The Kids I’ve Failed. . .

I had big plans for the Radical this weekend.  I figured I’d write a cogent piece on the importance of a school’s mission, vision, values and goals statements.  I’ve been reading a bunch lately, refreshing my understanding of PLC fundamentals because I sometimes feel like my own decisions aren’t totally centered.

I’m also working up a post describing the skills necessary to prepare kids for the 21st Century.  I’ve been involved in about a dozen conversations this week with different folks trying to convince them that creation, communication, collaboration and information management have to become a more important part of our classrooms—-and struggling with the impact that standardized tests have had on my own ability to push those kinds of learning experiences in my room.

But my kids left on Friday for the final time (we operate on a year-round calendar) and I’m struggling with my emotions this morning.

It’s pretty intimidating to be a teacher, you know.  Every day, dozens of young minds roll through my classroom door trusting that I can point them in the right direction.  They believe in me—completing the tasks that I set before them, accepting my corrections, listening to my advice, learning along with me.

And in many ways, they’re depending on me.

To be successful, all I’ve got to do is identify the kinds of skills and content necessary to succeed.  I’ve got to design lessons that are both motivating and effective at moving kids forward academically.  I’ve got to sift through materials, find ways around barriers, work to inspire, understand the future, enrich, remediate and differentiate.

No pressure, huh?!

Sometimes I wonder whether or not I’m doing a good job.  Have I challenged every child?  Did stray words said in an instant lift children up or leave them behind?  Which kids have I changed forever?  Are they academically prepared to succeed in the future?  What about emotionally?  Socially?

Which kids did I fail?

That question leaves me destroyed each year because I know that there are students who I’ve failed—kids whose strengths I missed or forgot to celebrate….kids whose weaknesses I overlooked or ignored because I had to move on or fall behind…kids who didn’t feel like I loved them…kids who have a sour taste about learning because they weren’t successful or didn’t feel valued in my room.

Now, don’t get me wrong:  I don’t walk into my classroom each fall with the intent of failing anyone.  I’m one of those guys who does everything with his full heart.  I’m willing to work long hours and to invest myself completely in my work.

But my work can seem completely overwhelming and totally impossible at times.  The range of abilities in my classroom each year only seems to grow—-and while I know that challenging each child as an individual is the definition of accomplishment, I drown under that effort.  Serving anywhere from 50 to 90 kids a day, I struggle to balance requirements with needs, interests, passions and personalities.

I guess I could look at the bright side, right?

I mean, there are definitely students whose lives have been changed for the better because they’ve crossed my path.  They’ve learned to question and to recognize their place in the world.  They’ve wrestled with issues like justice and injustice—and begun to understand the role that human decisions can play in bettering life for everyone.

Often, they’ve learned to believe in themselves for the first time.  They’ve felt shared joy at personal successes and embraced their own expertise.  I’ve shown them where they’ve grown, what they’ve mastered, and how they can continue to improve.  My words have been meaningful—and will continue to be meaningful as they move through middle school.

And I guess I could listen to those who encourage me to see myself as a success:  “Bill,” they’ll say, “The kids who roll through your room will remember you forever.  You’re one of the top 10 percenters—providing an learning experience that is almost unparalleled.  You can’t reach everyone—but you come damn close.”

But “coming close” just doesn’t feel good enough this morning.

The final products of my work are too important as individuals to celebrate coming close, don’t you think?

Does this pressure resonate with anyone besides me?  How can we, as educators, come to grips with the idea of a job well done, when “a job well done” inevitably includes failures in the form of children who we just didn’t wouldn’t decided not to couldn’t reach?



14 thoughts on “The Kids I’ve Failed. . .

