Failing Students

The title of this post can be read several ways. One could read it as an adjective and a noun, as in students who are failing. One could read it as a verb and a noun, as in the act of assigning low grades to struggling students. Still another way would be to read it as what happens when one fails to help students achieve. How one reads it could indicate personal insights regarding education and the relationships between students and teachers.

Failure has many interpretations in education. This leads to stakeholders standing poised to assign blame. Questions emerge when students fail. Did they fail to learn? If so, why? Were they not capable of learning the material? Were they distracted? Did someone fail to provide them with adequate support? Did they learn, but the tools used to measure learning didn’t show this? Attempts to answer these questions blur the boundaries of responsibility.

Special education creates further confusion. Can students with disabilities really fail in the general education curriculum? What if they receive specially designed instruction sufficient to minimize the impact of their disabilities? Who is at fault if a student isn’t making progress? What amount of progress should be considered adequate? Failure tends to be the fault of the teacher or the school according to special education law.

I wrestled with these distinctions throughout my career. Certainly, I thought about them in a broad, philosophical sense. Much more practically and more meaningfully, I thought about them regarding the students in my charge and how I served them. I wondered if I was failing them. I tended to think I was.

I really wanted to help the students I taught. My motivations were mixed. At the most egotistical level, I wanted to prove to myself and to others that I could be an effective educator. Taxpayers were furnishing my salary, so I felt an obligation to them to fulfill my job description. Parents were counting on me to prepare their children for work or post-secondary education, which made me want to give everything I could give. I had enough incentive to please these stakeholders to drive me.

Then there was my obligation to the students themselves. Part of my rationale for teaching was the desire to offer an opportunity to those whose overall opportunities hadn’t been as favorable as mine. I guess there was an element of charity in this. Opportunities weren’t really mine to offer. All I could do was present literacy tools and show them how to use these. I realized early on the limits of my effectiveness.

I tried. I showed up early. I took work home with me. I researched new strategies. I studied the content area I taught. I probed students. I examined results. I planned and implemented interventions. I tried others when the initial interventions didn’t work. I attempted methods that were beyond what felt comfortable to me. I revamped routines, as hard as that was to do. What did I find? Most of the students I taught remained at approximately the same performance levels throughout the entire time I taught them.

I had huge advantages. Small classes. Ample technology. The same students for several consecutive years. None of this mattered. Colleagues praised me for running an efficient, organized classroom. I prided myself on making productive use of everyone’s time. I tried to teach as though my classroom was being broadcast to harsh critics. I should have been able to muster notable results. Instead, gains were almost nonexistent. A few students showed some growth. Nearly as many of them showed regression.

Evidence for the ineffectiveness of my instruction was clear. Reading levels stagnated. Writing errors persisted. Skills didn’t generalize. Crucially, the students I taught tended to do very little after graduating. My efforts felt useless in the face of mediocrity.

The performance of colleagues made me feel even worse. I watched student teachers take over for me like I hadn’t been there. I watched a succession of teachers step into my former classroom and do as well as I had done with the same population. Not only were my efforts inconsequential, they easily could be replicated.

What gripped me most was the realization that in special education, a teacher can do all that is possible and it might not be enough. The nature of teaching students with disabilities begs that some are going to reach a limit. This was hard to accept. I had to reconcile with students who wanted to go college but really couldn’t. I had to offer unsatisfying explanations to parents who didn’t understand why their teenage children couldn’t write. I had to admit that I had tried, but my efforts weren’t enough to help students overcome the limitations they faced.

When I say I failed them, I do so fully understanding the circumstances. I had advantages, but I acknowledge the disadvantages I faced. Fewer than half of the students I taught were of average cognitive functioning. Many were far below this. The balance shifted towards more intense disabilities as my career progressed. Most of the students lived in poverty. Their disabilities led to frequent absences. All of them were coping with adolescence, which is its own interruption. I could go on, but in short, they were limited by a host of factors. Of all of these, their cognitive disabilities were the most difficult to surmount. I only could do so much to help them.

The limitations were real. So were the shortcomings of my attempts to help students achieve despite them. However, I also acknowledge that I might have helped them in select capacities that were harder to measure. I can’t know for sure how teaching them vocabulary and note taking skills may have helped the few who tried post-secondary education. I may have instilled some amount of work ethic in a few. Something I taught may have ended up being useful in some unanticipated way. If nothing else, they got to have a normalized high school experience through me.

With time, I still became disillusioned. I sought other ways to foster meaning. This was for me as much as it was for them. Transition skills gradually became the focus of my senior sections. The principal allegedly read my lesson plans, but she didn’t stop me as I veered significantly from the curriculum. Eventually, I began individual seminars on music and poetry in an attempt to exploit student interests. This engaged me, but also gave them something meaningful to explore.

These efforts didn’t change how I failed them according to my job description. My failure wasn’t uniform and it depended on methods of measurement. I had definite successes. I oversaw their IEPs and made sure they made progress towards goals (even if the progress was next to meaningless). Success. I presented an equitable opportunity to access the general education curriculum (even if they really couldn’t access it). Success. I helped several students make progress in decidedly non-curricular pursuits (curriculum be damned). Success. But they didn’t get better at reading. They remained woefully bad at writing. Most of them lived at home without jobs after graduating. Were my smaller successes worth much when considering the depth of such failure?

I suppose success isn’t captured in one element. I assigned too much value on reading levels and writing competency. Yes, a former English teacher just typed that. I don’t think I assigned too much value on jobs, but that was out of my hands. Despite reports that student learning depends so desperately on teacher prowess, success in special education is largely beyond the scope of a teacher’s influence. Success needs to be defined differently for these students, which means failure must have a specific meaning, too.

I didn’t fail, because in most respects I couldn’t have succeeded. I didn’t fail, because I did what I was feasible to support the students I taught. I didn’t fail, because I found alternate definitions for success. That seems to be the key to success in special education. Success and failure can’t be absolutes and instead must be contextual. Applying this reasoning to the rest of life, success and failure become little more than perspectives. Looking back at my career, I’ve tried to keep my perspective as positive as possible. Some might call this rationalizing. I call it dignifying.

Failing Students

2 thoughts on “Failing Students

  1. This is such an important discussion, Jeffrey. I have only very limited experience working with people with disabilities in the 1970s – in a then nightmarish institution (Belchertown State School for the Mentally Retarded). But the residents taught me valuable lessons that are more significant than any I learned in college – non-judgmental acceptance, and kindness to others matters more than IQ. It’s something that one of the students I taught in college highlighted when she wrote to thank me for being kind and supportive. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou, Perhaps an alternate definition of success is needed – did you make others feel as though they were respected and worthy of respect? That they each had special gifts to offer others, even though these may have been different than what others had to offer?


    1. Thank you for the insights, Carol. You can rest assured that conditions for people with intellectual disabilities have improved markedly since your experiences. Special education requires a form of lateral thinking. Alternate paradigms for success have to exist or those working in the field might just go mad.

      Liked by 1 person

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