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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  • KrisGiere

    Reflection, Reflection, Reflection


    This is an amazing and thought provoking post.  The reflections that you pose to each of her statements are poignant.  We must ask ourselves these questions and many more each day.  The difficult part for me is always to not beat myself up when I miss the signs on a situation like Melissa’s.  Hindsight is 20/20 as they say.  I have always valued the insights of my colleagues, their perspectives on my students especially when we have the same students in different subjects, and the stories of student successes and struggles. 

    It is stories like the one you just shared today and the reflections that they inspire that drive us to be and to do better.  Thank you so much for sharing.

    – Kris

    • ValBrownEdu

      Remember when…

      …I told you that now I wanted to teach community/state college like you. This experience, coupled with a blog you wrote about community/state college a little while ago, helped me to realize that all of our students – regardless of age or amount of confidence – still need loving and attentive teachers.

      • KrisGiere

        I do remember.


        Of course I remember!  I love the realizations that you chosen to share from all of it.  It is very true that all students need teachers whose compassion overflows for them.  Like Renee points out below, the university/college culture far too often has neglected this, and yes, many teachers at that level (I share a similar affinity to Renee’s for being called a teacher rather than a professor) are choosing to focus their energies on the student’s rather than the content.  Though we can do better and it is getting better, we must never stop valuing that deep reflective practice that drives us to be better.  For no matter where we are, what we teach, or who our students may be, it is paramount that we choose to prioritize what is best for them, for their world, for their authentic selves.  And I must say, your challenge of reflect calls each and everyone of us to do just that.  So again, I say thank you. #PeopleAreWorthIt

        Keep being awesome, Rockstar!

        – Kris

  • MarybethWallace

    common theme

    Whether students are non traditional undergrads, or 5 year olds just beginning formal education, these concerns ring true!   Thanks for sharing…..

    • ValBrownEdu

      No, thank you!

      I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment!

  • ReginaMcCurdy

    Poignant PD


    This makes me sad and speechless. That was truly on the spot professional development and I am glad you are sharing it so we can change and grow. 

    This encounter, for those who read your post, will hopefully drive us to make it a goal to continually return to these reflection questions throughout the school year, every year, every day and in every class… to make sure we don’t miss any more Melissas. 



    • ValBrownEdu

      Thank Melissa*

      This young lady took a chance on me to share and be completely vulnerable with a stranger. (I’ve been told I have friendly hair, maybe that’s it. :D) In all seriousness, I know she articulated some of the things that our students are feeling but don’t have the confidence to share with us. It is absolutely our responsibility to grow from this experience as educators and humans. Thanks for reading!

  • ReneeMoore

    Truly Reflective

    I agree with Kris, and thank you Val for this post.

    I’m particularly touched that this was a conversation with a college student (and by your description, what we would call a non-traditional student–which is itself an antiquated term). Until very recently, teaching well was not considered a high priority for college level teachers (I prefer this term to professors). In fact, at many universities, teaching was (and perhaps still is) the work of the newer instructors or grad students, while the tenured, senior professors researched, wrote, and presented at conferences.  The burden of learning was entirely on the students; college teachers are not required to have any knowledge of pedagogy, and many would be insulted if it were suggested they needed some.

    Not that the majority of college teachers are malicious; I believe most care about their students and their subjects. But more often than not, it is the students who are blamed for poor performance. In fact, in some universities it is still a twisted badge of honor to have a low pass rate or high withdrawal rate. Professors impart knowledge; teachers nurture learning.

    Fortunately, there have always been really great teachers at the college level, especially at the community colleges (full disclosure–I’m a full time community college teacher by choice). Also, over the recent past, there has been a growing movement called scholarship of teaching among college faculty to restore teaching to its proper place of importance within the academy. Meanwhile, the external accountability movement is rapidly coming to the college level, and soon my colleagues and I may be facing many of the same pressures now too common in K12 to produce test scores and pass rates.

    I wonder if all of us teachers at all levels took the time to do the type of reflection you model in this piece, whether our entire profession wouldn’t have been in a better position to resist the imposition of false measures of teaching or learning upon us?

    • TriciaEbner

      Reflection: Important Across the Board

      Renee, you touch on something here that struck me so powerfully as an undergrad. I had a course through the English department that was on the methods of teaching writing, and it was always interesting to me that it was through the English department and not the school of education at my university. But it is also fair to say it was the only English department course that modeled HOW to teach writing. It was the perfect blending of philolophy, theory, and pedagogy. The professor quickly became a favorite of us English ed. majors. The most significant thing she did: she LISTENED to us and adjusted her teaching to meet our needs.

