Failure! In the course of each semester, I pause just before midterm during a class to chat privately with each of my students. Having such talks allows me to better understand even those students who seem to want to avoid the spotlight of the front row seats. Usually, they are the quiet ones. Often, they are my students with the best excuses for missing class.
This past Thursday I had my quiet interviews. Each one began with my request to be given their work assigned in lieu of mid-term exams. Not one of my thirteen students had completed their work.
Of course, I didn’t know that when my first student and I spoke. I had found him to be quiet but interested, capable but unlikely to put forth any extra effort. I also noted that he had been absent too many times.
“Do you realize that you’re on the verge of failing the class due to your absences?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered, “I’ve had family matters…”
Although I hear that often, I try not to discount that excuse in case it is true. Instead, I ask whether that means they should take the class next semester and drop out of this one. Those with serious problems often elect to do just that.
“During class,” I told him, “I want you to write to me about what you think you should do and what you think you want to do. Let me have that at the end of class.” Before sending him off, I assured him that I didn’t like losing my students and I would work with him.
Then came the rest of my back rowers.
“I have too much work,” said a tiny young woman. “My job makes it hard for me to find time to do my assignments.”
“How many hours do you work each week?” I asked.
“Maybe twenty or twenty one,” she told me.
“What do you do when you’re not working?” I asked. Figuring she might work four hours a day five days a week, I wondered whether her evenings could be spent studying. She was taking two other classes in addition to mine.
She shrugged, then told me she had problems with her other classes too. Her remarks led me to think that she wasn’t motivated to go to school. Immediately, I wondered whether I was losing my ability to inspire uninspired students. Shaking off that thought, I gave her a one-week extension.
Then came the others. None had their work. Each excuse was similarly disheartening.
Finally, one young man asked whether he could bring it to me the next day. He’d left it in his girlfriend’s car. And she, who always sat next to him in class, was absent.
“Sure,” I said, pleased that someone had done the work I’d mentioned in every class prior to this class as essential to their mid term grade.
As my students filed out, one remained. The young man I’d asked to write an appraisal of himself and his performance had been diligent. Clearly written, his thoughts filled an entire page. At the top half were notes “To the teacher.” At the bottom, “To myself.” What he wrote is something I will reflect on each time I sense another student is wrestling with similar issues. Hopefully, it will help all of us to avoid failure.
What follows are his exact words. They will serve as reminders of why he will be missed.
To: The teacher
I feel that what you was telling me when we spoke was right and made perfect since. Why would I dig myself in a hole even with the issue going on at home and at life. I shouldn’t hurt myself as I’m doing now…So, the option of dropping the class and not failing would be better than keep going through all this and failing.
Knowing that I have issues going on at home and life, I should of been more smarter about taking the class and putting myself through a rough time in this class despite, if I feel like [it,] I can dig myself out. And even if I like the class I should drop the class to make it better on myself. Rather then being dumb about the situation I should be smart about it. I agree with my teacher one-hundred percent about everything.