“Students Have a Right To Fail” and Other Stupid Lessons I Had to Unlearn
When I was a student teacher, way back before the Internet and just after TV Dinners moved from 40 minutes in the oven to 4 minutes in the microwave–really! Where did we find the time?!–I learned a few lessons from some veteran teachers that I had to unlearn later.
One teacher in particular, a crusty old, very large man with a smoker’s hack and an oversized sense of his own intelligence, was especially filled with mean-spirited bromides that masqueraded as wit and wisdom. His words were appealing because they justified teachers’ failings as inevitable and thus acceptable.
“You can’t shine shit,” he once bellowed in the faculty room, when he heard me complaining that nothing I tried was getting a few students I was having trouble with to turn the corner.
“That’s true,” I thought to myself. “Why bother banging my head against the wall? These students won’t change.”
When I explained this lesson to my cooperating teacher, using less coarse language, he replied, “If you ever quote ‘Old Crusty’ at me again, I will escort you from the building.” He was right. But still, some of Crusty’s words wormed their way into my thinking, and it would take a few years before I weeded them out.
Unlearning is a painful process, especially the part where you realize that what you think you know is wrong and has to be changed. It is often personally humiliating and deeply humbling. It’s good for us. But damn it hurts.
Students Do Not Have a Right to Fail
In my first year of teaching, I had a challenging 10th grade class, made all the worse by the boring lessons I was killing myself on late into every night before class. I was preparing long, detailed lectures on the assigned short stories, and I delivered them in as animated and excited a fashion as I could. I was very impressed with my analyses, but the students were not. They were relentlessly bored, and their behavior deteriorated accordingly.
Finally, one young woman revolted.
She was engaging in utterly disrespectful, completely unacceptable behavior by daring to whisper to her neighbor.
Shocked and outraged, I called her out publicly, and told her to stop speaking while I was presenting. It was rude and disrespectful.
Rather than comply with my directions, this young woman persisted, “This class is so boring, I can’t stand it! I will have a conversation if I want to.”
Puffed up with my new authority and buoyed by Old Crusty’s bromides, I said, “No one is forcing you to be here. If you don’t like this class, just go.”
And she did.
Just like that, as calmly as you please, she stood up, grabbed her books and pocketbook, and walked out.
The Unlearning Process
My chair, Kevin–whose voice I still hear 30+ years later when my better teaching angels visit me–must have seen potential good in me because he was very kind and was amazingly tolerant of the bad attitudes I occasionally exhibited in my first couple of years of teaching.
“Well, I can’t stop her if she wants to leave,” I declared. “Students have a right to fail!”
Kevin and I had both attended Catholic school as children, and so I should have braced for a hard slap, but of course Kevin did not hit me. Instead, he firmly but kindly explained that:
- Students did NOT, in fact, have a right to fail. They have a right to a teacher who will do everything within reason to help them pass and want to pass.
- Students may NOT leave my classroom, and my giving a student permission to leave is an abdication of my responsibility, and I was damned lucky the student just went to the assistant principal’s office instead of getting into trouble or, gods forbid, leaving the building.
I took in a huge breath like an enraged bull, the blood rushed to my face, and just as I was about to protest loudly with a righteous moral outrage that would have brought me to great heights of ecstatic satisfaction, I halted.
For whatever reason, at that second, I heard Kevin. I really heard him. And immediately, I knew he was right.
I released the breath calmly, the red outrage on my face deeping just a bit as it transformed to embarrassment. And I said, “I see what you mean. I’m sorry.” I was humiliated and mad at myself. And I have thought about that moment many, many times since that day.
I don’t know why I learned Kevin’s lesson so quickly that day, but I’m grateful that I did. Over the next year or so I researched and implemented new ways to improve my classes by engaging the students in valuable, interesting activities (such as the then-new methods of cooperative learning, reading and writing workshops, and more).
And, instead of inviting students to leave if they didn’t like it, I tried to work with apparently bored students to figure out with them what they would like that would also help them learn what I was paid to ensure they learned.
We were all stuck there in the classroom together, I realized. So I should do whatever I could to make the best of it. For all of us. To this day, I’m still trying to do that with every class and every student I teach. And this has become a pleasure beyond any I deserve.