      It doesn’t matter the age: we need to listen to our students. Oftentimes they’ll tell us directly what they need; other times, it’s there between the lines, but it’s there if we look for it.

  • Tracy Bell

    Reflective, indeed!


    I truly appreciate his authentic, reflective post. Thank you! Such conversations, thoughts, and ideas must be shared in our learning communities, including in higher education institutions. As an educator in both academic environments, I know that these ideas are beneficial to our learners. Additionally, Renee, I am reflecting on your powerful comments regarding the community college learning experience.  Recently, North Carolina Central University and Durham (NC) Tech. Community College have embarked on a dual enrollment initiative. Your final reflective question should be a focal point in such an initiative to keep authentic learning and creativity at the forefront. Thanks for tweeting Valeria’s post. I am retweeting it!

  • bradclark

    Adaptive intelligence…College Ready

    I am an elementary teacher and I could not help but feel some responsibility to Melissa and her experience. How is it that an elementary teacher can own the college and career readiness of college students?  Why do I feel responsible for students in other states well outside of my age range?

    One, Val composes a powerful narrative. I could feel both the feelings of inadequacies from Melissa and the intensive self-reflection of practice of Val. Not an easy discussion for either party. A harsh mirror. 

    I also can’t help but own the self reflective process that we must all embrace if we are going to professionalize our profession. Those questions that Val asked are all questions that we have asked of ourselves. 

    I have also been that student in college that was ill prepared for reality. 

    If this post doesn’t drive us to become more deeply engaged in radically changing our learning systems I am not sure what will. 

    • ValBrownEdu


      Thank you so much Brad. In addition to the powerful message Melissa taught us about our profession, she also taught me to show up and be present for those in need. Hurting people should never be an inconvenience to us. I didn’t know where our discussion was going, but I am thankful that I didn’t miss the opportunity to be human with her. I think the gift for taking that chance was that her words can immediately impact our classroom practice and keep other students from skipping class.

  • walbornl

    Much needed food for thought!


    Thank you so much for sharing this amazing interaction.  Your questions really have me thinking about those things in my own context.  I am actually going to print out these statements and questions to keep as a guide for me this upcoming year to remind me to ask these questions of myself and my students on a regular basis.

    P.S…You are amazing for engaging in this interaction with this student.  Peopele with empathetic personalities tend to emit an energy that makes people comfortable sharing with them.  You definitely have it and it is one thing (just one of millions of things) that make you an awesome teacher and teacher leader!

    • ReginaMcCurdy

      Self Reflection


      I was thinking the same thing in regards to making copies of these questions for myself, and hopefully, I’ll be able to incorporate these in some  group professional development as well. Being accountable for our teaching is important. And as Val has commented, I don’t want to miss an opportunity to really “see” each and every student.

      And yes, Val (and her hair) is a rockstar! 🙂

  • jozettemartinez

    Questioning is key…

    I will jump on the Val band wagon here darling, to note that I too think your article and insight are not only EXACTLY what we as educators should be doing, but your questions are marvelous! I always ask “so then, what questions do we have before moving forward?” I think your line of questioning in any content, and in every grade level, can work. I know how Melissa feels, not wanting to raise my hand and show my ignorance esp. in math… thank you for coming to education- you are so needed! 

  • SusanGraham

    Ladies Room T&L 101

    Meaningful and applicable Professional Development can happen whenever, wherever and with whoever if educators are open to listening, reflecting, examining and adapting their practice based on student needs.

    Here’s what struck me:

    • You attended a professional development conference.
    • You addressed student need (never mind that it wasn’t your student).
    • You adapted your own learning plan to meet the immediate need of a learner.
    • You used that experience with a student to reflect on your own professional practice.
    • You shared it with this community with other teachers.
    • Your observations have influenced the practice of other teachers. 

    Here’s what’s interesting about this PD:

    • The location was the Ladies Room.
    • The time frame was unscheduled
    • The PD providers were yourself and a struggling undergraduate.
    • The experience was serendiptious.
    • The sharing was asynchronous.
    • The application for other educators is both adaptable and scalable. 
    • The cost was nonexistent.

     Here’s what’s ironic:

    • It’s unlikely that you will be able to to submit this as Professional Development Credit.
    • It’s informal interactions that seem to yield the greatest impact on practice.
  • Shaun Killian


    Hi Val

    Thvery fanks for the post.

    You were were very fortunate to have that encounter, and the rest of us were fortunate you took the time to write about it.

    There are so many lessons we can draw fron her experience, but there is also one that come straight from you. You highlighted the power of questions as a tool for self-reflection. Thanks again.