Saturday, November 22, 2014

Convo with my former self: Failing students

What follows is a brief conversation with my former self about teaching and students who fail.

Bill (2014): Your standard level biology class looked pretty good last year. Average around 75, a few As. But you also had a few Fs and Ds in that one class.

Bill (2010): Yeah, that one is tough. Many of those students are unmotivated or too distracted by social issues, iPhones, or video games. Some lack the self-discipline or perseverance to do their homework, lab reports, or study for exams. Maybe their histories or home lives are just not conducive to doing well in school. Some are carrying so much baggage that school was just too much.

Bill (2014): How do you feel about that? I mean, do you feel like it is your responsibility to help those kids--the ones who have Fs, Ds, and Cs, to do better? Do you feel like you've failed with those students?

Bill (2010): Well, of course it's my responsibility to teach all of my students, but I guess I don't feel like a failure because I did the best I could. At some point it's just the student's responsibility to put the effort in to learn.

Bill (2014): But if, as you mentioned, some of them either lack the skills or support to do that, then how can you expect them to?

Bill (2010): Well, what's my alternative? I'm supposed to teach biology, and some do want to learn. I don't have the time to teach study skills, self-control, and responsibility.

Bill (2014): So what's the point of "teaching" those struggling kids at all? What are we doing to these kids if we force them to attend four years of high school, knowing they will likely fail because of factors they can't control, and the whole time reinforcing those factors by repeatedly reminding them of their failure?

Bill (2010): Hopefully some will learn responsibility before it's too late, or discover their motivation. But I think that's a systemic problem. I'm just trying to do the best I can in a flawed system.

Bill (2014): So you're OK with that? Doing the best you can in a flawed system and watching several students per year continue their school-enhanced downward spiral, accelerated by your teaching?

Bill (2010): Not really, but what's my alternative?

Bill (2014): What if you made it a priority simply to help every one of them to succeed? What if you shifted your expectations from a 75% average and a few As and Fs to 100% mastery of essential skills? What if you shifted your priority from "teaching" a fixed set of concepts, skills and facts to actually helping your students succeed in life?

Bill (2010): What would that look like?

Bill (2014): That's a good question. It's not likely to be easy, but isn't it worth a try?

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