Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

By Failing Our Students – Are WeFailing Our Students?

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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.

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