Wednesday (5/25/2016) of this week, we received the results for the recently taken Algebra 1 STAAR exam. Every year, the state of Texas distributes the exam to high school freshmen (and to those who have yet to pass it). Students receive scores based on their performance and it is part of our duty to tell them if they pass or “failed.” I don’t love it, but the results usually line up with student effort, so there aren’t too many surprises. The results are a decent representation of a natural consequence related to student effort. The exam is a lot like life. Work hard, get a good result. Mess around, you’re going to regret it.
But this post isn’t about the STAAR exam. This post is about an underlying issue that isn’t receiving enough attention.
I have a lot of wonderful, hard-working students in my classes. I also have a lot of wonderful, not-so-hard-working students in my class…actually, let me rephrase that: I have some students who can’t stand to struggle for 10 seconds before giving up. I have students who don’t comprehend the word “work” beyond the understanding of an activity that is tied to a paycheck. Work ethic and ownership go hand-in-hand, and the lack of both in classrooms (and society) today is grossly frustrating. But, I don’t quickly blame the students.
She walked into my 6th period class. For the sake of privacy, we’ll call her Megan. Megan is the type of student you wish for in every class. On time, prepared, great personality, focuses, asks good questions, turns in quality work, and so on. She is the type of student I don’t really worry about not passing the Algebra 1 STAAR, because I know she knows the material, and I know she has what it takes. The problem is, everybody has bad days, and on test day, Megan wasn’t feeling it.
When results came back, there was an all-caps ‘NO’ next to her name. I knew she was going to be crushed. I was crushed for her. She hadn’t slipped up once in my class all year. If any student “deserved” to pass, it was her. But she didn’t, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to tell her. She came in with the same bubbly smile and the standard “Hi, Mr. G!” then took a seat to get started on her warm up, just like every other day. As everybody got seated I explained to them that the test results were in. Immediate shuffling, low grumblings of fear, and nervous excitement followed. With Megan’s result in mind, I led with telling the students that no score will ever define them as a person. I shared with them that it took me THREE ATTEMPTS to pass my math test. I let them know about a test prep course we would be offering as soon as school was out. I shared all of this to make it seem like not such a big deal if they didn’t pass. I was speaking to the entire class, but really I was talking to Megan.
As I called each student back, one-by-one, I quietly told them yes or no. For the ‘yes’ students, a quiet fist bump and a smile ended our meeting. The recipe for the ‘no’ students was a make-shift graph showing how close they were to hopefully instill some confidence and some encouragement during the bad news. When Megan came to my desk, she was smiling, nervously. I smiled back but shared, “Megan, you didn’t pass, but I have some great news.” She may as well have gone deaf in that moment. She wasn’t hearing a word I said. As I spoke, I saw her eyes get glassy, then red. After a few seconds, tears took over her cheeks. She was quiet, but her emotion was loud and clear. I told her to step out into the hall with me.
The day I gave students their results, I also made phone calls home to parents of students who were in danger of failing my class for the semester. It’s a routine practice that isn’t fun, but it’s just part of the process. One particular phone call stood out to me. And by “stood out to me,” I really mean boiled my blood and made me realize I will not save my child from every pitfall in front of them.
The phone call was to the parent of a student who we will call Carl. Carl is a nice kid, but he cares waaaay more about looking cool and being funny than he does about math. For a majority of the school year, Carl didn’t know when to work and when to play (there absolutely is a time to play in class). Simply put, Carl took no ownership of his work. Naturally, his grade struggled. A week prior to this phone call, I spoke to his father about giving Carl some makeup work. I gave Carl the work.
Now a week later, here I was on the phone again with his dad, notifying him of Carl’s possible failure in my class. His dad asked if there was any work Carl could do to get his grade up. First, this is a great question FOR THE STUDENT TO ASK PRIOR TO THE WEEK BEFORE SCHOOL IS OUT. Second, the answer was “yes,” and he had already received it. Though these were my feelings, I simply told his dad I had already given the work to Carl but had yet to get it back. --PAY ATTENTION-- His dad then proceeded to tell me to take the same work I had just given to Carl down to the office for him (dad) to pick up for Carl. He specifically said, “Please don’t give it to Carl, I will pick it up.” WTF?? Are you kidding me?? So, hold up, I am supposed to regather the work and take it down the office even though I had just done this? I had just finished desperately working to pick a student up from tears, a student who defines hard work and focus, a student who I literally have no power in helping, a student who is willing to put in the work, to put her head down and focus but is just out of luck in this situation, yet, I am supposed to be like, “Oh, Carl needs the same packet again even though he decided not to do it in class? Even though he again decided not to do it at home? I am supposed to reinforce the problem by not letting Carl experience the consequence of choice?” Give. Me. A. Break.
I am not the parent. I am the teacher. If I can, I accommodate the parent request. I don’t tell you what to feed your child, how to discipline your child, or how to let your child experience life. But, regardless of these three truths, I need parents to realize that it’s necessary to let your child fail. Read it again: It. Is. Necessary. To. Let. Your. Child. Fail.
The actual phone call with Carl’s dad isn’t what angers me. What angers me is witnessing the reinforcement of a massive societal problem: people, young and old, not willing to accept the consequences of their actions. People not willing to fix their mistake, knowing how to right their wrongs, and not capable of handling a tough situation. So, here are some ideas for us all to consider:
Let your child fall—they will learn to pick themselves up.
Let them experience getting burned—they will learn how to handle pain.
Let your child get betrayed—they will learn to choose their relationships wisely.
Let them get a scraped knee—they will carefully navigate their next steps.
Let them experience losing—regardless of what 2016 says, life has winners and losers.
Let your child fail a class—next year they will consider putting forth more effort.
I realize that there are some students who have to deal with circumstances outside of the classroom that makes their life inside the classroom difficult. But even for them, their environment isn’t an excuse. Some of the toughest, most successful students I know come from situations I can’t even make up.
Parents, you might think you’re doing your child a favor by jumping out of your chair at every misstep. You might get the urge to say, “But that’s my baby.” Right, and they will be a 30 year old baby if you keep saying that. Do not enable excuses, empower their execution. Be a part of your child’s progress, not a part of their problem.