Why Aren’t Students Allowed To Fail?

Yesterday I had a bad day at work. Normally I like my job, but yesterday was a really hard slog. It was all caused by one student.

This student wasn’t in the mood. For anything. All day. As part of his coursework he had to participate in a drum workshop led by a highly experienced and enthusiastic drum teacher, and the most he could muster was to put his head on his hands and tap the drum as quietly as he could. He was talking, messing about and generally being a nuisance.

After a warning, I sent him outside so I could speak to him. He walked off and went home. He’s 16 years old and this is not the first time that this has happened. In fact, he’s been given lots of chances over the years and his behaviour hasn’t improved. I’ve tried everything – different behaviour management techniques, consistent sanctions, liaising with his parents and form tutor, informing my boss, keeping him for extra coursework sessions… He doesn’t have any diagnosed learning difficulties, he has a supportive family and is fairly intelligent. He chooses to behave in this way simply because he knows that unless his behaviour is extreme, he can get away with it, and with a simple apology, a school sanction and telling off he starts the next day with a clean slate. I would be more understanding if he was a young child, but at his age he is now considered to be responsible enough to leave school, he can have sex, he can work full time, he can leave home with his parents’ consent, can get married with one parent’s consent, he can drink wine or beer with a meal in a restaurant, he can hold a licence to drive a moped, he can buy a ticket in the National Lottery. So why is he not allowed to take responsibility for his own education?

The main issue is that he is simply not allowed to fail – school’s are set targets that they have to achieve and we are under immense pressure to maintain ridiculously high standards. I know that his behaviour will not improve drastically in the four weeks before he is due to leave school, and I will have to spend my time chasing him up, pulling him into coursework catch-up sessions in the afternoons and half-term holiday to ensure that he has completed his coursework to an acceptable level. It is going to be a four week battle that will finish the year long battle that I’ve had with him, and I would much rather spend my time with students that want to do well.

I once had a conversation with a Deputy Head Teacher in which she proclaimed that she will constantly keep harassing the demotivated and lazy students because she doesn’t want them to make silly mistakes as a teenager that will affect their adult lives. While the notion is honourable, surely we are doing these kids a disservice by continuing in this fashion? As teachers we don’t just teach our subject, we take on the role of parent, guidance counsellor and confidante, and yet what I feel we are currently telling our students is that poor behaviour, lack of motivation and little work will still allow you to achieve your goals because an adult will step in and drag you to the finish line.

What I have discovered in life is that you only get out of it what you put in. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve paid for them, and I’ve learnt for the next time how to do it differently. There’s a fantastic quote from Michael Jordan about failure that I’ve seen used hundreds of times:

‘I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’

My student will pass his course because I will make sure of it. Not because I feel he deserves it, but because I know that if I fail him it won’t be him that has to explain why, it will be me and the quality of my teaching will come into question. And I can guarantee that when he first fails at something, it will be at a much higher price than if he was allowed to fail at school…

What about you guys? What have you learned from your failure?

You can also find me on Twitter and Tumblr @suzie81blog


37 thoughts on “Why Aren’t Students Allowed To Fail?

  1. I wonder about the wisdom of passing this student. Granted, I am not a teacher, but common sense tells me that if a student doesn’t deserve to pass, he deserves to fail. It may wake the kid up. Alternatively, send the kid to the Deputy Head to teach. That way he wont disrupt the students who really do want to make it.
    I regret I did not make the most of my high school years and the opportunity to learn at the time when my mind was so receptive.I spent years chasing after the almighty dollar. Now, in the twilight of my youth (I’m 50), I have gone back to school, to study what I really enjoy. I am doing a Bachelor of Art, concentrating on Visual art and Creative writing.
    I so enjoy my current subject, Australian Literature, and kick myself for not having done this sooner.
    Please don’t lose hope. There are too many other students counting on you to let this one child spoil it for you.
    It is the same in this country, as where you are. Students are not allowed to fail. If students were allowed to fail, maybe they would wake up and try harder.

    • Hi Dave, thanks so much for your comment. I totally agree, if students in the UK were allowed to fail then it would give them a short, sharp, shock! Unfortunately, the education system is very results driven, and failure just simply isn’t an option. Here’s hoping he sees the light soon!


    • Ooh, and congrats on going back to school by the way! I’m going to use your story as an example to my students in the future!!

  2. I feel your pain. It is the same where I teach. Students need to be held accountable for their own learning and behavior. I’ve sadly seen the results of kids always getting bailed out. It does not make productive, contributing adults out of them, but instead helps to fill our prison system.

  3. Love, love, love this post! I couldnt agree more. I have had this same arguement many times and I am also sick of being held accountable for the failures of my students.

    • Absolutely! It never seems fair to me – if I make a mistake, I’m accountable. If they make a mistake, I’m accountable… It’s a very negative aspect of this profession!

