Site icon Laura Randazzo – Solutions for the Secondary Classroom

“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!

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