It’s Us, Not Them: How Student Failure May Reflect You

It was the first time there wasn’t a line in the ladies restroom, but yet my longest wait. We went from complete strangers to a teacher listening to a student in just three words, “Are you ok?”

Being a true glutton for PD, I was already in a good mood at my district’s annual education conference held at our local state college. Teachers gathered together and learning was a win-win for me.

The morning sessions were over, and I walked into the bathroom just before the lunch break to wash my hands. At the sink was a young woman, red-faced, tears in her eyes. She was a student at the college, and not attending the conference. Our paths crossed coincidently.

“Are you ok?” I asked.

“Yeah, it’s just Algebra,” she chuckled.

“Well, you’re in the right place. We’re having a teaching conference here. Teachers are everywhere!” I said.

“Oh, no, I shouldn’t have told you that then,” she said embarrassed.

I felt terribly guilty leaving her there crying so we stood in the bathroom and talked until the end of her class. Let me correct that, I just listened.  She appreciated my ear because she said she wasn’t going back to class anyway. She couldn’t let the other students see her like this.

We talked about her feelings, her struggles. She said taking the accelerated Algebra class was a mistake.

Melissa* is 32 and elected to take an accelerated Algebra course this summer. She originally felt hesitant about taking the accelerated course, but thought she could handle it. She was crying in the bathroom because she received another failing grade on a test.

My thought – she was brilliant. I am thankful that she was able to articulate what I am sure many of our younger students are feeling. I asked her if I could share her story and even take a picture. She agreed as long as I kept her identity a secret.

I cannot fully articulate her emotions or the power behind her words, but I will try, and then pose some questions we should consider as teachers. Melissa’s story is so important because it is the story of many of our students.

Melissa: I haven’t taken math in years. It’s not my teacher’s fault, she knows this stuff. She can’t relate to someone who is learning it for the first time. And it’s so fast!

Reflective questions for a teacher: When I am planning my lessons, how often do I make assumptions of student knowledge? Do I ever operate on auto-pilot when it comes to explaining my content? Do I regularly practice empathy when it comes to my students? Have I checked how my pacing is affecting my students?

Melissa: My teacher keeps asking, “Does anyone have questions?” And I don’t want to raise my hand. Everyone else gets it. It’s embarrassing. What am I supposed to do?

Reflective questions for a teacher: What type of culture have I created in my classroom to encourage students to feel comfortable asking for help? Is “raising a hand” the only way students can get my attention? How do I make sure the students who are remaining quiet in class are being served?

Melissa: It’s all about confidence. When you are confident in something, you feel good about learning. But when you are not confident, and you don’t know what you are doing, it’s a double-edged sword. When you get behind, and then you do poorly, it’s a nose dive.

Reflective questions for a teacher: How do I help my students build confidence in my content area? How do I make them feel good about learning? How do I normalize the frustrated feelings associated with learning something new?

Melissa: It’s about trying something new and having the courage to fail. I don’t think that those other students are better than me, but this is still hard.

Reflective questions for a teacher: What do I do when students don’t want to try something new? What do I do when students don’t have the courage to fail? How do I keep students from comparing themselves to others in a way that makes them take a significant hit to their own self-worth?

Melissa: Honestly, I should be happy to walk out with a 50% when I went in there knowing nothing, but it is hard to think that way. I am not happy with my failure obviously, but it is about walking away and not feeling shameful.   

Reflective questions for a teacher: Am I celebrating the large and small successes with my students? Do I acknowledge what it takes to go from knowing “nothing” to knowing “half”? How do I help students not feel ashamed during the learning process?

I am not sure that I will ever see Melissa again, but that is ok. She has made quite an impact on me because if, and when, I have a student who is failing, the first place I will look is in the mirror.

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