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Failing to Make the Grade

I recall the experience of a young woman who was a student at my last school. She had a quiet and kind demeanor, an accurate reflection of her personality. At the same time, these characteristics provided an effective shield for her lack of confidence and a bit of anxiety. As she got to the second half of her senior year, she was faced with the very real possibility that she would not graduate. She had not yet “passed” the first semester of a required year-long course she had taken the year before because she had “failed” the final exam. She had retaken the class the first part of her senior year and still could not perform well enough on the final summative assessment. She reattempted the test on multiple occasions, only to have success continue to elude her and for her confidence level to plummet while her anxiety level soared. Each attempt she made seemed to satisfy a self-fulfilling prophecy - she couldn’t do it and she wasn’t going to graduate because she was, in her eyes, a “failure.” Let that sink in for a moment. A test had succeeded in deflating this fragile young woman even though she believed she knew the material. With the support of the school counselor, this student negotiated a “do or die” compromise with the teacher. You see, she appeared to lack confidence much of the time, but not when she was holding a camera. This talented young filmmaker was able to illustrate her proficiency of the required content through a film she wrote and produced as evidence. It was well crafted and something that she could feel proud about. Coincidentally, it surprised and astonished her teacher, both in her understanding of the material and in the impressive creativity she demonstrated.

We were able to avert a tragedy, one that occurs everyday in schools everywhere.

Consider the very word, “failure.” It carries powerful connotations and messages that, once applied, are very difficult to erase. The Thesaurus has some pretty unflattering interpretations of the word: lack of success, fiasco, loser, negligence, breaking down and collapse. Where, within the desired culture of a learning institution, would we seek to label students with any of these words or phrases? Worse yet, that they might perceive themselves through such a lens. However, it happens. I cannot begin to guess the number of times I have heard students say, “I can’t do math” or “I’m a terrible writer.” They are not offering warnings or predictions. Rather, these are conclusions they have reached based on what they see as evidence received, over time, on numerous assessments and report cards. If my teachers, the trusted experts, repeat the same message over time, I am going to believe them. I am going to interpret their view of my performance as a personal indictment. I become the label.

I understand that falling short of a goal, missing the mark, is a critical component of learning. I know, as I’m confident my readers do as well, that some of humankind’s greatest accomplishments are the result of persistence in the face of failed attempts. I also can acknowledge that repeated failure can be very stressful, while that very stress can be useful in achieving an eventually successful outcome. We understand these things, but students, typically, do not. They live in a world where they observe that triumph is celebrated, not the attempt, however valiant. They know that parades are not held to honor the team that came in second. Success stories are heralded. We post or publish the Honor Roll or the Dean’s List, not the “Getting There” list. The messages they receive are very consistent. They have come to believe that failure, synonymous with not winning, is something terrible and must be avoided at all cost. It is stressful for many students to engage in things they see themselves as being deficient in, leading to heightened anxiety for some. In their perspective, failure is embarrassing and demeaning and could, quite possibly, lead to ridicule. Many students sadly conclude that the best way to avoid failure is to make the conscious decision not to try.

When these students decide to be nonparticipants, the enterprise of teaching and learning diminishes. The students who are masters of compliance will continue to plow forward. Of course, many of those students have rarely, if ever, experienced the devastation of having the “F word” leveled at them. The students who disengage are precisely the ones we need most to reach - those who are reluctant and uncertain, students who do not yet understand their potential. I use the word yet very intentionally. Given adequate and appropriate supports and opportunities, all students can, and will, come to embrace their personal gifts and potential. However, the attainment of this critically important goal can only be achieved if they can avoid a cauldron of fear and apprehension.

A cauldron we label “failure.”

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