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Defanging the F Grade

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's great American novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne's letter was, of course, an accusatory A. Damning for her, but I'd have been very happy had I received more of those when I was in secondary school.

For me, the scarlet letter that lent its shaming tinge to my academic career was the F. Ms. Prynne suffered greatly because of her letter, but I had my share of angst dealing with more than a few of mine.

As it happens, by dint of luck and a good enough mind, I've done better than some of the teachers whose courses I failed might have predicted. Yet I can recall, as if it were yesterday, the terrible shadow cast over my life by an F in math, or physics, or chemistry.

Whatever else I might have accomplished during a given marking period -- excellent records in English, art, and social studies, solo singing parts with the choir -- all it took was one F to cast a near-permanent pall over my school experience (not to mention a foreboding quiet over the supper table on the evenings after I brought my report card home).

I'm convinced that a feeling of inadequacy brought on by those scarlet letters lingers still, decades after they torpedoed my grade point average. I hadn't yet heard the saying that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Clearly, the failing grades didn't kill me, but instead of making me stronger, they just made me feel inadequate. My teachers' moving hands had written, and I had been found wanting.

I'm not going to claim I didn't deserve those failing marks, but they weren't from lack of trying. I simply couldn't bend my brain around the mysteries of algebra, for instance, and it took weekly tutoring just to get me to raise my F to a D. So, compiling my test scores and my homework demerits and my generally glazed expression in class, what could my teachers do?

But that was then, in an academic era with few gray areas, when failure represented -- well, failure. I have since seen that failing can be a beginning, rather than an end, a source of encouragement instead of a crushing blow.

In the mid-1990s, I worked for a national business magazine covering the technology boom in Silicon Valley. I spent a lot of time reporting on paradigm-shifting start-ups, interviewing such famously successful entrepreneurs as Oracle's Larry Ellison, AutoDesk's Carol Bartz (now CEO of Yahoo), and Netscape cofounder James H. Clark.

What I discovered was that almost all the successes in the Valley had been preceded by failure, and that an F on an entrepreneur's business report card was generally understood to be just a rite of passage. (Clark, who became a billionaire when Netscape went public, was a high school dropout, by the way.)

Paul Sappho, a well-regarded futurist in Silicon Valley, neatly summed up this attitude in a recent speech: "We know how to fail," he said, and he went on to joke that the reason high tech company headquarters in the area are surrounded by lush grass is so that when people jump out of high windows, "they only sprain their ankles."

Of course, there have always been dedicated teachers who help students use a failing grade as a catalyst for progress rather than a reprimand. And Edutopia's recent coverage of multiple intelligences spotlighted the widening understanding that difficulties with one subject need not overshadow a kid's abilities in other areas.

Realistically, there are students whose failures indicate attitudinal and social problems difficult for teachers to remedy alone. I'm no fan of grade inflation, and I'm not suggesting that failure be euphemized out of existence. But it should be seen as something of value, even if its impact on metrics is negative. After all, failure is inevitably part of everyone's life after school -- relationships fail, businesses fail, the best-laid plans go awry -- and we move on smarter, if we've learned anything at all.

So, if the goal of school is to prepare students for future success, failure needs to be understood in a broader context. There are ways, as Sappho says, to "know how to fail," to turn the stark finality of an F into part of a continuity, a bump in the road, not a blowout, the prelude to a comeback -- something that can be counterbalanced with successes and used for motivation instead of frustration.

I'd love to hear your ideas on how to accomplish this.

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Kim Raybon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with you. I feel that an F grade is a reflection on both the teacher and the student. As a teacher, I want my students to succeed. If they do not learn something, then I did not do my job. Teachers should find no satisfaction whatsoever in awarding F grades. We should take it personally and recognize that we failed that student. On the other hand, students must take responsibility as well. They must do their part. I tell my students frequently that I can teach them all day long, but if they are not doing their part in the process, then they are not learning. It is definetly a two-way street. If a student earns a F, then the teacher needs to assess want she/he has done and ask what else must I do to help this student succeed. At the same time, the student must also reflect on what he/she has done or not done in this case. Sometimes an F can be a motivator if handled in the correct way.

Michelle Coggins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wanted to express my agreement with Jennifer. I have taught for 3 years full time and 5 years as a substitute. Extra credit given to a student that has not made an effort to do the regular classwork is wrong. Bonus point available for all students is a way for students to help themselves, but they have to have the motivation to try. I am willing to give every child an opportunity but they must put in the effort.
Not everyone will be an A student but if they put any effort into the work they should not fail. The desire to succeed needs to be instilled into the students

Joan Fretz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe the best way to accomplish this is for school adults to be committed to maintaining and fostering a Growth Mindset. I encourage readers to take a look at Carol Dweck's work on Mindsets for an intentional way of helping students develop a positive self-concept. A person with a Growth Mindset is a mastery-oriented learner. Growth Mindset people do not believe that people have a set amount of intelligence. They believe that you can "grow" your intelligence through effort. A mastery-oriented learner loves learning, values effort, craves challenge and is NOT defined by failure. For them, a failure is just a signal to try a different approach.

One way of fostering growth mindsets is to model that yourself, in how you handle situations and how you respond to others when they experience failure. Helping kids to use positive self-talk as they work their way through challenges, provides a way of working through difficulties without connecting that difficulty to your level of intelligence.

