“Confessions of an Educator” columnist Chris Margolin questions educators about why their students might be failing and suggests how they should adjust their approach.
A former student of mine sent me an email the other day to let me know that she started a teaching position at a juvenile detention facility in southern California. I’ve always had a deep passion for education reform in the world of the justice system and so I was excited to talk with her about it. Then she told me about how the students had been cheating on their tests, therefore, they “deserved to fail” and that she “didn’t mind failing them.” And then I couldn’t decide if I was angry or ill or scared that I never really taught her anything about compassion or that there’s never a reason to fail anyone. We don’t fail anyone.
But maybe I didn’t teach them that everyone gets a do-over.
Maybe I was that teacher.
I was that teacher.
I had an inbox and a “to be graded this summer” sign hovering above a garbage can by the door. I used to tell my Creative Writing students that if they “fail Creative Writing and it jeopardizes your graduation, I will laugh at you.” Before I came to my senses, I probably said that to my first five years’ worth of students. Given that there were more than a few students who failed that class, I want to choke back every laugh I ever spewed and give each of them a chance to just turn in the work. Even if it was late. Even if it wasn’t proficient. Even if they just needed another day or two in order to make it their best work ever. It wasn’t even that they deserved it, but, rather, they earned it by ever showing up to class when they probably had a thousand other outside influences keeping their mind away from everything else.
Once I took a breath and realized that each of these kids is trying—maybe not their best, but trying all the same—to please so many people in their world that, at some point, they just can’t do it all. They can’t finish their homework if they are going to work helping to support the family, babysitting, caring for their parents, wondering where their parents are, hoping they get their next meal, or that bills get paid, or worried that friends may get in trouble or that their friends may want to find trouble. So many extraneous factors go into the demise of the person, not just the student, that teachers often lose track of the fact that we are simply trying to guide them to become their best selves.
If education is all about asking questions—that’s what Socrates thought, right?—then shouldn’t we be helping them search for their answers? Shouldn’t we ask them just as many questions? But, too often, teachers forget; they forget that it’s not all about them, but rather those in front of them. It’s not about ego, but compassion, sympathy, and empathy when appropriate. It’s never about apathy. Never about judgment. Never about anyone deserving to fail.
I wrote back to my former student and I told her that these students have already felt failure or felt they were a failure. They don’t have an out. They may have a release date, but they don’t have an out. There is no exit door for them, so if they look like they are cheating, it may simply be because they don’t know the answers and maybe that’s not their fault. They are hungry for knowledge of one kind or another and, frankly, it is our job as educators to remind them that everyone has the right to learn and that no one can take that away from them—least of all the teacher in front of the class. We should be their champions, their role models, their go-to, their vacation from a life of which they may not want any part.
Educators are not superheroes and students are not villains. We are just people who are supposed to be helping others find some kind of knowledge that can benefit them along the way. We cannot control what happens to them outside of those classroom walls, but we can sure as hell try.