets to fail? Who do we fail if the answer is “no one”?

7 thoughts on “Who can fail?

  1. I currently have a very stubborn grade 9 who is totally struggling with grade 9 destreamed math this year. Destreaming may solve one problem but in my house it is creating another.

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  2. Amanda, this is so interesting. I especially enjoyed reading how you handled your son choosing not to do his art work and then the support you gave him after he got the grade that stung. It reminded me of an episode “We Can Do Hard Things”(podcast- Glennon Doyle) when Brene Brown was a guest and she talked about exactly that type of parenting- responding with empathy instead of control. It must have been really hard for you to not step in and steer your son to do the work, but on his own he learned a really valuable lesson. When I was in high school, I really enjoyed being part of the advanced classes because felt like the students really wanted to learn and everyone was better because the competition to do well was on. What will happen to the students who want that serious environment but are in classes with students who are just passing time and don’t really value the learning? I’m curious how the plan will work and will follow along for more that you share.

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  3. Such big work. This makes me feel so excited that your school is tackling this. We did an equity study this year and saw the same things- the different levels add to the inequities. It’s brave work. I hope you share more. I wish we were taking more steps in this direction, even if it brings a lot of questions.

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  4. This was so endearing to read as I had a similar issue with my son. He still talks about the time he got that ‘bad grade’ and how he will never do that again!
    Also, you raise so many good questions here because there will always be that student who says no and some don’t have the why, other than this is not what they want. I think it is also difficult for us to wrap our heads around that because, well, we are teachers for a reason. We value school and learning so these choices don’t make sense to us. Plus, as teachers we want to help. We want to nurture.

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  5. I’ll be so interested to watch de-streaming unfold. I can picture it in English courses because that is how it is in primary grades – every child working at their own level. I would love to teach writer’s workshop and reader’s workshop in high school. I’m less able to picture it being successful in math classes. I hope that every high school in the province has a team thinking as deeply about how to make it work as you and your team.

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  6. This feels like a question with so many possible layers of responses and can any one of those fit the bill for every student? Surely not, it’s tricky and troublesome and I’m not sure how to fix it, but I do know one thing for sure. We need to toughen up our kids, if no one fails then in some ways I believe they never fully achieve their potential. It might sound harsh, but life is rough and full of suffering and kids need to be prepared for downs as well as ups.
    You let your son learn a valuable lesson by being there but not interfering.

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  7. I think the story with your son is so interesting. There are clear reasons related to the unnatural and arbitrary constraints of compulsory schooling that led him to make the choices he did. With different or fewer constraints, expectations that aligned more with his needs, would he have opted out in the way that he did? So many questions and wonderings! I think the work that you and your colleagues are engaged in is so vital, and–as I and my colleagues engage in similar thinking–I am always frustrated by our inability to truly reimagine school. Even as we seek equity and justice, we still have the concepts of assigned work, of passing and failing; of mastery and standards, of the school day broken down into blocks, of punishments attached to breaking rules, etc; and student voice is almost always entirely absent in our efforts to reimagine school. The students who say no help me understand where the problems are in the system, but it’s incredibly difficult work to figure out how to solve those problems and create a learning space where all students can be free to say yes. I think too about what people need in order to be able to say yes–and that is to have their needs for felt safety, belonging, competency, bodily autonomy, support, stability, etc. met. And how many of our students have those needs met in and out of the classroom? You’ve left me with so much to think about today!

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