A failing grade can be an opportunity to help a student understand what they have to do to succeed.
For Administrators

Can You Ever Be Comfortable With a Student Failing Your Class?

By Brian Gatens March 17, 2016

During my first year in the classroom, I had several students who didn’t complete multiple homework assignments, didn’t study for tests and rarely participated in class. I responded by meeting with them several times, contacting their parents, offering multiple opportunities to make up missed assignments — extending myself to them above and beyond the expectations for my class.

A failing grade can be an opportunity to help a student understand what they have to do to succeed.And, as expected, I had to give them failing grades for the class. I didn’t like failing them, but it felt unfair to offer them anything beyond what they had earned in the class.

A few days later, my principal intoned to me, “When a student fails, a teacher fails.” But I didn’t feel I had failed the students — the earned grade was the earned grade. Still it chewed at me, and all these years later I still haven’t found a comfortable answer to this question: When is it okay to be comfortable with having a student fail your class?

These scenarios spring to mind:

A chance for redemption

If approached properly, a failing grade offers a chance to get the student moving up the stairs, rather than down. You have to meet with the child to talk about why they failed, what they could have done differently and what their next steps have to look like.

It’s most important to frame this as an opportunity for the child to improve performance and earn a shot at redemption. You have to lay a path to success for the student, even if there’s a chance they won’t walk it.

For me, there’s nothing worse than a child growing comfortable with failure. One failure is toxic enough for a child; absorbing failure after failure is just plain damaging.

A necessary lesson

Sometimes a failing grade — and the accompanying difficult conversations — is just what students need so they can learn to avoid such situations. This isn’t the brutal idea of “teaching them a lesson.” Instead, it reinforces the principle that discomfort is necessary for movement.

You have to respond when a student fails. A non-response, or, even worse, a lackadaisical attitude, encourages the student not to care about the grade. Attention is oxygen to a child, so a strong response from you will reinforce the importance of succeeding in the classroom.

Deep-rooted resistance

It’s easy to dismiss a failing student as simply lazy or resistant. While that may be the case from time to time, that conclusion should be drawn only after you’ve exhausted all other reasons. Perhaps there’s a hidden learning disability, instability at home, preoccupation with difficult situations or some other challenge that prevents the child from learning.

Frame the lack of academic success not as the disease, but as a symptom of a larger problem. The very best, and well-respected, teachers I know avoid the easy answer as to why a student is (or isn’t) working. Instead, they look deeply at what else is going on in the child’s life.

Don’t let it get personal

It’s natural to blame the person delivering bad news. You’ll have to repeatedly remind the student and family that you are only the messenger of the child’s poor performance, and to be strident that they are responsible for their grades and success.

They may push back on what you have done. Be prepared to show them an itemized list of what you have done for the student. If you have treated the child with respect and caring the entire year, you’ll find that the news is taken relatively well.

This effort will pay off because it proves you didn’t abandon the child to poor performance. It’s easy to hang in there with somebody who is doing well, but it takes dedication and perseverance to be there for someone who is having a hard time.

Failure is hard on a student and a teacher, but it can be an opportunity to connect with the student. Just remember there is often more going on than what meets the eye, and that your response probably will not produce immediate success. Lay the seeds, work hard for the child (and the family) and believe that good things will come from all your hard work.

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