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Failure is not the enemy

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

A few years ago, I was tutoring a ninth grader who was struggling in her geometry class. Her teacher’s teaching style didn’t mesh with her own learning style, and she also had a lot of test anxiety, so even when she began to master the material, it wasn’t yet showing through on her tests.

As we worked together, I observed my student slowly replacing her overwhelmedness with genuine interest and enjoyment. She started tackling difficult proofs, and her eyes would light up with excitement and understanding when all the pieces fit together. We were a few months into the long-term project of slowly building up her understanding when her dad made a decision, without my input, to pull her out of her geometry class because she was “in danger of failing.”

Even though my student understood the material, she got so nervous on the tests that if you just looked at her test scores it looked like she couldn’t do geometry. But she could! She consistently did it perfectly, by herself, in our tutoring sessions! When we reviewed her tests, the material made sense to her once she was outside the testing environment. And I was confident that she could pull up her grades if we continued working together.

In the sessions before her dad switched her math classes, I asked my student what she wanted to do. She told me that her choice would be to switch to another geometry class at the same level, but just with a different teacher. But for whatever reason, she didn’t perceive this option as being available to her—I’m not sure if it was a scheduling issue, a political issue, convenience, parental pressure, or something else.

What her dad decided to do was switch her into a “problem solving” class. My student and I met one last time after she switched into this class. Her book made me want to cry—it was a bunch of reasoning problems about things like Corey the Camel carrying bananas across the desert. (I’m serious. It really had problems featuring Corey the Camel.) The material was basically elementary-school level—no algebra, no geometry. Just simple word problems. Maybe the geometry class was 15% too hard for her, but this “problem-solving” class was about 100% too easy for her.

After that session, I did something I’d never done before. I wrote an email to the dad, explaining as diplomatically as possible and at great length that I really didn’t think this new class was appropriate for his daughter. I explained how much his daughter loved working on Geometry and was learning a lot even if she wasn’t yet testing well. And I expressed my concern that this class would limit her in the future, since basic algebra and geometry were prerequisites for so many other disciplines.

I wrote, wouldn’t it be better for her to take geometry and learn some geometry, even if she got a “failing” grade, than for her to take a class where she would learn nothing at all?

Her father’s response was vituperative. How dare I suggest that he allow his child to “fail!” And I never saw either of them again. I honestly don’t know how I could have handled this differently, but my heart still breaks for that student.

In comparison, another student’s family handled the perceived threat of failure very differently. I was working with a ninth grader who was struggling with Algebra 2 because her elementary school had failed to teach her basics like long division (she was supposed to “figure it out for herself”.) I believe when we started working together she was failing the class.

I was extremely proud of how hard this student worked, and she finished the year with either a low B or a high C. At the end of the year, her algebra 2 teacher suggested that she consider voluntarily repeating the class, just to strengthen her skills before moving on to more advanced math.

My student chose to repeat the class, even though she felt at least a little bit embarrassed to be the only sophomore in that class full of freshmen (at least I figured this was the case since she joked about it). She chose to learn instead of to look good. And her parents supported her. I was so impressed with her integrity.

By the end of her second time through algebra 2, the material that had brought her to tears the previous year did not phase her at all. But I think about the other family,
and how they didn’t want to let their daughter fail. Did that student ever get another chance to love geometry? Was she stuck in remedial math classes for the rest of high school? What did she did she do for her math requirements in college? I wish I knew. I hope she got another chance, instead of internalizing a message that she “couldn’t do math.”

Why do we protect our kids from failure, even to the detriment of their own learning?

Related Posts:
I cried myself to sleep over my algebra homework
Algebra Tears
“I Think I See A Mathematician!”

6 Comments on “Failure is not the enemy”

  • Kate E on May 12th 7:51 pm

    I admire your courage for writing to the father in question. You could have kept your head down and done what the parent asked. I’m doing that with one of my tutoring students, who says that his math class is boring and I completely agree with him. I’m not really happy about this, but I don’t see anything I can do that would actually change things.

  • Jasmine on May 24th 10:34 am

    I struggle with this question often. Sometime parents come to me for advice (often for parenting too…as if I’m some expert on parenting…), and I appreciate that they value my opinion. The hard part is definitely when they don’t. I admire you for speaking up! I have a student who said the other day: “if you could just sit next to me while I take tests, you wouldn’t even need to say anything, I would be able to pass.” It’s really too bad that there isn’t another way for students to prove their knowledge. We hold this interesting balance among students (who we work with), teachers (who rule what we teach), and parents (who pay us)…ah the life of a tutor!

  • Rebecca Zook on June 1st 11:57 am

    Jasmine, thanks for your thoughts!! I totally know what you mean. It can be soooo challenging to confront a parent who doesn’t value your opinion, and honestly, sometimes it’s just not worth it. In this case, I think my concern for my student’s future outweighed my reluctance to confront the parent and gave me more courage.

    I know what you mean about the interesting balance between students, teachers, and parents! It can sometimes help me to remember that the reason people seek us out is because we are experts. So it makes sense for them to ask for our opinions sometimes, since we do have expertise!

    That is so great that your student feels so comfortable with you that they would just want you to sit there during a test to help them pass. I guess the goal is to try to help students learn to get into that calm, peaceful, confident focused math zone even when we’re not around. I would love to hear more about your journey!!

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