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David J. Dunn, PhD Headshot

Why I Never Fail My Students

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I got an e-mail from a student the other day, asking if he could make up an assignment he did not turn in ... last semester! He had failed my class, and since he didn't own a TARDIS, he was hoping I could go back in time and change history for him.

Personally, I have never failed a student. Students fail themselves!

I know it sounds like I'm saying (in my crotchety old guy voice), "Kids today with their rock-and-roll music, their iPods, and their horrible work ethic!" But I think most educators know what I'm talking about. They've experienced it firsthand in 4:00 a.m. phone calls from angry parents or when administrators (and sometimes even school boards) overrule their decisions.

We are a nation of coddlers! We try to be "nice" because we don't want a low grade to jeopardize someone's chances of getting into college, cause her to lose her scholarship, or ruin her career before it has even begun.

But the truth is that we are doing all off those things by refusing to fail people!

Without failure, students never learn personal responsibility. I once spent 90 minutes giving a student very specific feedback on a mishmash of incoherent sentences he called a "rough draft." My goal was to help him make it "passable." But the final product he handed in a week later remains the worst paper I have ever read. When he appealed his grade, he argued, "But I handed you a rough draft!" To which I responded, "Yes, but you didn't make any changes to it!" I will never forget the look on his face when I said that. It was as if I had come from another planet. He had been taught that learning was like a checklist. You get a good grade when you accomplish "x" number of tasks. Quality and effort never entered into the equation.

That is why, without failure, a student can never learn what it takes to succeed. Someone used to being handed a "B" for doing the minimum can look forward to a lifetime of mediocrity, because she never learned to tolerate the level of hard work it takes to make something of herself.

Without failure, students never learn confidence. This may sound counter-intuitive. We worry that an "F" will harm students' self-esteem (which is why we never give them). But someone who is never confronted with her failures never learns to accept criticism. That is why so many students blame their teachers for their bad grades. What should be little more than an objective evaluation of an assignment feels to them like a personal attack! That is why we often call our students "teacups." They are just so fragile!

Without failure, students never learn their full potential. When "F's" and even "D's" are no longer acceptable, the point spread between good and poor students narrows significantly. This punishes success by minimizing the difference between exceptional students and students who are just okay, and it further rewards mediocrity by reducing the amount of effort it takes to pass a class.

That is why we need to normalize failure again. Otherwise we are sabotaging the lives of the very people we want to protect!

That does not mean there is no room for grace. My Facebook friends who defended the student I mentioned earlier did not know that he lied about not finishing an assignment worth 30% of his grade or that I gave him up to the very last minute to turn something in. Like most teachers, I am rooting for my students, so I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Compare that to a student I had in another class. She missed about about half of the material, explaining her absences with a "fishy" story involving a sick relative and mental illness. Even though school policy said I should remove her, I decided to let her stay in class. At the end of our conversation, I wished her an ominous "good luck" because I thought she would probably fail the class. I was wrong. She worked very hard and earned one of the highest scores on her final exam. She managed to pass, respectably.

Call me crazy, but if I went back in time and rewarded the laziness of the first student, wouldn't I be punishing the effort of the second student? Wouldn't I be slapping her in the face?

That is the difference between success and failure in the classroom: effort. I have never met a teacher who did not want his students to pass. Yes, some of us have very high standards that can make passing difficult, but would you prefer the opposite? Would you rather we expect "just enough"?

The administration ended up agreeing with me about the student I failed. It turns out he does this sort of thing a lot. That's how it usually goes: Most students fail because they do not try, and if we do not let them fail -- if we do not let them experience the consequences of their actions -- we are teaching them to be failures. And we become failures, ourselves.

The following is adapted from an entry on David J. Dunn's blog. Some details of this story have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.