  1. Laurie

    Oops! I was in a rush, and all the stuff I thought I had deleted after my name printed up too! Sorry about that. Ignore everything that comes after my name! 🙂

  2. Laurie

    Bill, I too, as a former school teacher and current homeschool teacher and mother continually ask these questions as well. On the one hand, having many students in school is so much more daunting than “only two” — except that if I fail to teach my own children well, they’ll have no one to blame but me – so I can fail them as a mother AND as a teacher. Woohoo! No pressure there.
    So out of interest and a great fear of not giving my best, I continually read educator magazines and websites, teaching books, keep track of national and international standards, multiple intelligences, discipline, child psychology, parent psychology, teacher psychology, and drive myself crazy trying to succeed at it all. And I envy those who just accept themselves and their process without all the existential angst I put myself through (which no doubt rubs off on my kids).
    So my question I put to myself and back to you is this: What advice would you give to a student who normally is incredibly engaged, enthusiastic, learns well, and is highly motivated…when he or she has the inevitable days when she realizes she’s made mistakes, hasn’t done her best, or has done her best and still not achieved her goal (yet)? What would you tell her?
    Would you focus completely on her mistakes and point out how its going to affect her down the road? Would you focus only on what she’s done well and rob her of the opportunity to learn from the few mistakes she’s made? Or would you show her what a good job she’s doing, praise her effort, gently allow her to learn from her mistakes, and wind up having her feel good about herself and her overall effort? What message do you want her to take away?
    We need to continually give that answer to ourselves as well. We need to honor our own process and forge ahead so we don’t fall off the train as well. No one’s ever a finished product.
    Our students are on a series of train rides, and we are the conductor of only one of those trains. We want them to have such an awesome learning trip that they’ll want, and be able, to hop the next train. As much as we hope they’ll get good conductors along the way, we can’t take them all the way. That’s a good thing. If we’re this freaked out about driving them partway, can you imagine the pressure if we alone had to take them the whole way?
    This guardianship stuff — being a parent, being a teacher — it’s scarey, it’s bittersweet, it’s frustrating, and its incredibly rewarding…which is why we stay on the train too.
    We need to teach as if we are the last stop on their journey, we want to keep them on the learning train for as long as possible so they’ll want to keep riding learning trains far into the future, but we need to know that eventually our passengers get off our train at some point, and our goal is to give them a positive enough ride that they’re going to hop on the next train (and we can only hope that train has a good conductor too).
    Good products come only from focusing on the PROCESS (which includes mistakes).
    We may (and hopefully will) achieve a good PRODUCT — that’s important, yes, but we actually LEARN more from PROCESS (which includes mistakes).
    When we train oursIt’s great when we get both — good process ASo did Ben Franklin, Tom Edison…they made mistakes. And they made a difference. So will we. (Although I personally think that helping children learn about themselves, life, and how to learn has much higher stakes than getting electrocuted or failing to discover electricity.)
    If we use the same respect for ourselves and the process in which we’re engaged as teachers (and parents) that we do for our students, we may just be able to sleep better at night. Yes, mediocrity and complacency are a risk when we forgive our own mistakes. But I believe that perfectionism carries an evey greater risk: its simply an unattainable goal by which we tear ourselves down and lose valuable learning time and yes, even a little happiness that we deserve in recognizing our successes as well as our weaknesses. We teach the kids that — we need to take our own advice — for our sake and for theirs.
    All great. So why, as a teacher and a mother, can’t I take my own advice? Why do I ask of myself the same questions you’ve posted here? What haunts us is not knowing we’ve surely made mistakes and missed teaching something better — but we agonize about how that will impact the kids later.
    Ultimately, wouldn’t you want your students to do their very best as often as possible, be prepared that mistakes are not only inevitable but have been made by even the greatest minds in history, and that mistakes are valuable learning tools? istakes they’ll make, learn from them, move on and not wallow in their past mistakes, but forge ahead with renewed determination?
    eir mistakes, and they feel their Some of that’s good. But what message are we giving our students if we can’t take our own advice and embrace the reality that no matter how hard we try, we will make mistakes; that its the mistakes that teach us how we can improve and that build character, endurance, and humility; that while we’d like to tell our students and ourselves that nothing is impossible, there’s a risk that we forget that one thing is impossible: perfection and complete knowledge of all things. With that in mind, we need to shoot for the best, work hard, learn, and

  3. Mike

    Interesting analogy; one I hadn’t considered before. All any of us can do is promise to do our best because learning takes place in the individual mind and we can’t control that process, only start it and contribute to it. It’s like the doctor who does all that he can to help, but ultimately, the patient’s body must do the work.

