Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Freedom to Fail: One of the Fundamental Rights of Education

Part II of II

I recently interviewed a candidate for a teaching position. The candidate had recently graduated in only three years at the top of her class at a major university with a perfect 4.0 average. In high school, a very large high school, she graduated as valedictorian with, you guessed it, a 4.0 average. During my interview with her she probably was the smartest person in the room. As I explained to her later in the week she didn’t get the job, the disappointment emanated from the telephone and I knew she was crushed. Her voice trembled and she had no idea how to respond. After a moment of awkward silence, I proceeded to encourage her and to recommend another school searching for a qualified teacher for a similar position.

I thought about her reaction in the hours following the conversation and I was reminded of a former student of mine. This 9th grade student had a perfect 4.0 throughout his illustrious and storied academic career and anything less than an A simply was out of the question for him and for his parents. One particular grading period he earned a B in my class because he failed to follow instructions on a major project and because his test scores weren’t stellar. Needless to say, he and his parents were devastated. No one in the family could come to terms with a B on the transcript much less a B permanently lodged in the family history. They begged and pleaded for mercy, for a second chance; they begged and pleaded for an A because in their minds a B equated to failure. I explained as best I could to the student and the parents that a B in 9th grade was a relatively inexpensive way for the student to experience failure, albeit ever so slight, and to find a way to respond in a positive way. It would be much easier to cope with some degree of failure in college or in the workplace if he had similar high school experiences with which he had to wrestle, I explained. Initially they went away unhappy but the parents told me later in the year that the incident turned into a valuable learning experience for the whole family.

Should someone along the way have given my teaching candidate a B in Geometry so she could handle let-down later in life? Should we make it almost impossible for students to achieve GPA perfection? Of course not. Should we think twice before giving out free extra credit, inflating grades and the like because of ramifications later in students’ lives? Perhaps.

I am quite proud of the candidate who went through the interview process with me. She is brilliant and will be a terrific teacher for someone somewhere. I hope the first real failure she’s ever experienced, though, doesn’t defeat her and doesn’t discourage her from putting herself out there again. After watching countless kids deal with various hardships and obstacles ranging from their first B to filing to get a job offer after their first interview, I’ve devoted a great deal of energy to this issue. I believe it is imperative that when a student fails, to whatever degree and in whatever venue, responsible and caring adults help the student back to his or her feet and then help the student respond appropriately to the failure. Students must be taught that with no risk comes no reward and that setbacks and failure are a part of life. Finally, students must be made to believe that failures do not define a person but rather the way one responds to failures defines a person. We as educators must grant our students the freedom to fail and then supply them with the tools they need to recover and to become successful later.

1 comment:

hmulholland said...

If the 9th grade student is who I’m thinking of, I’d like to piggy back on your story and encourage others to value the lesson learned therein.

Nathan had this student in the 9th grade and then passed him along to me. Over the next three years he took perhaps 6 or 7 more courses from me, and I believe one more from Nathan in the 11th grade. Thus, I had a lot of contact with the student and his family. After the initial resentment and impact of a “B,” there was a certain sense of peacefulness that became part of the student’s persona. He still didn’t like to get a “B” or, frankly, take second place in anything he did, but he did learn to do it with a certain grace. While still today he may not recognize the debt he owes you for that seminal event, I’m going to bet you a shiny new nickel that if he has not yet then one day he’ll be presented with a similar situation which will require him to make an equally important ethical or moral decision. Because of you, my friend, I have every confidence he’ll make the right one.

p.s. While dad was originally hostile over the situation, he eventually became a pretty good friend to me.