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”?

It’s not about me #SOL22 30/31

If you read my blog regularly, you might remember that I had a – ahem – challenging class last semester. You might remember because I wrote about that class here and here and here – and that was just the first few weeks. Oh my.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I *liked* the students. They are fun and funny and smart and honest and many other wonderful things, but teaching them all in one classroom for two and half hours (thank you, Covid) was not straightforward. In the end, I did an ok job – not great, but ok.

I thought what I was most worried about was reading and writing skills that had atrophied a little during online learning, but when I reread my blogs, I remember that we were also working on social skills and work habits. It was a lot.

Since then, I’ve talked about this class in two separate PD sessions where teachers and coaches from across schools were planning for “de-streaming.” (Next year, our school board is ending streaming for grade 9 and 10 students in all subjects. This will require a shift in our mindset and our teaching practices.) The first time, a Black educator I didn’t know but who is deeply dedicated to equity, pushed me to redefine what qualifies as success for my students. I bristled; he suggested that for some kids success is “just crossing the school’s threshold.” I’ve done enough work with students damaged by our system to know that he is right, but inside my head I wanted to scream, “That may be enough for you in your position, but once they cross the threshold and they come to class, then success changes – and then *I* have to give them a grade.” I didn’t say that, our breakout room ended, and I let it sit in the back of my mind, where I could come back to worry over it from time to time.

Today, I brought up this class again. I talked about students who refused to read or who did very little work. I was lucky enough to be in a group that allowed me to speak openly. I spoke about the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and my fear of what happens when we allow students to move through the system without the skills they need for success. One colleague – an Indigenous teacher and deep thinker – challenged me to think about grapho-centrism and what that means for our students and our culture. This resonated with me because I was recently on a podcast panel where we discussed multimodal essays and the myriad ways that people can express complex critical thinking.

I sat with my colleague’s ideas for a few minutes, but soon I was worrying aloud – again – about how I can help students become literate, be able to write well. At this moment, another colleague – younger than me and also fiercely dedicated to equity – said, “I notice how much you’re using the word I.”

Whoa. She was right. I was centering myself. Oh, sure, my focus was firmly on my students, but it was also on what *I* could do to help them. When I stepped back, I realized that I have now heard from two colleagues – gently, kindly – that I am, perhaps, too much in the centre of my practice, that I might be playing the role, even unintentionally, of “white saviour” – at least in this instance. (Though they never said those words.”

That’s a tough one for me. As a teacher, I want to help – I mean, it’s kind of my job to help. On the other hand, as a white woman who is constantly working towards anti-racism and equity, I know I need to “hold myself in healthy distrust” (Kike Ojo-Thompson). My colleagues’ questioning and observing has me thinking about the ways in which I can re-centre student voice and goals. I don’t know the answers yet, but I know that if I’m talking about a class, and the most common pronoun I use is “I”, then I need to rebalance my thinking because it’s not about me.

It’s good to have such thoughtful observant colleagues. This is how we get better – together.