Alternatives to Failing Your StudentsBy Bill Page
“I have to fail kids
who won’t learn”
Kids don’t fail; they are failed. And what they fail is what schools and teachers are responsible for teaching.
Among problems facing every teacher, none is more perplexing, pernicious, and persistent than teaching students who don’t, or won’t learn. Teachers dread having to give F’s; they are humiliating, marginalizing, and devastating to kids. Teachers try their best to avoid failing kids by offering extra opportunities, alternatives, by fudging on grading procedures, and by arbitrary marking. Failing students represents an assault on the teacher’s role and self-esteem. No student wants to fail, and no teacher wants students to fail, but they are related routine occurrences and a vicious cycle.
Educators are in charge
Some kids skip happily to school; some kids just skip school, but that doesn’t alter the fact that students are conscripts not volunteers. Traditional “schooling” mandates every child from six to sixteen years of age attend school. And if as many believe, students must learn a common core of knowledge and skills that educational authorities deem essential, then the school’s responsibility is to gather, bundle, and uniformly teach these so-called essentials to every student, including the most reluctant. Simply put, students are compelled to attend classes and teachers are paid to teach them.
Failure to learn is the school’s problem
Students behave in ways they have learned—ways that make sense to them. Improving kids’ learning behavior is the task of school. They learn according to their life experiences. Good learning skills and habits, along with compliant social behaviors, are not conditions of school attendance or a prerequisite of a student’s acceptance. Saying, “The kid is not ready for school,” sounds a bit like a doctor who complains, “All I see are sick people.” By contrast, asserting that, “The school is not ready for the kid,” establishes the school’s responsibility to create “readiness.” Schools and the teachers, not the kids, have the “readiness problem.”
Failure is a shared relationship
The traditional concept of teaching holds the teacher responsible for students acquiring specified skills and knowledge. But if the teacher is responsible, then the student is not responsible. The teacher can’t learn times tables or learn to spell for students. Learning is a personal, individual experience for which only the student can be responsible. Learning requires the active cooperation of the students. That doesn’t mean, however, that the teacher’s role is not essential in facilitating the learning. Teaching is a partnership in which the teacher and learner interact in an integrated, cooperative, collaborative process.
Teaching-learning is a relationship
The educational bureaucracy predetermines and imposes a domination relationship in which the school and teachers literally make the rules and have all the power to accomplish their teaching mission, but students have no power to achieve learning. It is this lopsided relationship that causes many learning problems. School learning is difficult as evidenced by the fact that most kids don’t get A’s and B’s; they get C’s and many get below that. If school learning were not difficult, everyone would get much better grades.
The primary causes of student failure
Requiring teachers to teach according to a preset plan with a lock-stepped, grade-level/and age-grouping, one-size-fits-all curriculum, and fixed schedule leaves the student fully submissive. The dominant-submissive relationship permits students only two viable choices: 1.) Compliance, which ranges from total acceptance of imposed procedures to passive aggression; and 2.) Defiance, which ranges from psychic withdrawal to obstinate, full-fledged resistance. Significant school learning cannot be coerced. A school system’s authoritarian teaching dictates are at the heart of students’ failure to learn.
Students fail because of school structure
Teachers receive students as assigned and begin teaching them as they are according to the mandated procedures. Then, teachers are expected to teach their lessons by coercing students to