Sunday, January 26, 2014

Allowing kids to fail

A big part of why I do what I do is because I care about kids. I want to help them navigate the angst-filled journey that is adolescence, and to help them become good, productive, compassionate, responsible, conscientious global citizens. Sometimes though, I have to express my caring by being tough on them.
Many kids struggle to learn personal responsibility. When they don't meet with success in school, it is not uncommon to hear the blame be put on the teachers or some extenuating circumstances. Other times, they will try to bargain, claiming that they understand that they messed up, but if I bail them out this time they promise they'll do better the next time. There have been a couple of occasions, one recent, in which this has happened. The students tried to gain my sympathy, telling me that they knew they should have done all of those homework assignments or they knew they screwed up by not turning in that essay until two months after the fact, but that if they didn't pass my class for the term they would not be able to participate in a sport. One even tried to play the "You're an athlete too" card, hoping I'd empathize, but I told him I wasn't buying into that since I always kept up with my grades and never put myself in this situation. The other student tried telling me that she was sure I could get permission to change the grade (I got her essay on the day grades were finalized for the term), but I had to tell her that this was not the issue; the fact was that I wouldn't feel right about changing the grade. We have policies in place which the students are well aware of, and I had already stretched that for her in the first place due to special circumstances. I tried to be as gentle as I could, reminding her that she did well in the first term and I was sure she could get herself back on track for the rest of the year.

This student was distressed, appealing to a guidance counselor, but I knew I had to stay firm. In her eyes, I probably seem mean and cold-hearted, but I hope that someday she can understand that I do this not simply out of a sense of fairness, but because I care about the type of person she is going to become. So often these days we read about how kids struggle to stand up for themselves and solve their own problems because they are incredibly overprotected. Their parents are so afraid that their children will fail and feel badly about themselves that they make it impossible for the kids to fail or bail them out of any kind of trouble. While kids certainly need to know that their parents will be there for them and support them no matter what, protecting them in this way ultimately leaves them unable to cope with the difficult realities of life and prevents them from being able to pick themselves up after experiencing failure.
Making the problem worse are the teachers who also give kids an out. Though it is the responsibility of teachers to never give up on their students and to remain encouraging, as my cooperating teacher from my student teaching days told me, "Sometimes kids have to be allowed to fail." I have told struggling students before that the student-teacher relationship has to be a two-way street--I want so badly for them to succeed, but they have to want it for themselves, too. I'm there to give them the tools they need, but they have to use them. I'm not there to be a hand-holder. And if I make an exception like this that gives the student a way to avoid failing because of poor choices she made, I will only be setting a bad precedent. This way out becomes expected not only from me but from others as well.

One strategy that we could probably all try to emphasize more with kids (whether we are teachers or parents) is to remind them that just because they experience failure, that does not make them failures. Even though they may have made poor choices, there is an opportunity to recognize them and learn from them, and we have to help show them how to do that. Kids can't learn this if we bail them out of trouble every time, but hopefully will if we stay firm in our expectations of them while also showing them that we are positive about their abilities to meet those expectations if they make good choices.

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