Student failure – how (and when) to deal with it

Student failure cover image

Every quarter I have to deal with student failures and while it’s never easy to accept that students will fail, it becomes easier with time. There’s a balancing act between doing what you can to get a student to pass and knowing when it’s time to give up on a student. With experience, I’ve gotten better at dealing with it but newer teachers may struggle with this.

Student failure – is it my fault?

When faced with student failure, teachers sometimes feel like it is their fault that the student isn’t passing. While this may be the case, it usually isn’t. It’s actually pretty easy to determine whether or not you have contributed to the problem, or whether it is a student-caused problem. There is also a big difference between failure on an assignment or assessment and failing the class overall.

If it’s a single assignment or assessment, take a look at the overall class scores. Are students generally doing as well as you expected? If so, it is likely not something you did or didn’t do. If you have a greater failure rate than expected, look at what students did poorly on – was it one particular question or section? This is a sign that you may need to clarify the instructions or language of the question, or you might need to reteach the concepts. This doesn’t mean that you’re a bad teacher – sometimes we aren’t as clear as we think we were, or our students just need more practice!

As far as students failing the class as a whole, look at your average grades. Do you have students earning A’s, B’s and C’s? Your teaching is likely fine, the students who are failing either need to come in for extra help or remediation or change their behavior and habits in the class.

Why do students fail?

While the popular view of student failure is often enough blamed on difficult material or poor teaching, this is often not the case. When I look at my grades, the student failures are generally caused by one of two things: the student is absent and missing instruction, or the student is present in class but not mentally present. We all have those students – they are constantly on their phones, or talking to friends, or looking at other things on their computer screens.

In 29 years of teaching, I’ve only had two students who failed who were in class and attempting to do the work. Yes, two. In 29 years I’ve had approximately 4350 students come through my doors. That’s 0.04% of all students. The rest of the failures have been due to study habits and behaviors, not an inability to learn the material.

Knowing this goes a long way towards accepting that sometimes student failure is inevitable, and it is a student’s choice to do so. Teachers tend to be helping and nurturing people and we don’t like to see any failures, especially when we know what the future consequences may be. We have to understand that it is not our choice whether or not a student will pass (assuming, of course, that we are being fair with our grading policies). I have my job in the classroom (provide a safe learning environment and present the material in a way that students can learn it), but they also have theirs (be present and focused, follow instructions and do the work as assigned).

Student failure playing games on phone

A principal that I knew long ago once made a statement about student failure that is simple but profound: “Students have the right to fail with dignity and respect.” This is very liberating for teachers, because it means that you accept that it is a student’s choice to fail. It is not the responsibility of the teacher to make sure that no students fail – some students will.

While we can do what we can to help students to pass our courses, it’s also important to know that as teachers, we have the right to allow our students to fail if that is their choice. We shouldn’t mock or belittle them when they do (the dignity and respect part), but we also can allow them to experience the natural consequences of their actions.

I have students who are never in my class – literally. There is one boy I have never met, not even once. What could I possibly do to help him pass? I have another student who comes to class once every two weeks, and when she is there she puts her head down and sleeps. That is her choice, and it is entirely within reason for me to put as much effort towards helping her to pass as she does towards passing. I know that learning French – or just getting a credit for the course – is not important to these students, so it is equally unimportant to me. I have students who are there and who do want these things, and that is where my efforts will be spent.

Helping the students who want to pass

Once we accept that student failure is often out of our control, we can start to focus on the students who DO make an effort and those we can help. This means looking at what is keeping them from passing in the first place.

If the problem is behavior – I have multiple students who have a really hard time not using their phones during class. I will direct students to put their phones in their backpacks if this is a challenge for them. If they are able to do this, it can help them to get their work done. If they are still having trouble with their digital addiction, I offer to take their phone and plug it in behind my desk. They can see it the whole time, it will be charging, and they are better able to focus.

I also offer then a paper bag to put their phone in, and let them keep the phone on their desk. This keeps them from constantly checking their notifications, but they still have physical possession of the device. Sadly, student failure is linked to phone use in so many cases and parents often don’t understand just how bad the problem is.

If the problem is missing assignments – We have an advisory period in the middle of the day. During this period, students travel to the classes they need to work in. I stamp my students’ agendas each day and write down a few assignments that I want them to work on. I also tell them that when they get to 70%, I will stop bothering them. I have a few students who have gone from 40% to 70% just from me giving them small, consistent goals to work towards each day. I like to check their category grades so I can give them assignments that will change their overall grade the most – getting the biggest bang for the buck motivates them more.

Looping assignments – When students see a huge long list of missing work, they may be overwhelmed. I have tried “looping” the weeks so instead of having 9 weeks of work to do, students can focus on one week at a time. When we come back in week 10, I work with students to do the current work – but also ask the ones who are failing to do the missing work from week 1. In week 11, we get caught up on week 2. Using Canvas makes it super-easy to reassign missing work.

Student failure sleeping in class

Student failure and giving up

As I mentioned, teachers don’t like to give up on students. But at some point, we must accept that student failure is not our fault and there are some students who won’t pass, no matter what we do.

I allow students to choose their seats for the first quarter. Second quarter, I put the ones who have failed in the front row so I can keep an eye on them. Often they will try to sneak back to sit near their friends or in the back, where they feel they can “get away” with being on their phones. I watch to see which ones do this and have a conversation with them about why they think they’re closer to me. I also tell them that if I see that they can pass the first 3 weeks of the quarter, I will consider moving them.

I have students who come in to advisory and turn in work every day. I have some who come in and do nothing. I have told my students that so long as I am bothering them to come in and do work, I still believe that they can pass. It’s when I stop bugging them that they know I have given up on them. They’ve shown me that this is their choice, and I will allow them to fail with dignity and respect. Student failures after I’ve done everything I can to help isn’t my fault or problem – it’s theirs.

One of my colleagues has had a similar experience this year – many student failures due to apathy and phone addiction. He will talk to these students, ask them if they need the credit and plan to graduate from high school, and let them make their choice.

Students who want the credit and make an effort sit in the front and center of his room, while those who don’t care sit on the outside where they can sleep or watch TikTok or play games, so long as they are quiet. This can also work, but I would send a note home to alert the parents that their child has chosen to do so and that you will not keep them from their chosen path. The parents may have a very different view than the student does!

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