If we "Teach with the Brain in Mind," as Eric Jensen suggests, then we are going to explain to students that the neuroscientists have proven that everytime you learn something new and practice a skill over and over, you are growing more neurons and the connections between those neurons are getting faster and are growing your brain.

When students understand that we all have the ability to become better at anything, effort will increase and self esteem will be able to survive the challenges and disappointments of life.

How can we accomplish this? By making "Growth Mindset" part of the culture of our schools.

Joan Fretz

Krystal Long's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with allowing a student to use a failing grade as a motivator to do better. I have only been teaching 3 years, but in that three years I have found that once a student finds success, they are more apt to try harder. I have spent many nights grading papers to find that one or two students didn't understand the subject matter. It is so easy to write a student off. It is so much more rewarding to work problem after problem with that student and finally see the light bulb of knowledge go off. I will always take the time to assist students in learning from their mistakes. We are here to teach these students, not to let them fall through the cracks.

Lauren Kreifus's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can really relate to your experiences with middle schoolers who accept failing with ease. It was unsettling to me because I grew up in a home where a "C" was pretty much a failure. I too have students who are not motivated and do not care to do work. They have been pushed through the system thus far and that's what they are used to. I have been teaching in my district for five years and it is a challenge every year to motivate the students who normally fail. I do everything in my power to eliminate failures. To be honest, some times the students do get Fs but the frequency has decreased greatly. It is a battle that we might as teachers, specifically middle school teachers.
I do believe that if a student fails an assignment that the F needs to mean something to them. If it's just another failing grade in a long series of failing grades, there is no impact. We have to strive to show the students they can succeed and that earning higher grades feels great. It develops a great sense of self esteem and accomplishment. Good luck with your challenges, I'm sure you'll be successful!

Andy Stroup - Iowa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If a student truly has mastered the material, regardless of effort, and this mastery is shown through reliable and valid assessment tests that match local, state, and federal guidelines of curriculum levels of mastery they deserve an A. But, if a student earns an A because they are good at playing school, there is a problem. Too many students are graduating without the basics and are then failing later in life (most notably college) because we did not prepare students for assessments and learning models they will see in the future.

Chris Hendricks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My goal is to give each student an opportunity to succeed. It would be great to think that failure is not an option, but sometimes it is.

There are circumstances when I feel that because of my teaching a student failed. However, when a student actively tries to fail, then what are you supposed to do? I teach fifth grade, and in general, I find it is very difficult for one of my students to fail. Usually failure happens because of lack of effort. My question is, am I to blame because a student chooses to not use their time wisely or put forth effort? That being said, I by no means condone this behavior in my classroom. Often times it is a behavior learned outside of school.

All this being said, my goal as a teacher is to give each child an opportunity to learn in a safe and educational environment.

Chris Hendricks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with you that teaching and learning is a two-way street. A teacher must be held responsible for the effectiveness of their communication to students, and likewise, students have to make school a full time job and learn new ideas each day. I also agree with the idea that a "F" can, and generally does serve as a great motivator to "get the motor turning."

That being said, my questions are: What happens if you cannot reach "that one" student? What if you try everything you can imagine, and then some? What if, for a particular student and their family, school is just not a major priority? Do you still place the failure in your own hands?

Thanks for your comments.


Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been a math teacher for seven years in Ohio. I have dealt with my share of failing grades and I work with mostly lower level students. I have found that I have always been willing to help students pass if they want the opportunity. I stay after school, give up my lunch and plan, I give them any spare moment I can. I do agree with most here that Fs reflect both the student and teacher, but sometimes I think it is all the student.

I had a student who I went to and worked with one on one during class. I talked to the parent, I talked to other teachers, but all he would do is sleep. I even gave him every paper he did not do (multiple times) as well as giving copies to his guided resource teacher. There were many days that no matter what we tried we could not get him to put his head up. We played basketball review and he slept. We did hands on activities, he slept. We did regular work, he slept. I did everything I could think of and he slept. I just don't think in this situation I am to blame.

After being involved in Walden University and studying more about education, I have come away with some more knowledge about the F. In one of are articles, No Choice But Success by Corbett, Wilson, and Williams, it talked of a teacher who refused failure. If a student received anything less than a C it had to be redone. I know this might not seem possible all the time, but I think if more teachers refused to let Fs occur and made their students redo the material then more students would succeed. I know their are some students, like the one I talked about above, that will still get an F, but one day I will hopefully be able to help another student like this one too.

Jen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Melissa's situation with the student who chose to sleep no matter how many strategies she used is very familiar to me. I had a student this year who, no matter what myself and my co-teacher tried, refused to put in effort. We would also stay before school and after school. We had countless parent conferences both with and without the student. I involved the guidance office, principal, and nurse to see if they thought I was missing something. The work was not too difficult, as I modified it incredibly, and he could answer questions orally if he felt like it.That was the key, though, "if he felt like it!" He did pass 2 of the four marking periods because we felt like there were a few glimpses of effort. We failed him the other two marking periods when no effort was put forth. My principal feels like we, as faculty, did indeed fail him and other students like him. I am offended by that, though. The old saying, "You could lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" really reflected how I felt about this particular student and my efforts during the course of the year. I think that just passing him would be a disservice to him, and his future. If anyone agrees with me, or feels otherwise, I'd love to hear from you. I would like to keep situations like this from happening again.

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