Student Engagement

What Failing Students Want Us to Remember

By seeing students as more than their grades, we can enable them to reach their potential.
December 20, 2017
A middle school male student sits at his desk, frowning and holding his head in his hands.
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Our schools in the United States operate primarily as meritocracies: Grades are earned, students are tracked into achievement groups, and awards and rewards are provided for those who perform satisfactorily. If a child isn’t performing at an expected level (for whatever reasons) negative descriptors are often assigned to that child, like “nonproficient reader,” “failing student,” or “poor test taker.”

Because of this system, teachers are placed in the situation of viewing students first and foremost as test takers and grade makers. It’s frustrating, at the very least. Grades actually have very little to do with learning. Learners benefit considerably more from a myriad of low-stakes assessments and routine feedback.

It’s typical in our schools—and I see this at the many middle and high school campuses I visit, as well as in the schools where I taught— for adults consider a student who is earning high marks a good child and a student with failing grades a not-so-good child. What a myopic lens we’ve produced in our schools, one that dismisses the vastness of all that is a child. And as we are strive to evolve into trauma-informed schools and educators, we need to realize that the current model only allows a child to be labeled “a successful student” by how well she performs as a test taker and grade maker. This narrative can actually exacerbate any pre-existing trauma and even produce trauma in a child who previously had none.

Looking Beyond Grades

So when a student is not performing, progressing, or participating, we need to pause and look beyond that child’s actions. We need to look beyond any behaviors of defiance or refusal. In this way we can break the curse of those long lingering—and possibly traumatizing— labels and begin to meet that child with a clearer picture of reality. When we do this, we’re able to better see what that child, whether 7 or 17 years old, is actually trying to tell us.

1. I am not my grade. I don’t get good grades or earn a lot of points on assignments even though I know some stuff. I often won’t even try because I know I’m going to get a bad grade. I wish there were other ways besides grades or points to show who I really am.

2. I can still contribute meaningfully. I like to help, but I pretend sometimes like I don’t and that I don’t care about being part of the school or my class. I protect myself because in school, the kids with good grades get picked to help more often.

3. I am not a disappointment. School is hard, and I know I let my teachers down, and when working in a group, I let down my classmates too. Because of this, I struggle to feel good about myself every day. What am I doing right? I wish in school that we could look at all the stuff we do right and not just mostly the things we do wrong.

4. Meet me where I am. There’s stuff I can do—just not this, right now, like this. I wish I had more time. I wish the directions and assignments made more sense to me. So much of school is so rushed and confusing.

5. Don’t give up. Find a way for me. I’m not sure why I don’t get it. I want someone to keep trying to find out. It’s not that I don’t want to do it, even though it sometimes looks like that. It helps when adults ask me questions. I can’t do it right now, but maybe someday I’ll be able to.

The Abundance Approach

We need to continue to call out the harmful practice of overemphasis on grades and tests, and band together to abandon deficit approaches in our schools. And in this quest for a more humanizing pedagogy, one that disrupts the traditional, meritocratic system, it’s critical that we turn to asset- and strength-based creative ways to celebrate, honor, bolster, and include students who have been labeled—perhaps for years—by a letter grade that stands for failing as well as by negative, deficit descriptors.

It’s time to embrace an abundance approach with our learners—highlighting, focusing, and building on strengths while deflecting deficits. Here’s how it goes: First, unveil the strengths inside each child. Make a list of those strengths, those jewels (skills, talents, and interests). Meet the child where he or she is academically, socially, and emotionally, and then utilize those strengths through personalized instruction to assist the student’s growth. With this approach, regardless of the number of points they’ve earned in a class or how they performed on a state test, all children can feel seen, celebrated, and supported in schools.