Now You’ve Made Me Mad: Reprise

I don’t like this time of the semester.  A couple of years ago at around this time, I summarized why.

*

What do you mean, “Why am I failing English?”

You’ve failed EVERY SINGLE ASSIGNMENT since the beginning of the course.  You handed in your first essay 2 weeks late, and you wouldn’t have handed it in at all if I hadn’t asked you where the hell it was.  You got 37% on your last practice essay, but you didn’t ask me a SINGLE QUESTION about why, or even look at the detailed feedback sheet I filled out for you, and then you went ahead and wrote the real essay, and got a 40% on that.

What do you mean, what can you do to catch up?  There are TWO WEEKS left in the semester.  You’ve been failing English since the fourth or fifth week – why are you coming to see me about this now?  Your grades have been posted up this whole time.  The fact that you’re failing English is NOT NEWS.

Yes, I’m sure your other courses HAVE been very difficult.  If you’ve chosen to prioritize your other courses, then that is a perfectly legitimate choice.  We all make such choices.  Most of us also recognize that if we don’t prioritize something, we’re not likely to do very well in it.

Why am I angry with you?  I’m angry with you because you’ve had 13 weeks to deal with this problem, and yet you march into my office when the semester is, for all intents and purposes, OVER, and you suggest that a) the fact that you’re failing English is a total surprise to you, and b) I am somehow responsible for the fact that you are surprised, and c) I should now be doing something to help you deal with this problem.  THERE IS NOTHING THAT CAN BE DONE NOW, and certainly nothing that I can do.  The time for dealing with this problem has PASSED.

What’s that?  Why don’t I care about your success?

I do care about your success.  I care about it very much.  I’ve been sitting here in my office, and standing in your classroom, caring about it, all semester.

You’ve been so busy not doing your work, you haven’t noticed.

Photo by Dominic Morel

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41 responses

  1. I can so relate to your frustration. As a middle school teacher, it is usually the parents emailing asking “Why is my child failing language arts?” Our school sends home progress reports every two weeks. Their child has either not bothered to turn in their assignments or has failed every major assignment.
    They aren’t really asking “why?” They’re asking “What are you going to do so my child will pass?” It is no surprise, then, that these children grow up to be the college students asking the same thing of you.
    How can we change this obvious flaw – the inability to accept responsibility for our own actions (or inactions)?

    • Oh Sharon, you are soooo right. How tired I am of that question – “What are you going to do so my child will pass?” And what’s worse, I often get from guidance counselors and administrators the same question – “What can you do so this kid will pass and this parent will get off my back?” The squeakiest wheel gets greased for sure. You can call a kid a genius, but that don’t make it so.

    • Once again, this is one of the “joys” of the teaching profession that expedited my decision to retire after 35 years. I’ve been out for five years now, but my blood pressure inches upward every time I read stuff like this! Sadly, it’s only going to get worse in this society (U.S.) that has taken hold! Merry Christmas, everyone!

  2. It’s interesting that we apply high standards to children’s athletic participation (if you don’t come to practice, or don’t exert any effort, you don’t play) and yet when it comes to academics any excuse is accepted. Of course, this is partly because kids choose to be on teams but they must go to HS and college, even if what is being taught is not motivating to them.

    • EB: I sometimes find that athletes are among my best students, because they understand the equation behaviour = consequences better than other students. In fact, I often speak to incoming athletes about this and draw the parallel, and sometimes it seems to sink in.

  3. In order to combat this problem myself, I started telling students at the beginning of the course that the proper time to make up work is right away because waiting until the end will earn no sympathy from me. Still didn’t work. So then I made a sign with this saying and posted it on my podium so they see it every moment they are looking at the front of the room:

    “Don’t be upset by the results you didn’t get with the work you didn’t do.”

    Also posted in my classroom, the acronym FAIL (First Attempt In Learning)

    Students can also keep in mind: If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way, if not you’ll find an excuse.

    I like to post these sorts of things so I don’t have to repeatedly say them. And right by my computer is a little ecard printout: I’ve lost my mind and I’m pretty sure the kids took it. (Applicable in many situations).

    Hang in there! It sounds like you are doing what will best serve these students in the long run, even if it doesn’t seem like it to them right now.

  4. I recently had to respond to an email from a parent who stated the student didn’t understand why s/he did so poorly on a speech. I commented the student received a grading rubric that detailed exactly what s/he was missing and this student, like the rest of the class, also received three in-class lab days to work on required paperwork and ASK ME QUESTIONS.

    This child 1. didn’t ask questions; 2. really didn’t spend much time in the lab working toward finishing the assignment.

    S/he will probably fail my class. And I’d like to care. I really would. But given the fact that s/he has continually failed to TRY leaves me in a “why should I care when you clearly don’t” mindset.

    I think, as an educator, I have a problem remember when something is or is not my problem.

    • CH:
      I spent the morning in conference with students who are rewriting an essay. Fully a quarter of them were unable to respond to direct questions about feedback I’d given them on the grading rubric for the first version. You can lead a horse to water, etc.

