Failure: teachers discuss the many aspects of failing a class

Failure: teachers discuss the many aspects of failing a class

Leela Goshorn

Many students feel pressure to get all As and Bs, while others strive to not fail. How do teachers view these students?

John Hudson
“Math is the one class that people get really emotional about. They have either a very good or a very bad feeling about it when they get out of school.
I remember failing my first math test in college. I was probably like a lot of Decatur High students. I was pretty smart but I didn’t really work hard – so when I got to college, I thought I could keep doing that. And the very first math test I took, I got an F on. I went to talk to the professor about it and he asked me ‘What are you trying to do in my class?’ and I said ‘Well, you know, I wanna get a good grade, I wanna move on.’ And he said ‘Oh, so you’re not trying to learn something?’ And I got embarrassed and I said ‘well, sure I am.’ But deep down, I knew he had me. In my case, that truly was a learning moment for me. And it didn’t happen again, I guarantee that. I started actually studying and that’s when I decided ‘hey, math is kinda cool!’ and I decided to make a career out of it.”

Kristen Embry
“I think that kids still are motivated by grades. As a teacher, I would like them to have more intrinsic [underlying] motivation, [but] a number still matters. For me it is about the experience. I think at the end of the day kids are still very motivated by a number.
I still have kids who fail on all levels. Often times it’s not the test that’s failing them. Sometimes [it’s their knowledge of the subject], but I find that in both ends of the spectrum of my class, my high end and my low end, it’s most about effort and attitude and attempt.
You eventually have to work pretty hard to fail my class. It means that you’ve missed countless and countless opportunities, you have made a choice at some point to not take the hand that is given to you. And that’s my hand, so I do take it personally.”

Amanda Lockhart
“I never faced failing until I got to college, and I didn’t know how to pull myself out of it. I ended up with my first C. I don’t think the actual act of failing is beneficial, but having that feeling of not being the cream of the crop or not getting all A’s and B’s is an important thing to experience earlier in life.
[Failing is] unfortunate, but you can’t help everyone. You can try, but in the end, there are some cases that are just out of my control. I used to take it personally, and beat myself up over it, but about 6 or 7 years into my teaching I quit taking it personally. I’ve been teaching 14 years, so it took a while.”

Nora Bergman
“Where I used to work, I dealt with older students, many of whom had actually failed entire classes in their freshman or sophomore year. Yes, they learned from it, but the cost was pretty severe. High school students are old enough to understand their situation and be the first line of defense in rectifying the situation. I think the most important person in pulling that grade up and making sure the student isn’t failing is the student.
There are some students who don’t do their work. There are other students who struggle to do their work. Part of it for teachers is trying to figure out which of those it is. There is something about the maturity of being a senior or junior that freshmen and sophomores often just don’t have. The gravity of being a senior or junior and looking back to their freshmen year and thinking ‘oh why did I blow that off?’ I have often wished I could bottle that.”

Iris Gibbons
“In general, when someone says to me, “You work with at risk students,” that’s like saying a student walks into the door and they’re at risk. I joke all the time that I want a t-shirt that says “I’m at risk of being at risk,” because [at any given time], somebody will be at risk. I could be at risk, you could be at risk, we all can depending on what’s going on in our lives. Same thing is true about failures, then. Failures hit everyone. I’ve seen the highest level achiever before burn out their last year … I’ve seen students that just, in general, their senior year, they shut down when they realize they don’t know what’s coming next or they’re scared of what’s coming next and they have an unconscious block in their heads. I’ve had students similar to that situation that I’ve worked with for four years overcoming some obstacles be successful – but they’re not used to success, and then, all the sudden, in the last few weeks start failing their classes again. It’s a full gamete.
There definitely are students who have a lot of risk factors due to attendance or behavior. There are individual situations at home – maybe they’re homeless – lots of different factors can play in. I don’t believe there’s any one type of student that fails. It can be anyone at anytime. And sometimes we are surprised when a student fails.”