Monday, January 29, 2007

Failure in School: Whose Fault Is It?

I've got to admit, I really enjoy reading Dennis Fermoyle's blog, From the Trenches of Public Ed.. I find myself nodding in agreement to much of what he writes about. In one post, he pulls an except from his own book.
I think it's reasonable to say that when teachers are making a real effort to engage their students, the responsibility for trying to learn should lie with the students. But we have been brainwashed. We have been taught to blame ourselves when students refuse to try. It sounds so noble for a teacher to say, "If any of my students fail, then I have failed," but I'm convinced that this is actually harmful. An example I used in the book I wrote illustrates just where this "nobility" is getting us.

I attended a workshop in which the presenter, a teacher-turned- college-professor, told the story of a sixth grade girl with whom he had worked. The girl had refused to do a required assignment. The presenter said he tried everything he could to encourage her, but she wouldn't do it. Finally, he asked her why she wouldn't just give it a try. She told him, "Because if I try, it won't be very good,and I'll be a failure; but if I don't try, then you're the failure."

I think is is important to stress Fermoyle's first line, "I think it's reasonable to say that when teachers are making a real effort to engage their students, the responsibility for trying to learn should lie with the students." I agree that teachers have a responsibility to engage and inspire learners. I am in no way excusing bad teaching. But I recognize that, even when good teachers are trying their best, they all too often can relate to the selection above.

Why is it that good teachers beat themselves up over their student's shortcomings? Students spend roughly 45 minutes a day with a single teacher, which is a little over 3% of their entire day. In fact, kids only spend 6.5 hours (or 27%) of their day in school, and 73% at home. So why are individual teachers expected to be so responsible for students' academic motivation, social health, emotional well-being and character development?

I talk to my students about responsibility for their actions. In response to "Who is ultimately responsible for your own learning?" most will respond, "I am." However, do they really believe that? If they don't turn in an assignment, I am expected to keep track, make a list, recopy the sheets, and schedule a time for them to redo a lab or use the supplies. If they don't pay attention in class, I am expected to stay after school to re-teach the concepts missed. If a student misbehaves, I need to have them serve a detention with me after school. If they receive a failing grade, I am the one who has to go to the principal to explain myself to the administration and to the parent. What message does this send to the student? I agree with the sixth grader above. The message is: if students do not try, then it is the teacher who is labeled the failure and is responsible for fixing the situation.

I love my job, and I work far beyond my 6.5 "contract hours" per day. However, I want to give my time to creating engaging lessons, making meaningful assessments, giving thoughtful feedback, and helping those students who make an effort, but truly struggle. Most afternoons, I give my time to various extracurricular activities to help develop the "whole child." Every hour I spend on a single student, is an hour taken away from the other 99% of my team. I know that is all part of the deal of teaching, but less than 5% of my students take up over 90% of my efforts. I do believe all students can learn, and I want to make a difference, but I am struggling with finding the time to make it happen.

I'm saddened that report cards are no longer considered feedback on student progress. They have become some sort of permanent record of monumental importance, that teachers must remain in virtually constant contact with parents, as to carefully craft the single letter that will remain etched in ink. It is no longer enough to send a progress report every six weeks. Teachers are expected to immediately contact the parent with any drop in percentage and initiate interventions to reverse low performance, in the form of behavior contracts, modified assignments, alternate assessments, and additional help. I am to happy to oblige, but it all of this takes time away from meaningful pedagogical contributions to the rest of the class. As I watch some of my apathetic students, I wonder - what happened to the students' role in all of this?


Seanoss said...

Very interesting post. I have often thought about where the blame lies when a student fails. I know that when I am grading papers or tests and a student does not do well I reflect back over what I could have improved on in my teaching.

"Did i cover the material in enough detail? Did I allow for different learning styles? Was I unclear in certain areas?" And if there is a trend through the class, then this helps me retool my lessons and improve my teaching. But when the majority of a class displays understanding of the material and there are no extenuating circumstances at some point the student needs to take responsibility for actually fronting up and completing the work themselves.

I have noticed a trend of more and more responsibilities being placed on teachers and schools. Responsibilities that were traditionally the purview of the home and family. By placing the fault for poor scores and grades with teachers we are not doing the students any favours, but rather are teaching that there is not a need for personal responsibility.

Unknown said...

You do make some interesting points, however statistics are often skewed in some way or another, and when you say:

"In fact, kids only spend 6.5 hours (or 27%) of their day in school, and 73% at home."

I have to wonder whether or not you took into consideration that the majority of that time is spent sleeping (at least, it is if kids are getting the supposed recommended 8 hours of sleep every night that they should be getting).

Just food for thought, regarding the numbers you were throwing out there.

Anonymous said...

It could also be because of the teaching style. I don't understand most of the work one of my teachers gives me because of his style. All of the boys in my class are hands on learners and all this teacher does is make us copy note which does really stay in my mind. We have to find a fun way on our time to remember the information.