Teach & Serve No. 24 – Students Don’t Fail in February, Teachers Do

Teach & Serve 

No. 25 * February 3, 2016


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Students Don’t Fail in February, Teachers Do

As teachers, we cannot – must not – give up on our students. Ever. What they can do should amaze us. What they can do should inspire us. If we are not amazed and inspired by our students, it’s time to find a new profession.

During one year of my administrative career, I served as Acting Principal of my alma mater, the school where I had worked for almost two decades. I could devote an entire series of posts to the perils of the words “Acting” or “Interim” before the word “Principal” and perhaps I one day will. Frankly, being an “acting” anything is an almost impossible challenge and success in the role is dependent upon many factors – especially the support one has from one’s superior.

But that’s a story for another day.

failing-grade-editIn February of the year of my acting principalship, a teacher I knew well and respected, a teacher I had when I was a student (remember, this was my alma mater), a teacher under whom I had worked in any number of capacities in my years at the school approached me. He informed me a student was failing his class and was unlikely to make a passing grade for the semester. This student had failed first semester and grading policy at our school was such that if he passed second semester, his failing grade for first semester – a grade we called the “K” grade – would become a “D” and the student would be awarded whatever grade he earned for second semester. As things stood, I was told, there was “no chance” this student would pass second semester. According to the teacher, the kid was simply not grasping the material. And he had no chance of grasping to a degree by which he could pass the class. The student couldn’t do the work, the teacher informed me. The student as so far behind the curve in terms of the material (in February according to the teacher) that the wouldn’t and couldn’t pass the class.

The class was Algebra I. The student was working very hard.

I should know. The student was my step-son.

And the teacher was convinced, in February, that he should fail the class.

That I was compromised and biased in this situation is obvious. On reflection, I see myself as entirely cowardly as well. I was principal, acting though I might be, and was within my purview to intervene.

I did not.

Allowing that teacher to fail my step-son in February was a mistake and it remains one of the worst professional decisions I have ever made. Frustrated and angry, not at my best and not having taken enough time to reflect on the scenario, to call in the advice of those I trusted and to challenge my step-son’s teacher’s policies, I acknowledged – I didn’t accept – what the teacher was telling me, pulled my step-son out of the class creating a study hall for him though our school didn’t offer study halls (being Acting Principal had to have some privileges) and never looked at my colleague in quite the same manner again.

I have never looked at myself in quite the same way again, either.

My step-son had struggled mightily in this Algebra I class throughout the first semester of his freshman year. During the first semester we tried everything. I spent many a night trying to assist him with the material.  When the limits of my algebra knowledge were reached – and they were reached very quickly, my wife and I hired a number of tutors for my step-son, finding that the fit wasn’t right with most of them. We met with my step-son’s teacher searching for solutions. We explained to the teacher that my step-son had a diagnosed processing disorder and discussed how he best responded to instruction in class. Finally, we settled on a tutor who my step-son liked and to whom he responded well. For a few weeks, my step-son showed some significant signs of improvement, but circumstances changed and this tutor became less effective as assignments wore on. That my step-son’s teacher became increasingly less cooperative with the tutor is a sad but true statement.

So, my step-son failed Algebra I and, by the end of that year, transferred from the school. The teacher who failed him remains. The Acting Principal who let this all go on is no longer at the school.

What came next is what is instructive. Somehow deciding in the first semester of his sophomore year and his new school that he loved math, somehow deciding that he was a gifted math student despite his earlier failure and somehow deciding that he wanted to take an Advanced Placement math course by the time he graduated high school, my step-son took control. He met with his counselors and math teachers and plotted an ambitious schedule of math courses for himself over the remainder of his high school career. This plan included him taking Algebra II and Honors Geometry concurrently during his junior year, taking an online and self-directed Calculus class during the summer between his junior and senior years so that he would be ready to take AP Calculus AB his last year of high school. Oh, and he had to get A’s or B’s in these classes to satisfy his teachers and counselors.

He received all A’s.

Do you see where this is going?

After failing Algebra I, this kid worked as hard as I’ve seen any kid work to get to a senior level, AP math class. And he took the AP test. And he got a 4.

The message here is less about my step-son (and I could write post-after-post about this kid, about the incredible kid he is) than it is about the teacher who failed him.

In February.

While one could make the argument that my step-son’s failure motivated him to work as hard as he did, I contend that that argument is absolutely ridiculous. Imagine what might have happened if that teacher had worked with my step-son for, clearly, my step-son had the drive and the ability to do great things.

As teachers, we cannot – must not – give up on our students. Ever. What they can do should amaze us. What they can do should inspire us. If we are not amazed and inspired by our students, it’s time to find a new profession. It’s not for us to limit them. We work with them, in every way we can, to help them grow. That’s the mission.

Yes, some students will not meet the standards by which we must judge their performance and, at the end of the day, some will take all we offer and do nothing with it. But, let’s be honest:

Students don’t fail in February, teachers do.

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3 Comments

Filed under Education, Education Blog, Ignatian Education, Jesuit Education, Teach & Serve, Teacher, Teacher, Teacher Blog, Teaching, Teaching Blog

3 responses to “Teach & Serve No. 24 – Students Don’t Fail in February, Teachers Do

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