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On branding, and “failure”

August 19, 2010
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This statement probably won’t surprise anyone who knows me, but I think about words a lot. Given the kind of work I do, and the places where I do it, I think about the word “failure” all the time.

I hate it.

As a lifelong perfectionist and overachiever, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time trying to avoid it. But when I decided to become a teacher, and especially once I decided to work with kids in poor communities, that became impossible. There’s the constant discussion of failure by people outside of the community: “Oh, those schools are awful. They always fail the state tests.” “Someone should really do something about those failing schools.” There’s the labeling of teachers and students: “Oh, it’s no wonder those students are failing. Look at the teachers they have!” There’s the labeling of public schools in general: “There’s a crisis in America’s public schools! The schools are failing our children!”

And of course, there are the feelings of failure: “I’m never going to get [any of a laundry list of tasks] done.” “I hate the way I handled that. I need to apologize.” “I wish I could have…”

But the one place I never actually see any failure is in the children. Sure, I’ve met plenty of kids who don’t test well, or have any of a number of “issues” some adult or another would love to wring out of them. But of the 200+ students I’ve tutored, taught, or mentored, I’ve never met a single one I’d consider a failure. I’ve never met a child I thought was stupid or deficient in any way. When you see children every day, and get to know them as whole people, there is always evidence that they’re capable of more than we assume at first glance.

The child who flunks all of the math tests may be a phenomenal cashier during a fundraiser, easily making change, multiplying and dividing with decimals in his head. The child who can’t write might be able to express her ideas very clearly if she’s allowed to draw or speak out loud. The child who might not have the quickest oral reading fluency scores may be making rich and meaningful connections to written text, if I’m willing to respect his slightly slower pace. Seeing that, I started to question whether it’s really possible that students as young as mine could fail. At least, I wondered if it was possible that they could fail all on their own, given how many other people have an influence on what they do.

If I give a math test, and 70% of my students fail, did they fail, or did I? I’m thinking it’s the latter. I may not have modeled or explained the concepts well enough, or given enough independent practice time. Maybe the test I gave didn’t test what I thought it did. Maybe some students needed to show what they could do in a different format. Maybe others needed an extra day of review.

Then I started thinking, “Well, what about me? If I work for 12 hours, sometimes more, five or six days a week, and never actually get done, am I a failure? Or is something else going on here?” I started to question how I’d been thinking of myself, and some of my colleagues. Is that teacher bad or lazy because she leaves earlier than I do? Sure, she’s not doing all the glitzy things I am, but she’s got her own children and a husband to whom she’s responsible. Is there something wrong with us, lowly teachers in a failing school, because we struggle to keep up with everything that’s required of us?

Take last year as an example. On any given day, I could be called upon to attend a faculty meeting, and a grade level meeting, and a data team meeting, and a parent conference, as well as provide food for a hungry child, help resolve a conflict, provide a safe space for children who are frightened or angry, break up a fight, report suspicions of child abuse or neglect, investigate petty crimes (stealing is huge), avail my classroom to people investigating less-than-petty crimes (Drugs? Weapons? In 5th grade? Yup!), respond to–ahem– inappropriate behavior at recess, tend to injuries (a full-time school nurse is apparently a luxury these days), dry tears, boost sagging self-esteem, maintain bodies of evidence for myself and my students, prepare lessons, prepare materials for the lessons, buy materials for those lessons, grade assignments, administer assessments, attend professional development sessions, give a presentation for others’ professional development…and, you know, teach. Fully differentiated instruction, in several different subjects, for 32 students, whose Data tell me that their performance levels span from kindergarten to 8th grade.

And I’m happy to do it all (provided I don’t have to fight crummy leadership at the same time…). Like Maria, I made a conscious choice to align my work with my values, which means serving these children. I don’t do this because there’s nothing else I can do (not to brag, but I’m a talented lady!), but because I feel it’s one of the best things I can do.

But it takes a village to raise a child. If I’m simultaneously doing my own job, and picking up the slack of five or six other villagers (nurse, social worker, role model, valet, therapist, nanny…), is it really fair to label me a failure if I can’t do all of those jobs exceptionally well?

In light of that, I started to think about this “failing schools” jive differently. Failure is still an uncomfortable concept, but if we’re going to brandish the term so frequently, then I think we ought to really dig into it. Get up close, and examine it. Think about all of its implications, not just the convenient news-hour sound-bytes.

Thus, our clunky, branding-disaster of a title. Yeah, we know. But we take it on anyway, and hope you will too. “What is a ‘failing’ school?” “What does it mean to fail?” “Who’s failing?” “Are schools failing, or are we failing schools?” It’s uncomfortable at times (though there are so many things going right in our ‘failing schools’, and we will share those, too!). But we want to provoke you to think, and question, and empathize, and get angry, and celebrate, and work for something better.

‘Cause that’s what good teachers do.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2010 10:33 am

    I couldn’t agree more. I am as blunt with my students as I am my own children, and, when something just isn’t clicking, I will ask them, “Okay; I know none of you are dumb here, so what’s the problem?” Often it’s just a matter of teaching something a different way, providing a few more examples, or just starting all over again from scratch.

    I strongly believe no child I’ve ever taught is capable of failure unless those around him or her allow the failure to happen, but as you said, it takes a village, and one teacher alone–no matter how hard he or she tries–is capable of duplicating a village.

    The word “failure” itself has such a stigma about it that many schools use a “U” for unsatisfactory instead of an “F” for failure when it comes to their grading scale, yet when it comes to the schools themselves and the teachers, the word is thrown around haphazardly and repeatedly. I agree it is definitely a worthwhile topic to discuss–thank you for a great beginning to that discussion!

  2. mariasallee permalink*
    August 21, 2010 11:07 am

    I was inspired to add a new post to further address time management issues you touch on here. I love your comment re: full-time nurses apparently being luxuries. Next we’ll be cleaning the bathrooms too (wait, I already do some of that). Less pay, more work! Less support, higher stakes demands! I hate to sound like a broken record, but…

  3. Constance permalink
    April 5, 2011 6:17 pm

    I certainly agree that public schools are branded as failure because they do not live up too the expectations or norms of society. In such cases teachers are the ones who usually share the blame for students’ failure. Despite the crucial role you play at multitasking you are still expected to impart knowledge in ways that your students can understand. I admire your honesty in using reflective practice to garner the reason why we as teacher fail. This is important because it is through this practice that we are better able to develop strategies to improve our teaching instruction in the classroom. Regardless of the blame game against teachers, as you stated, it takes a village to raise a child. Therefore, all stakeholders in education need to take a serious look at the valid reasons or facts why many public schools fail to reach the required standards.

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