Before school let out for the summer, a former student came to visit my room before class. She was excited to discuss some of the plans she had made for the future until she got to the heart of her visit.
“Do you think I would make a good teacher?” she asked.
I paused my class preparations to look at her, remembering her classroom behavior and the way she worked well with her peers. “Fundamentally, yes, I think you would be great. But how do you feel about failing?”
Students quickly learn that failing can have disastrous social consequences. Instead, failing should be one more learning opportunity.
Alia Wong/Civil Beat
“I have no problem telling people they fail,” she snorted as she fell into the trap I had laid.
“Not the students failing,” I replied. “Teaching is all about failing. Trying one way and watching everything you worked for fall apart. I go home most days feeling like I messed up more than I helped. Can you handle that?”
She said she had more thinking to do and I knew what she meant. As a “successful student,” encountering failure daily was far from her career dreams.
“Great job, Porter,” I mumbled to myself as she left. “Looks like you just added to the teacher shortage.”
I cannot say I blame her. Throughout our whole school tenure, failure is the worst possible outcome. Our grading practices reflect that: you pass or you fail. You can pass on a number of levels — D, C, B, or A — but there is only one F grade.
We have to get our students to believe that failure is not a permanent label, but a temporary status to move on from.
Some schools use the standards-based rubric model where students can exceed, meet and approach expectations or fall far below them.
Furthermore, our schools are designed and organized around our students’ age groups, so failing a class can create unimaginable social pressure among peers, especially in younger grades.
If the educational model is based on advancing together with our classmates and friends, failure, especially at the elementary level, breaks you out of that system. You get left behind while your peers advance. This sets up a difficult scenario for any student. It multiplies at the tail end of our schooling; what good can 18-year-olds see in having to come back to high school after all their friends have graduated?
We have to change our paradigm and start teaching that failure is an essential part of life.
The idea has begun to permeate the school hallways with the rise in popularity of what Carol Dweck calls “Growth Mindset” or what Angela Duckworth calls “Grit.” These social scientists believe that if we do not encounter failure as youths, we miss out on developing persistence in the face of difficult challenges that we will assuredly face in life.
We have to get our students to believe that failure is not a permanent label but a temporary status to move on from.
But the school system is not equipped to handle that mentality. Failure has repercussions far outside the classroom walls.
At the state and school level, schools are monitored and graded based on dropout and graduation rates. If a high school student does not graduate in four years, it counts against the school, using the new performance system known as Strive HI.
As outlined, performance on the Strive HI report merits how much intervention a school receives from the Department of Education. These reports are public and are incorporated into more than interventions. They affect the public perception of a school. Under the now-replaced No Child Left Behind system, failing schools meant a decrease in federal funding for the state. There is obvious motivation to get students to pass by any means necessary.
For teachers, failing a student is no walk in the park. Teachers are accountable for doing everything we can to ensure that students do not fail.
This translates to due diligence paperwork, documenting repeated phone calls home, parent-teacher conferences, sending students to tutoring or how you worked with other counselors and administrators to make sure this student passed. Any lapse in this process could leave a teacher open to have their grades challenged.
One teacher told me: “It feels like they do not want us to fail kids with all the paperwork we have to do.”
I previously worked with an administrator who had the motto, “Failure is not an option.” If that is the case, how can teachers feel supported if making the right call is giving an F?
This mentality has even embossed itself onto my teaching.
For me, failing a student feels like marking myself as failing. It does not matter to me if the student has been disrespectful or not listened to a word of lecture all year long; I did not find a way to reach that person. I often lay awake at night wondering if I could have reached out in a different way to that student to get them to understand the content better. Every F I give out on a test feels like I am receiving one.
This system-wide anti-failure attitude contributes to many criticisms facing our profession, such as our students are unprepared for the workforce or college. It is also completely unfair to the students who may have more pressing concerns than their next math test.
We need to realign our schools to reflect what we really should value from our educational system: fostering the next generation. Which means students have to fail from time to time to understand how to get back up.
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Ethan ʻOnipaʻa Porter is a Social Studies instructor at Campbell High School. He earned a bachelor's degree in Hawaiian Studies and Political Science and
a Certificate in Secondary Education, Social Studies, both from the University of Hawaii Manoa.