  4. Roger Sweeny

    “If we can’t guarantee that we can produce learning, then are we really a profession?”
    Does a lawyer guarantee that he will win your case?
    Does a doctor promise that she will cure you?
    No, each promises to do what can be done given the resources available.
    Come to think of it, professions make no guarantees. A customer can return a toaster that doesn’t work. A client can’t get money back for therapy that doesn’t work. Perhaps we are too much of a profession.

  5. Roger Sweeny

    I couldn’t help thinking of the Serenity Prayer made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous:
    “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
    courage to change the things we can,
    and wisdom to know the difference.”
    And if that is too high-falutin’, there is the old nursery rhyme:
    “For every ailment under the sun
    There is a remedy, or there is none;
    If there be one, try to find it;
    If there be none, never mind it.”

  6. Bellringers

    I think the issues you brought up resonates with most of us. We all have had children we have failed for a myriad of reasons. Interestingly enough, though, I have also found that some of those very kids I thought I had failed–I didn’t because they contacted me many, many years later to tell me so. I am blessed in that because of what I teach and do (newspaper, yearbook, journalism), kids often re-appear throughout my life. I have always been surprised at the ones who I thought fell through the cracks or who I thought I had failed only to find out that something I said/did stuck with them. So while some we truly do lose, others we just think we lost at that particular moment in time. We never really know. Like Susan said earlier, each day provides another chance. When we quit trying, ah, now, that is truly failure. Just a thought.

  7. Susan Gaissert

    It doesn’t just resonate with teachers, Bill; it resonates with homeschooling parents like me, too. I often doubt myself and wonder if I am failing my child — and I only have one student! You sound like a good person; I’m sure that you are doing your best (even if that doesn’t always feel like enough).
    Every day is another chance,
    Susan Gaissert

  8. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    One more small point. As teachers, a part of what we strive to teach each and every day is how to be a functional human being. Teaching one how to recognize and take advantage of opportunity, learning and otherwise, is a necessary part of daily instruction, and should be assumed to be a part of providing the best possible learning opportunity. We certainly have to work on this more and more intensely in the lower grades than we do in the upper grades, but that’s part of why we specialize.

