Monday, July 10, 2017

The Value of Failure

Failure is an excellent teacher.

It's weird, being a mom and a teacher. I mean, I deal with children at the minimum FOURTEEN HOURS A DAY, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK. That's assuming both of my kids sleep through the night. Which is no given.

I'm constantly on, constantly a role model, constantly caring for others than myself. But I'm not writing this blog to vent. (Cue the contented sigh from my microscopic group of loyal readers.)

Before I became a parent, I figured I knew it all. I'd been teaching for six years, and I'd observed what I considered to be parental pitfalls, mistakes I KNEW I'd never make with my own offspring. My kids would never eat fast food, would watch a maximum of 30 minutes of TV per week, would never throw a fit or have a rotten attitude or forget to do homework or leave a lunchbox behind at school.

Of course, the minute I was actually in charge of a small human who had her own personality separate from the one I was trying to cultivate, I realized how naive I'd been. Every "mistake" I'd witnessed other parents making were made by me, plus a million new ones I didn't know existed. This parenting gig is HARD, so hard, and there's no right way to do it.

So I have empathy beyond belief for the parents of the kids I teach. That judgmental vibe I had going on in my early days is gone, replaced by understanding and concern. When a parent expresses shock at their kid's behavior, I believe them (usually).

That said, there is one pattern I've observed as a teacher that gives me pause. (I'm going to say pattern rather than pitfall, even though I really kind of want to say pitfall, but I'm trying to be nice.) Many parents today are trying to shield their kids from all unhappiness and pain, and this tendency is ironically hurting their children.

When a student wastes classroom time and neglects to do an assignment, they'll get a zero in my grade book. A zero is the kiss of death. It can take a solid A down to a C or D instantly. But I'm fair. I accept late work all the way until the end of the term, and I don't even deduct points. My policy is considered too lenient by many. But I've structured it this way so a student will instantly see the logical consequence of their action (I didn't do my work, therefore my grade fell from an A to a C), and then feel empowered to fix it (they can actually watch their grade go back up to an A on their student portal in real time when I put the new grade in).

The ultimate goal is to teach them to be autonomous, independent, tenacious, and not afraid of failure. So they can grow into an adult who has a bad day at work, goes home, dusts themselves off, and comes back the next day ready to make things better.

But what happens more often than not is the minute the zero goes in the grade book, I get an email. Parents can set up the grade book so they get notifications when their kid's grade falls below a certain point. Which is fantastic. I adore when parents are involved in their child's education, and you know I'll sign up for those alerts when my own kids are in middle school. (Because, after all, middle schoolers are not known for always being so forthcoming with information about their school day.)

But the email I get often asks, "Why does Bobby Lee have a zero on that assignment?"

Let's think about this for a minute. If I put the grades in on my planning period, that means Bobby Lee is still at school. Which means the parent wants me to explain his zero before even asking Bobby.

I'm a patient person. I often reply with something along the lines of, "Make sure to talk to Bobby about this, so he can put a plan in place to bring his grade up, but I'll tell you that he didn't complete today's assignment. He can do it tonight for homework and turn it in tomorrow for full credit."

And, nine times out of ten, the parent would reply to me, asking me why he didn't do his work. Had I prompted him enough? Did he understand it? Did he seem sad? What kind of tone was I using?

Sometimes a parent will even scold me for making their kid feel bad by "giving" him a D.

via GIPHY


I have nearly 120 students, roughly 30 per class. As good as I am, I can't always determine why a student didn't do his or her work. And it is never my intention for a kid to feel bad. Ever.

The main problem with this is not that it's annoying or time-consuming for me (I would never, ever complain about such things, ahem), it's that it takes the responsibility of the grade out of the student's hands and into the teacher's and parent's, and it teaches the student to panic when there's a problem.

I get it. When Stella's math grade fell to an NI (the old-school equivalent of a D) on her report card, some mama-bear part of my soul wanted to call the teacher and say, "HOW???" But I knew how. I'd seen Stella's low scores on her math tests, I'd battled my kid to do math homework. The teacher was doing all she could; it was time my kid take some responsibility.

Stella was devastated by her grade. She cried and was upset that we didn't get ice cream like we usually do. We were sympathetic and kind. We didn't yell at her for her low grade, but we didn't offer to make it go away by intimidating her teacher, either. We simply sat down and calmly made a plan to make it better. By seeing what could happen to her grade, Stella had more gumption to work harder at math, and she accepted our assistance more readily. When she brought it up to an S (old-school B) by the next report card, we all celebrated by eating ice cream.

What did Stella learn? Sometimes, we mess up. Maybe through no fault of our own. We stumble, we fall. We can accept the consequences, live through the disappointment, then find a way to make things better.

It wasn't easy when we were in it. It took work on all our parts, and there were days I wanted to magically erase that grade and make her feel better.

But this temporary discomfort is an investment. Someday, God willing, Stella will be in college. Maybe, like her mom, she'll fall for someone who's not really worthy of her, and when that person decimates her heart, she'll fall behind in her course work. And when she sees grades she doesn't like, she won't be defeated. She won't call me up to fix it for her. She'll know she has the power to make things better.

Some day, when Sam is working for a boss he may not really like, he may be required to redo and redo work that he thinks was pretty great the first time. He might get annoyed and even angry, but he'll have the fortitude to do it, without insulting his boss or throwing a fit in the meantime.

Just as we let our kids stumble when they're learning to walk, just as we let our kids get spaghetti sauce all over their clothes when they're learning to feed themselves, we have to learn to let them fail - even in school - so they can learn to overcome it. If we run around and fix all these problems, what kind of adults will they be?

It hurts to watch your kid suffer. But it's our job as parents to teach them that they can withstand bad things, because bad things will happen.

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I wrote a blog entry geared toward teachers on this same topic that is on the JCPSForward site. I encourage all teachers and parents and pretty much everyone to read it.

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