Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

By Failing Our Students – Are WeFailing Our Students?


I may have to give my first-ever F this semester. I won’t go into any details, of course. But here is the thing: when we fail a student (give them an F grade) aren’t we failing our student? Aren’t we the teachers failing to do our job of helping the student pass our course?

I have been thinking of this for some time and getting useful advice on Facebook from colleagues. Feeling restless and guilt-ridden and helpless.

I read Sean Michael Morris’ piece where he advocates for a pedagogy of collegiality and I found myself agreeing with him that we need to stop blaming students for the failings of higher ed. And I would say our own.

A student does not suddenly get an F. It is really easy to pass my classes. Just do the work. Do it on time or do it late, you can get a grade. Something. When a student isn’t doing the work, work I know is within their abilities, I should be looking much more closely at what is going on, beyond asking if they are able to login to Blackboard (I just use it for notifications, emails and grades), create a blog, or even access the internet from home. Beyond looking into their eyes and checking that their eyes are focused and they can look me straight in the eye. Beyond noticing their absence and sending them emails. Beyond all that. There has to be more.

In a recent discussion among faculty, someone suggested that relationships between faculty and students should resemble parental care. I know this can sound patronizing but it can also be beautiful. I know I normally have maternal feelings towards my students (or even as an undergrad, I was said to have them towards people I supervised in extracurricular activities). I am now a mother (biologically speaking) and I think my maternal feelings towards students continues. This seems counter to collegiality, doesn’t it? But the focus is on care. And if I were working with a colleague on something and they weren’t delivering I would try to understand why rather than give up on them.

Some people advised me that I can’t win them all. That some kids don’t want to be helped. That sometimes you have to focus on the rest of them and let this one go or they suck it all out of all the others. But if it was my child, one among several, could I take that attitude? I don’t think so. If my child didn’t come to see me for days on end would I stop calling to check on them?

Jesse Stommel writes “There is no place for shame in the work of education” and I am not writing this to shame others. Maybe a little to shame myself. But  more so to push myself further. What can I do next time to avoid this? Is there anything left for me to do NOW to salvage this?

What I won’t do is accept a deficit model of thinking about students. It may be a student’s fault they didn’t do the work and got an F, but what lies behind not doing the work? Even if it’s lack of responsibility, that should be something we can work on. But it could be worse. It could be something more important and needs more help. Or it could be something simpler we can work on. But I don’t know because I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t. But I will from now on. And this is to remind myself.


  1. Maha, just a quick note to say that I totally relate to what you are saying here. I look at having to given an F as an indication that I need to work harder on the FLEXIBILITY of the class, finding ways to expand the range of options, activities, choices, so that even a student who starts out with a really minimal interest in the class (or even no interest at all; people take my class as a graduation requirement) will end up having enough interest to do the work to pass the class. Or else it’s about communication, and I need to find more/better ways to communicate more clearly with every student. I haven’t had to give an F in a couple of years now, and I am very happy about that; I know the classes are more accommodating to a wider range of students now than they were before. As a general rule, I learn how to improve my classes from the students who are most unhappy with them… and I always feel guilty about that, because after I make changes to the class, I always think to myself, “Wow, if I had done that earlier, student X would have gotten a lot more out of the class.”
    Anyway, this is something I think about a lot. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here!

    • Thanks Laura. Flexibility and communication – yes! At least the latter (as I am quite flexible already but one could always improve that, too, where it makes sense)

  2. Maha, can you think of anything you missed with the student? Not something that caused the student to try and please you, rather some sort motivator that catches their own desire to participate. This is hard because regardless of their willingness to participate you feel the lack of connection is your responsibility–the voice in you is saying “I can fix this, I was trained for it, I WANT it.” And it didn’t happen.

    This happened with a few of my apprentices and though it’s an untested thought, I may have tried too hard? “Connect with me and I can teach you” was what I might have been projecting and one apprentice finally told me to back-off and let him learn on his own. And thinking about it later realized that’s exactly the way I learned.

    There’s a curious sensation sometimes even in adult courses where it feels someone’s trying to “teach” me. Get it from doctors too. It might be my inner juvenile delinquent reacting to authority figures except it doesn’t feel irrational or rebellious, something just sounds wrong. Maybe I should do a dialog analysis on a recent conversation where the spooky teacher voice appeared? It does have something to do with the difference between telling and speaking.

    We don’t always connect with people but since teachers aren’t wired to accept that as a useful bit of advice I won’t say it again.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: