“F” is for Failure

I just received this email that I’m guessing will resonate with a lot of us. With the teacher’s permission, I’m posting our conversation in the hopes that it’ll be useful to anyone who’s struggling with student motivation. Names have been changed.

I need to thank you for your Criminal or Chucklehead video. When you said that kids failing my class isn’t my fault, I actually cried. My husband thought I’d finally completely lost it! I have one of “those” groups this year. The junior high teachers tried to warn me, but I haven’t ever listened to them. I like to start fresh with each new group of kids, but I have been challenged this year (Year 18) in ways that make Year 1 look like a cake walk. Now, two weeks before the end of the semester, I have kids who are going to fail despite everything. Kids just don’t fail my class. I have been blaming myself. I know that I have done everything I could, but it still feels like a failure. Somehow, when you said it, it finally sank in, so thank you! I’m going into the last bit of this semester with a brighter outlook.

Thank you for this note! I’m so glad the message brought some level of comfort. I’ve definitely been there, frustrated when I’ve wanted success for kids more than they’ve wanted it for themselves. I’ve SO been there.

A few years ago, I joined the staff of a new program in our district dedicated solely to helping kids who’d been kicked out of the alternative school or just released from juvenile hall. Arrogant fool that I was, I thought, Heck, yeah! I can be The One to help save these kids. Uh, no. I was a total failure and it became the l-o-n-gest year of my professional life.

As it turns out (surprise, surprise), kids who are addicted to drugs, have absentee parents, and/or are suffering in an abusive home aren’t exactly showing up to our classrooms ready to learn. And even when we do make progress with a student, he/she will often sabotage that relationship because trusting in an adult is just too uncomfortable/scary for a kid who’s been let down so many times before.

Oh my gosh, all of this reminds me of Mariah, a 15-year-old student from that year who was one of my favorites; she showed up, she tried, and she wanted something more for herself than just being a gang member’s girlfriend, her “celebrated” status at our school. When the class learned something new, her eyes would sparkle with understanding and I believed she could rise above her circumstances. I knew she would be a success story and I invested extra hours helping her build missing basic skills. But then, late in the fall semester, she just imploded. She bragged at school about coercing her 10-year-old sister into peeing into a cup so she could use that urine to pass her court-mandated drug test. She got in a huge fight with her mom and was kicked out of the house. She came raging to our campus because we had reported the incident to her parole officer and she had to be physically carried out of the school by a male staff member. It was ugly. It was scary. And it broke my heart.

Mariah left our school, headed back to juvie and then I don’t know where. Two years later, as I was eating lunch with my family downtown, I spotted Mariah walking alone down the sidewalk. She was dressed as if she was going to work, maybe at a retail shop. She looked tired. She didn’t see me through the restaurant window and I didn’t go to her. I just let her keep walking.

I have many regrets when I think about Mariah. Of course I wish I’d gone to talk to her on that day at the restaurant, the last time I ever saw her. I wish she knew that I thought – still think –  she’s special and able to rise up. The reality, though, is that I couldn’t save Mariah. I can only be a positive influence, an adult who cares and provides the tools of self-improvement. Our kids, though, have to pick up those tools and do the actual work.

In my job interview earlier this fall, I was asked about whether we can “force” students to learn. The truth is, we can’t. We can model, present compelling lessons, even cheerlead on the side. But in the end, it’s up to the individual student to decide to do the work. So, Stefanie, don’t beat yourself up. If you can look in the mirror and know that you did all you could to help those kids, then you’re a good teacher, regardless of the grade reports you have to submit. As my school heads into finals week, about 15 percent of the kids in one of my classes are failing. I know I’ve given them ample opportunities to succeed and I don’t feel (too) bad about that 15 percent. I continue to hope that they’ll get it together and pick up the tools that I’ve laid at their feet. If they do, I’ll be there to help them, like always. If they don’t, I guess they’ll take summer school. Either way, I know I’ve done right by them and they’ll all end up with the grades they earned.

Finally, I try to visualize difficult school years as taking the shape of a large rolling hill. Stefanie, we’re almost to the peak, and then it’ll be a beautiful downhill glide to the end of the year. Your 18 years have certainly taught you that the spring semester is always smoother/faster than the fall, no? This year will be, too.

Keep your chin up. Don’t hesitate to take a sick day when you really, really need a break. And just remember, it’s the struggle that makes us strong.

Your friend,

I asked Stefanie if I could share our email with the blog community. She enthusiastically agreed and included this follow-up:

You can absolutely turn this into a blog post! I hope it helps someone else. I’ve been feeling defeated for weeks now, and I hate that feeling! I told my husband and a few of my teacher friends about your video and how much it helped. My husband’s exact words? “That’s exactly what I’ve been telling you!” My fellow teachers completely understood. Sometimes, we need to hear it from someone who is completely removed from the situation. What’s so bad is five of my classes are super. Most of my juniors and seniors are fabulous, and one section of my sophomores is not so bad. My 6th period sophomores are the problem group, and, really, it’s not all of them. Why do we focus on the ones giving us trouble instead of realizing most of them are really good kids?  