  4. Stinks. I taught younger ones in the schools and it’s such a shame that paperwork and politics bar us from the teaching we love and are meant to do. But you know, he was like that and yes, you couldn’t change him, because he is a product of 16 years of a certain kind of upbringing. You were up against forces bigger than your ability to teach or counsel. He was rooted and fixated deeply in things he cherished (self-centeredness, being able to get away with things w/o penalty, taking the path of least resistance…).

    As a fellow teacher, I thought you might be interested in these thoughts on the impact of technology on learning. Don’t want to take up too much of your time so I didn’t include part 4 and the finale. Thanks for liking my post on the Shine On Award. You have a very nice voice on this blog:

    https://aholisticjourney. wordpress.com/2013/04/20/the- dark-side-of-efficiency-part- 1/

    https://aholisticjourney. wordpress.com/2013/04/21/ technology-the-dark-side-of- efficiency-part-2/

    https://aholisticjourney. wordpress.com/2013/04/23/ technology-the-dark-side-of- efficiency-part-3/

    • Thanks so much for your reply… I’ll definitely take a look at the links. I’m really frustrated at times with the situation…

  5. Pingback: Lies I Tell My Students | suzie81's Blog

  6. Hey there,
    thx for sharing your frustration and consequences you draw from it with us! I think the problem is that apart from some teachers almost everybody says “well, that’s school, wait for the real life”. But this way, 12 years of realizing that you are responsible for your own life because no one else is resonsible for it and if you are a poor and lucky human being, even no one takes care for you. I dropped school after almost eleven years, one year before getting my German high school diploma granting me the right to go to college. I just wanted to start making sense and organize my personal development in a personal way. I soon realized that there was no formation I wanted to do and everything I could imagine needed the German high school diploma. So I started homeschooling myself and got the materials for two and a half years done in a year. I went to Spain for a month to improve my Spanish I only started in homeschool. I only passed the pre-evaluation for the final exam by some points (my math was terrible at that time). I worked about 120 hours on my maths and passed the writte exam with something like a B+ but failed at History and in the oral exams at Chemistry. So got a GPA of something like a C+ with hard work but would have received at least an A- without doing anything and just continuing to go to school. This was the time I realized how hard it can be to take responsibility for your own. But this was also the time I started to realize how much more than listening, being tested, sitting, waiting for a chance to say some words, waiting for the bell to ring, having lunch, waiting, doing homework, chatting with class mates, being tested, being tested, getting school certificates and having holidays was there in the world and how much more I could become.
    Have a great day & may the force be with you,

  7. You’re welcome. If you want to, you can give them the adress of my blog so that they can contact me. I was already asked by the school I left one year before getting my highschool diploma to talk to a girl who wanted to quit school, too. And I really enjoy mentoring a bit 😉
    Have a great day!

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  10. Hi Suzie,
    You asked if I would take a look at this post and I did. Here’s my comment.
    If you’re a teacher, you’ve had this kid in your class. Sometimes more than once, sometimes more than two kids like this at a time. It’s the murky partner to teaching, and if you’re the parent, you’re sure some alien has inhabited your darling kid’s body and brain. If you’re that teenager, it’s the journey between childhood and adulthood, that awkward moment when you’re not the big-eyed cutie pie but mostly a big pain in the rear. It’s a serious and complex problem. My reply is not that of an expert, just of a teacher who’s been there, done that, not always gracefully or well.
    To begin, the teen brain isn’t ready for all that we expect it to handle. The frontal lobes aren’t fully developed until they are in their early 20’s. They react impulsively, without consideration for risk, or the ability to plan adequately, but they are deeply passionate about anything that interests them. So they do lots of stupid things and don’t do all the ones they should. Not all kids, of course, but nearly always the kids who cause so much trouble. Couple that with parents who are weary of parenting, are in denial about their kid’s behavior, who just don’t see the problems, or who want to blame everyone else. Teachers are great scapegoats.
    As a society we give kids way too much responsibility and too many tasks that they should be doing. So while we want them to do well in school, to be sensitive and kind to everyone, to prepare for their future, we also let them go to parties with no adult supervision, drive cars, date intimately, stay out too late and often with people we don’t know at places we don’t realize they are visiting. In the US (I think you’re in England?) they can’t drink legally in most states until they are 21, but lots of parents and other adults turn their backs on kids who do. We even let them enter the military in this undeveloped psychological condition. They are allowed to die for causes they often don’t understand. No wonder they are so confused.
    Teens are going through social hell. They struggle with popularity issues, with the pressure to engage in activities they may not enjoy to the dismissal of those they do. Somehow we expect kids who’ve been collecting a few dollars allowance a week to understand how to manage a budget. We think they should be able to balance all their school and social activities even though just a year or two before, the parents monitored everything for them, even supervised their homework.
    It might even be a kid who is dealing with sexual ambiguity or other troubled relationship problems, being bullied, being sucked in to dabbling in dangerous drug and alcohol testing, is in the middle of parental disputes, confronting stressful family financial circumstances, or struggling with a seriously ill family member.
    And so we teachers get stuck with a freight load of boiling problems. We are trying to teach one subject to a kid we know is capable but we end up mentoring a kid who is drowning in psychological, physiological, social, academic, personal, and family problems.
    Here is my suggestion to you, if you want it, and forgive me if I’m being presumptuous. Everyone has a limit. A counselor will establish a limited schedule for working with a client and will expect to see regular progress. You should do the same. Contact the parents and the kid and prepare a contract. You should set boundaries within the contract including that it is a one-time opportunity to make up late work and that it can only be made up to, say, a B, and only if everything is turned in by a certain date. Make it a two-way path. You’ll help but kid must do his share, emphasis on the “do.”
    Of course, the parents and the kid are likely to complain that you’ve established a pattern of accepting late work once and should continue to do so on his behalf. The kid will mature or graduate but you’ll have to deal with another kid just like him in future. It’s part of our profession, working with children who are not convenient packages of like-sized frozen vegetables on the shelf, but individual, complex and confused beings who aren’t sure if they still want to play in the sandbox, with the opposite sex, or in the big leagues. All we can do is guide them as best as possible and know that we make a positive difference for most.
    Best to you as you continue to navigate a noble and underrated profession. And I apologize if I appear to have hijacked your blog.