  9. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    Let us be specific. When I assert that we have only an obligation to provide the best possible learning opportunity, there is a very great deal involved in providing that opportunity that may not be obvious. I’m also saying that providing the opportunity–properly done–is the most that we can do and the most that we should and must be held responsible for doing. We must be evaluated on our success in providing that opportunity. As with all human endeavors, some teachers will do it poorly, most reasonably well, and some extraordinarily well, but that should be the standard by which we are evaluated.
    I’ve noticed that those who decline to admit that the individual–each student–bears the ultimate responsibility for their own education, for actually learning, also decline to explain how individual learning can be otherwise accomplished. How can an individual build new neural connections, make a bigger, better brain if they make no effort whatever to build those connections? How can a teacher build neural connections for them?
    So here is where you can help me out, Bill. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that I am one of those extraordinary teachers. That I provide one of the best opportunities, on a daily basis, for learning that any student can have in an American school. I am not, by the way, making that assertion. I’ve always believed that if you’re really good, it will be obvious and blowing your own horn would not and should not help. With that assumption in mind, would you be so kind as to address these assertions and tell me where I’m right or wrong?
    (1) The students who take responsibility for their learning, who do the assignments, take them seriously, and work hard, will gain the most from my instruction. They will build the biggest, best brains, and will learn and progress the most.
    (2) The students who mostly pay attention and do most of the assignments most of the time will learn less and progress less, but will still make progress.
    (3) The students who do little of the work, who are inattentive and who see no reason to work in school will learn little and progress little.
    OK. I’ll admit it. This is a bit of a trap. Who could possibly disagree with these assertions? If you admit that those who work hardest reap the largest intellectual rewards, you are admitting that they bear responsibility for their own learning, are you not? And if you won’t admit that people who work hardest reap the largest rewards, you’re still stuck with the problem of explaining how learning can take place in the brain of one who expends no effort to learn. Osmosis? The force of the teachers personality is so powerful as to infuse students with learning?
    I certainly agree that there are significant differences in delivering instruction to 6th graders and high school students. But I’d suggest that in your case, the influence of parents is even more important in demanding that students work to learn, to take advantage of their opportunity to learn, than it is with older students who, theoretically, should have internalized more of a work/learning ethic. Yes parents, a large part of your job as parents is to force your offspring to do that which they can or will not recognize is good for them.
    You see Bill, I’m more than happy to be held accountable for the progress of my students, but how that is to be measured is a very long post for another time. Heck, if we measure it by standardized testing (there aren’t sufficient words to explain my loathing for that sort of thing), I’m a virtual teaching genius, as are my colleagues in 10th grade English in our mid-sized high school, as 97% of our students passed the standardized English test last year.
    But how can I be held accountable for the failure of Johnny, who is bright, but is absent 1/3 of the time, does only 15% of the assignments, and while never disruptive in class, just doesn’t care? How about Suzie, who does brilliantly on 50% of the assignments, but just doesn’t bother on the other 50% and ends up failing. And how about Timmy, who…and so on and so on. Do I try with all of these kids? Lavish individual attention on them, involve counselors, parents (when I can find them), principals, relatives, give them extra opportunities to suceed? Yes. But they work very hard at one thing only: failing.
    So we’re back to essentially one simple question. How can any teacher input learning into the brain of one who chooses not to learn?
    Looking forward to your reply…

  10. Bill Ferriter

    Mike wrote:
    We collect them at the beginning of the year, and take them as far along the road as we can, and we do that by giving them the best opportunity to learn that we can provide. The actual work of learning is always up to them
    This has always been an interesting give and take in our conversation, Mike, because I’m a believer that my responsibility stretches beyond just providing the opportunity to learn.
    Now, our differences may rest in the fact that you teach high schoolers, who may be better prepared to advocate for themselves—while I teach sixth graders, who struggle with taking advantage of opportunities.
    But I also think when we argue that our only job is to provide the opportunity to learn, that we somewhat disempower ourselves.
    If we can’t guarantee that we can produce learning, then are we really a profession?
    That is our product, after all—and while I know that there are a million other factors that influence “production,” shouldn’t we be able to offer more assurances than opportunities?
    I heard our State Board of Education say something interesting this weekend on the radio. He talked about how most schools are doing a good job—somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of our students fail each year.
    The problem is that 7 to 10 percent of a rapidly growing population is a massive number of kids who aren’t going to be able to succeed in life—and who are going to become a burden on our system.
    Even as a taxpayer (instead of as a teacher), shouldn’t we be interested in doing more to reduce that number?
    Failures aren’t just emotional mistakes for teachers and families. They’re also costly mistakes for society.
    Interesting conversation to say the least….

  11. Bill Ferriter

    Andrea wrote:
    When I look back at my own life and growth, personal and intellectual, I see that it is not one person, one teacher, one experience, that caused me to become who I am. This is why I think it is beneficial for students to encounter different types of teachers as they go through school.
    Thanks, Andrea—this comment made sense to me.
    The education of a child is a function of far more than one teacher at one point in time and the kids that I missed are likely to find other teachers that resonate with them.
    It’s the hardest part of our gig, though—-our failures are far more significant than failures in other professions.
    I’m not sure I’ll ever “get over” that reality.
    Rock on,