Again, thanks for your encouragement. I came back to school this week with a more optimistic outlook, and I think my kids see it, too.

Teach on, everyone!

6 thoughts on ““F” is for Failure

  1. Hi Laura,

    I feel your pain about failing kids. I have the privilege of teaching in a 1 room school for kids who are in the system.

    This past semester I had 2 boys choose to fail, thinking it didn’t matter. They are now suffering the consequences of not being accepted back to the local high school. All of 2nd quarter, I begged and pleaded for them to just do a little work, with no luck.

    Now they are writing grievances, complaining that I failed them for more reason. For me, it was a very hard decision to issue the grades I did, but in the end I believe they both learned that the only way out is to do the work.

    My kids sometimes leave and are successful, but unfortunately the majority don’t succeed. A whole lot of people put love, effort, and energy into trying to heal and show these kids they are valuable.

    It is heartbreaking and rewarding.

    Thanks for sharing your feelings as I was struggling with this also.

    Timi Meyer
    Hilltop residential youth services
    Grand Junction, Colorado

  2. Thanks, Timi, for your candor and for loving your students, even when they try to be unlovable. I’m sorry, but not surprised, to hear that the boys want to blame you instead of accepting personal responsibility for their failing marks. It’s so much easier, of course, to just blame the teacher. Keep fighting the good fight and being there for the moments when our students are ready to change their lives. It does happen! 🙂

  3. Much wisdom in this post! I had a class a few years ago that almost made me retire: I didn’t want to go into my room 2nd period because I had a group of 15 boys, juniors, who made life miserable for caring teachers–they had power in their numbers and had been together all through school. They were their own worst enemies. Drug addiction, drug sellers, rampant sexuality of the destructive kind–and they bragged about all of their drunken, doped-up weekends. I, being the typical caring teacher, really tried. Everything I knew. After a few tear-filled sessions with our counselor, I realized that I could not rescue these young men and that my folly was to continue to spend my energy and enthusiasm on them because they were wearing me down mentally, physically, emotionally. I looked at all of my other kids who wanted and needed and appreciated my efforts with them, and something inside of me changed. I still try to help every kid I can reach, and still make positive connections with my kids, but I treasure my time and life to give my best to the ones who will use it to grow. This is a hard decision to make and to fulfill, but after thirty years, I know that we need to do it to survive. Kids really are different today than when I began teaching in 1971–many more ways to destroy themselves and a much different culture to grow up in.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head, Rho. What always pulls me back is remembering the ones – our majority of kids, really – who want to learn. It’s hard not to get derailed, especially in those years when the Scheduling Gods deliver a class like your former 2nd period (yikes!), but it’s vital that we stay healthy and whole so we can continue to help the kids who’ll pick up the tools we provide. As Stefanie mentioned, I also tend to fixate on the isolated trouble spots in my day instead of giving proportional weight in my mind to the vast number of great kids in my classes. Gotta knock that off!

  5. Sarah Abent says:

    Oh, Laura. I feel this post to my core. For the past three years (my entire career, actually), I’ve been working with at-risk kids and it tends to be more heartbreaking than uplifting, in my experience. I’ve “lost” so many kids to their circumstances – many of my pregnant girls never return, many of my kids in the system end up back in the system, many of the drug dealers end up in jail – and it’s hard not to take it personally. It’s hard not to want to do more. It’s in our nature, as teachers, to deeply care about our students and invest in not only their education, but their lives. It hurts when things don’t work out for them. It’s more than a blow to the ego, because their failures feel like our failures.

    But then I realized something that has helped me cope ever since: the vast majority of their life is spent without me. I’m lucky to see them five hours a week. I can only do so much with the time I spend with them, and when I’m responsible for a class full of kids who need my attention for one reason or another, it’s impossible to give those kids what they really need. Life hasn’t given them what they need, and that’s not my problem to solve. That’s not my fault. The only thing I can be held responsible for is the time I spend with them and what we do with that time. Sometimes, it’s not about FANBOYS or writing really good claims. Sometimes it’s about making sure my students have a safe environment to go home to; sometimes it’s about making sure my students have enough to eat. I do what I can with what I’m given. Sometimes they fail, but that doesn’t mean I failed as a teacher.

    It’s never going to be easy for me to not take their failures personally. The responsibility of that weighs heavily on me, and it’s a daily struggle. It certainly does help to know there are others out in the teacher-world who feel this way.

  6. Thanks for sharing your experience, Sarah! My favorite line? “Sometimes they fail, but that doesn’t mean I failed as a teacher.” SO much truth there. In my year at Community Day (yes, I lasted only one year before realizing it wasn’t the place for me), I was impressed by the teachers who’d taught at our alternative school for 20, 25, 30 years. They were built for it and worked with your philosophy, too – they didn’t take the students’ failures personally and just did the best they could for them while they had them there at school. I remember thinking that they were successful because they were able to set the dramas/emotions on a shelf and leave ’em at school. Me? I never figured out how to do that.

    The fact that you’ve been there for three years means you’re built of tough stuff. Thanks for doing the best you can to give your kids a soft place to land.

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