  5. Yes, it’s frustrating. We’re in the middle of grading final papers for those students who survived, and here strolls some oblivious punk looking to strike a deal… I don’t offer make up work, and I have very strict time deadlines, so there are very rarely deals to be made.

    I just say the same thing over and over: “Look, Stu Dent, I understand your concern and frustration. However, it would be entirely unfair to the rest of your classmates – the ones who found a way to come to class and turn things in – if I offered you some kind of special treatment. And I am not going to risk getting my car keyed because you are looking for a little something extra. Surely, you can appreciate that just as I appreciate you.”

    And yeah, I can’t imagine if I had parents to contend with. Y’all who do that are amazing.

    • HNTKYP: It helps me to remember that this sort of cause and effect reasoning is part of what we’re teaching them. It doesn’t always help in the moment, when I generally want to smack someone, but it retrospect it things into perspective: no one has taught them, until now, that their outcomes are a result of their behaviour. Maybe I can teach them that, in some small way.

  6. I loved this post the first time, and I STILL love it. Sing it with me: “It’s the MOST wonderful time of the year…..” ‘nough said.

  7. “I suppose we could try to convince them that a knowledge of literary techniques makes them more capable of manipulating people into bed.”

    Wasn’t this addressed in Dead Poets’ Society?

    “So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.”

  8. I’ve dealt with both ends of the spectrum. High school and college. I will say that when I was teaching high school, fortunately, I didn’t get too many of the ‘Why are you failing my child?’ parents.
    In college, again, I don’t have too much of the ‘Why am I failing?’ students. I like to think that’s because I lay everything out in the very beginning and make it all PAINFULLY clear. I also teach at community college with a lot of students have something beyond school to deal with.
    However, I do get the ‘What can I do to pass?’ question. Just not very often, for which I am eternally grateful. Those times, I have to bite my tongue and not say what I’m thinking.
    Oy vey. If they would just pay attention!

    • Amy: I am truly shocked whenever I get the “Why am I failing?” question. Students get detailed feedback on every assignment and mulitple chances to rewrite. Their grades are posted online right from the beginning of the semester. It makes NO SENSE.

  9. As a very observent student, I see that in a lot of people. It’s like the ultimate derp moment, and I resent them for that because how can they be so dumb that they don’t realize when they get ONE F that they should be going “Oh crap.” It takes them when they get to the end of a SEMESTER to get it. Truthfully, I think they deserve what ever comes at them if they think they can go through like being a derp.

    • SBB: Whenever I feel tempted to cut someone who doesn’t deserve it a break, I think of the students who have been plugging away diligently all semester. How can I justify bending the rules for people who can’t be bothered?

  10. Pretty often, students know why they’re failing. They just want to take a stab at convincing you to make exceptions for them.

    I think the big challenge is to help students find a field of study (whether academic or vocational) that they’re interested enough in to actually try hard and do the work. That’s much more gratifying for all concerned.

    • Pretty often, but sometimes I am astonished by their genuine surprise and anger. I think it comes from their experiences in high school, where – here in Quebec at least – students seem to be pushed through the system even when they have done absolutely nothing all year.

      • Oh, that happens here too. You just about have to disappear in order to not graduate from high school (except in the states that have exit exams, and even these are not challenging). We have set up a system where we are hostage to kids’ school resistance, because we fear what will happen to them if they don’t have a HS diploma — and its starting to be the same with respect to college degrees. Well, I guess we are right to fear for HS dropouts; but if they don’t learn anything in HS, they still won’t be in good shape even with the diploma.

    • Tae: I’ve become resigned to the fact that it is my job to teach my students, not just English, but how to behave like decent and sensible people. I don’t like this, and I don’t always succeed in helping them learn it, but I have accepted that this is part of what all teachers must do.

  11. I am actually dealing with a lot of this at the moment. I have many students failing because they didn’t read part of the novel we’ve been working on for over a month. Now I am getting angry e-mails from their parents wanting to know how their children can improve their grades. It is making me quite crazy.

  12. My policy is to be a big teddy bear about the whole issue and accept any and all late work until the last two weeks before finals. This might sounds unfair to the students who are punctual, but generally the result is the same: the kids that care enough to take an interest in the course pass it with flying colors. Those who can’t make the connection procrastinate and barely make it through.

    Those who don’t care, fail.

    Then, when the parents come after me, I explain how generous I’ve been to their socially maladjusted offspring who still don’t know what a frame tale is after reading Heart of Darkness and The Canterbury Tales (*facepalm*!), and they direct their ire in the appropriate direction.

    On the off chance this doesn’t work, the administration always backs me up because they know how much I do to help these kids pass. This strategy allows me to avoid being the “bad guy” 99% of the time.

  13. Another gem. I can so relate to your post and the ensuing comments.
    Teachers deal with so much more than academic issues. Teaching how to act appropriately for the situation is an everyday event. And we keep on plugging
    Yeah, teachers!

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