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On Easy Ways to Not Fail Kids

“Ms. Charles won’t let people fail.” I have a virtually unheard of pass rate and my sophomores are also doing research and reading primary source material daily, they also write daily. I work at a comprehensive, large, integrated public school. About two thirds of my students are ell and a little over that is poor. I’ve been dragged into a lot of meetings by bosses this year because my pass rate freaks them out. They think I’m cheating or letting the kids run wild. The truth of the matter is that my behavioral and academic standards are insanely high. My kids do more intellectually rigorous work in my class then any other. My AP seniors squeal all the about how hard I am and they all pass my class and most of them pass their released AP exams. Most of what I do might not be replicable. I have a B.A. from Stanford and an incredibly strong research background, I have SPED training and experience and I was a key activist for poor students undergrad and I have my masters from Stanford, I trained under crazy good teachers and at 26, I have worked in nearly every educational environment imaginable. I’m also nuts and probably unique but there are some things I do that are immediately and easily replicable and would benefit the majority of students.

There are three foundational principles to this.

1) Don’t be a dick to kids

Adults aren’t as productive at work when they are stressed out, miserable, uncomfortable or depressed. Why we would expect children to perform under those conditions is beyond me. Make your room as comfortable as possible and the kids will do better. People are more motivated by love and community. We perform better for people who inspire us than we will for people we fear, kids are no different. Teachers are leaders, first and foremost.

2) From each according to their ability, to each according to the need

IEPs and 504s are legally binding documents so if you aren’t implementing those you are breaking the law. You have no right to an opinion about whether the kid needs it, ever. But there are lots of kids who fall into the cracks, and very few people have the temperament, ability and motivation to be successful in the industrial model of schooling. So all of my kids get all of the accommodations they need to be successful. I have high but realistic and individualized expectations for all of my students and I provide as much structure as they need to get there.

3) I take personal responsibility for each child’s success

The quote above is commonly said in my class. When they told me that most teachers were failing half their kids I wondered how they slept at night. Notice that I said “failing their kids” not “half the kids are failing.” My job is to train them to be productive members of society and to help them a achieve their fullest humanity. When they fail, I’ve failed them. My kids know this so well that when one of them says something about not doing an assignment the others say: ” dude, you know she’ll find you and make you do it.” Failure is not an option in my class. They don’t have the choice, I am an efficient and benevolent dictator.

So again, not everything I do is easy to do but a few are

1) Don’t assign homework unless it’s for practice

Homework is unfair and unnecessary in the vast majority of cases. It’s ok to assign a little bit of reading and some math and science practice but it should be avoided. Some kids go home to moms and dads who do it for them and some of them don’t have a home. It doesn’t tell you anything about their learning because you have no idea how it got done. With homework, school, extracurricular and family commitments (some of my kids are working full time or raising their siblings) kids are pulling more than 8 hour days, usually much more. That’s not right and it’s unhealthy and they aren’t gaining from it. It is also incredibly unfair for educators to ask their students to do something they haven’t, couldn’t and wouldn’t do and very few teachers have had to be successful in our high stakes environment while raising their siblings and working.

2) Accept late work

If you don’t accept late work you are grading them on organization, how good their home life is, and compliance. Most of my Hispanic kids won’t turn in work unless it perfect out of respect for the teacher, some of my kids don’t know how to keep track of their work because their home life is chaotic and some are just forgetful. It is a bald-face lie to say this is preparing them for the real world. Find me an educated adult who has never asked for an extension, forgotten paperwork or refused to do something they thought was stupid and I will find you a liar or someone who is really into compliance which is only good for bureaucrats.

Allow the children the opportunity to revise

The goal is everyone getting mastery, yes? So some kids do that at different times, if you allow them to revise it will encourage them to reflect and improve. It you make them feel terrible for not understanding at your preferred pace they will develop fear and poor self esteem. When you screw up at work, your boss tells you to do it over. They don’t say, you’ll never do this right and you should have done this earlier. If they do, they are a bad boss and most adults won’t succeed or tolerate that for long.

Don’t grade attendance, compliance, tardiness, the number of times they speak or neatness

Unless those are the content and skills that you are measuring in your area (which would be SPed, AVID, or advisory not math, English or history) their grade should reflect mastery of the content or skills only. Does your boss micromanage you and tell you job is inadequate when it got the job done? As adults we know that would be bad management so you aren’t preparing them for anything valuable. Most kids have little to no control over attendance and tardiness because they are minors and also because they don’t have magical healing powers. 9 times out of ten they are out or late for reasons outside of their control and the tenth isn’t so egregious that you can’t deal with it individually.

There are a lot of things I do beyond this but these are the easiest and quickest to implement, it won’t guarantee every kid passes but a lot more will pass than if you are doing the opposite. As teachers we should be continuously reflecting and improving our practice to ensure that we don’t fail our kids because it is good teaching but also because it is the best way to teach personal responsibility.

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One thought on “On Easy Ways to Not Fail Kids

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