  12. Mike

    Resonate? It’s known as: leading an examined life. Hardly a new concept, it was put forward by Aristotle, and he probably didn’t invent it. Hopefully, every thoughtful person does this. Hopefully, every teacher is thoughtful, and therefore, they do it too. That you are asking the questions, worrying about what you’ve done and what you can do better is as clear an indication as can be found that you’re on the right track.
    But here we must all be careful, because we are all constrained in a variety of ways. We cannot do everything that we want to do, everything that we believe to be right for our kids, everything that we possibly could and should do. We don’t have the time. They’re not our children–we’re not their parents–and though some would seem to believe that we must adopt that role as it is with so many other roles that have little to do with education, we cannot allow ourselves to try to be more than we can be, to try to be more than we are, and to assume responsibility for that for which we cannot be responsible.
    What I’m about to repeat I’ve said on this site several times in the past, but I repeat it because it is at the heart of much of what troubles those teachers who do lead examined lives. It is also at the heart of your lament, Bill. You–all of us–need to ask, more or less constantly, am I providing the best educational opportunity possible for my students? That is, ultimately, all that we can do as educators. Our roles as social workers, pseudo-parents, medical technicians, psychologists, police officers, clothiers, etc. should be a very distant second, and if they’re not, perhaps we’re not really teaching, not as the primary task in our lives.
    Am I well prepared, each and every day? Enthusiastic, caring, dedicated, willing to work late nights, weekends, vacations to give the kids the opportunity they need? Do the lessons I present work? Are the kids involved? Do they enjoy coming to my class, or at least, hate it less than most?
    Will every kid praise me? Recognize my dedication, my excellence, all the hours I’ve labored on their behalf? Will they recognize the opportunity I’m giving them each and every day? Take advantage of it? No. No they won’t. Many, perhaps most, will be improved because I’ve been their teacher, but will they understand that they are a better and more capable human being because of the opportunity I’ve provided? An opportunity that many other teachers would not provide, or would provide to a lower level of proficiency? Will they ever consciously know that? No. No they won’t.
    But that’s OK. That’s life. That’s teaching. We can’t reach them all. We can’t fulfill every need for every child. We can’t take their mandatory, high stakes tests for them. We cannot plug our magical teacher flash drives into their USB ports and download learning directly into their brains. As we do the hard, daily work of teaching, they have to do the hard, daily work of learning. We can’t be perfect. But in human relations, being good is good indeed. Striving to be better than good, is what we should all do, but what relatively few actually attempt. This is human nature, in teaching and in every human endeavor.
    We collect them at the beginning of the year, and take them as far along the road as we can, and we do that by giving them the best opportunity to learn that we can provide. The actual work of learning is always up to them. If you’re doing that, if you’re always trying to improve, if you’re leading an examined life, what more can you do? And what good does it do to beat yourself up? As a high school teacher I see each class of my kids less than five hours a week. Considering what we’re able to accomplish in that brief time, we’re pretty much working daily miracles.
    If we weren’t trying, leading an examined life, we wouldn’t see any miracles, would we? So suck it up and get back to planning for next year.

  13. Andrea Hernandez

    Yes, this resonates with me. I have gone through a similar type of introspection every year for around 16 years.
    I don’t want to minimize the importance of it, for you or for myself, but at some point I’ve had to say that the best I can do is the best I can do at any given time.
    I do believe that the fact that we critically reflect will hopefully cause us to continue to improve and continue to be able to reach more students each year.
    When I look back at my own life and growth, personal and intellectual, I see that it is not one person, one teacher, one experience, that caused me to become who I am. This is why I think it is beneficial for students to encounter different types of teachers as they go through school. I think you learn something different from interacting with different people. My students may learn something from me that they won’t learn from other teachers; likewise they may miss something by being with me and hopefully some other teacher that they will have will give them what I did not.
    It is obvious that you are a thoughtful and talented teacher. Just the fact that you care enough to write such a post says so much about the kind of teacher you are.

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