    • Wow! Fantastic comment – it gave me a lot to think about first thing in the morning. I have done contracts before with other students, but I know that something like that would have been pointless with this particular one. You’re absolutely right about establishing rules and boundaries right from the very beginning, particularly when accepting late work, but unfortunately in the profession I am left with no alternative. When he missed his first piece of coursework he was logged using the school sanctions, his parents were contacted, senior leadership was notified and he was issued a detention after school in which he had to complete it. This process was repeated every time his coursework was late, the detentions made more lengthy and were given by a higher member of staff each time.

      At the time of writing this post, the student still had missing pieces of coursework despite all these sanctions. I had had more than enough and wanted to fail him, but i was told that he had to come in and get it completed, and I was to make sure that he passed. He did, but I had to drag him kicking and screaming and there were several occasions where he told his parents that he was attending, but decided to truant instead. It was only the threat of his mother sitting in with him in the lessons that gave him that final push, but some students don’t have that support.

      Again, great comment. Thank you very much!

      • Morning, Suzie,
        The requirements your school admin makes of its teachers are brutal. I didn’t realize how much you are required to do in order to get your students to complete work and pass the course. You are an exceptional teacher. The great majority of those you teach benefit from someone who is passionate and caring. Even this difficult kid will glean something good from your dedication. I hope you’ll stick with the profession.
        BTW, thank you for stopping by my blog. I’m brand new to the blog endeavor and appreciate all readers.

  11. This is ridiculous. If 25% of your students were failing, then, yeah, you should be held accountable. But one kid? No way! He is accountable. I am sorry for you, for this kid, for the educational system (in the US, too), and for the future.

  12. Back in the day, if a student didn’t do the work and get good grades, at least passing grades, they were held back…flunked. There was a stigma to that label that followed you through school. Parents even requested their child be held back if they felt they could not grasp the grade level. In high school we could flunk a class and have to take it the next term. When it came time to graduate, if you didn’t have the credits required, you came back another school year to get it. This society wants everyone to win and nobody loses or is held accountable for their actions. Perhaps that is why the world is so messed up? There is an “excuse” for everything nowadays. Thanks for the outlet to rant! ☺️

  13. I remember begging the school to hold Matthew back in 5th grade. He was not doing any of the classwork (and really, how did he get away with that during school hours without being sent to the office?) and had F’s. We had moved and he would have been in a different school district and, as one of the youngest in his class, he would have still fit in.

    But no…the school said his test scores were too high. Several years later, when he got suspended from school, this same school system would call to ask me to bring him in off of suspension so he could take his standardized tests because they “needed his high score” (he always scored above average on reading comprehension and writing).

    Finally, 10th grade hit, his mental health declined and he did actually fail….yet the school did everything they could to have him graduate on time. I am still not sure how they made the math work, but the extra year we thought he had to get ready was gone.

    Now, I am very glad he got his diploma, and he does have a plan for the future, I just wish he had been a little more prepared by being held acccountable for his grades vs. making the school look good with their pass/fail rates on the tests.

  14. I’ve found that one of the hardest thing to do as a parent is let your kids fail, but I also know they have to know what that feels like. I’ve supervised a few young adults who grew up never being allowed to fail and they are difficult to manage – they cannot fathom that they might ever be wrong.

  15. I wouldn’t make a good teacher. I would be butting heads with the system all the time. When I was in school, if I didn’t pass, I would have taken the year over the next school year. It should be the same now. At least in my opinion. If he had to do it over again, maybe, just maybe he would learn. He has to want to learn and do better. My thoughts and prayers are certainly with you in your next few weeks of school. Try and hang in there. 🙂

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