Student Success and Failure

“If you feel bored with doing this math, imagine how you’ll feel if you have to take it again.”

Some students pass and some students fail.

One of the hardest lessons that I have had to learn as a teacher is about the necessity of failing students.     I want my students to succeed.      I spend a lot of time encouraging my students.    I start off the class with talk about dream jobs, and I keep extra credit going all quarter long to help them trying to achieve more.  I spell out what it will take to pass each test, and what is necessary to pass the class.

Most of my students go on to succeed… and some start to like math in ways they never knew was possible.   Whether the student is learning math just for the sake of a technical program, or if whether they are filling requirements before moving on to something different:  in either case,  they will have learned some important lessons about how to categorize, how to look at problems, and how to study successfully.

And of course, some students will fail.  Sometimes they fail due to their life circumstances – while this is tough, I also know that they will probably retry and succeed.    Some fail due to fear.   These students are afraid of failure, or don’t want to ask any questions.   These are the students who get caught by their own psychology:   they get caught in a cycle of feeling guilty about not being able to do math, then they feel guilty about not working on their math more.   Of course, the cycle of guilt and self-recrimination tends to remove any emotional advantage to study.  These are the students who need the most help – they can succeed, but you have to be able to catch them, and they will be very quiet about their difficulties.    My experience says that if you give them extra work, they will resent you for about 5 minutes before they’ll be grateful for giving them a little momentum.

Then there are the students who fail due to apathy.   No matter what, some students won’t really engage in the class… they won’t do their work, or they will try to get by with the least possible effort.   Then they will try to bargain or beg themselves into a passing grade.

When students earn a failing grade, it is best to let it stand.   You will not be doing them or their future teacher any favors if you pass them on for reasons of mere sympathy.   Otherwise, they won’t learn that their habits have consequences.   One excuse that scares the hell out of me is – “You can’t fail me, I need a 3.0 so I can be a nurse.”   Realistically, I don’t want anyone who can’t do basic algebra doing dosage calculations.

In any case, it is still difficult after investing so much time in my students to not feel some sense of responsibility for their success or failure.   But by the time they’re through with class, they students will have earned whatever grade they will get.


I have to let them go sometime.


Student Excuses

It made me laugh last quarter when a student with less than a 50% attendance rate complained that he was having trouble remembering things.    He asked if there was anything he could do to help with that. I told him to show up to class, and actually stay til the end.   Somehow, he never got the message.

Students will try to get away with things.   I will tell you a deep, dark secret about most teachers:   we don’t care.

I don’t care if your dog is sick.

I don’t care if your grandmother dies.  Again.

I don’t care if you are going to an interview.   Although why you would schedule an interview during your class time is beyond me.

If a student is gone, I am not going to track them down to give them the lecture notes and latest homework assignment.    This is one of the reasons why I like teaching at a community college rather than a high school… I can expect students to behave like adults.

I’ve gotten all kinds of involved stories to explain why they weren’t there.   My personal favorite excuse was “my boyfriend is in a coma,” delivered so cheerfully that I wasn’t sure if it was an admission of guilt, or just the first thing that popped into their head as a plausible excuse for a two day absence.    Considering this was the third week in a row that she had skipped classes, my bullshit radar was already on overdrive.

I must admit, I had to learn my lesson about student excuses the hard way.    A few quarters back, I had one student who came in during the second week of classes and begged to be allowed to enroll in the class.  He was painfully sincere, and he seemed like he genuinely wanted to take the class.   So I signed off on his enrollment, and started that days lecture.  The next week, he didn’t show up for the exam… or even for any of the classes that week.   When he finally showed up in class again, he asked to be allowed to make up the exam and the homework.   I went ahead and set up a makeup exam for him.  He showed up for two days of classes that week, and skipped out on the makeup exam.   Two more weeks go by before I see him again.   He tells me a sob story about how he ended up needing to take an extra night-shift so he could pay his rent, and that his pregnant wife was coming to term soon.   Again, he begged me to allow him to make up his missed exams.  I told him that he had a week to make up his exams, to which he promised me very earnestly that he would take them the very next day.     He didn’t show up again until the week before finals.   He asked to take all of the exams, quizzes and homework he missed in the previous nine weeks.   He begged.  He pleaded.   He apologized.   And you know what I told him?  “No, you can’t take all of the class in a single week.”     Incredibly, he actually stayed for classes that entire week.  He also took the final exam (incidentally, the ONLY exam he took in the class).   He earned a whopping 12% on the final.

He was mad at me for failing him.

It was after that, that I started asking for doctor’s notes.

I know that my student’s live complicated lives.  It is part of being a student..  Life happens.  So deal with it!