I flunked out of college my freshman year. And when it happened, I wasn't surprised. I excelled at skipping class, getting to know the local bartenders, and generally avoiding all responsibility other than maintaining my part-time job waiting on tables. I failed myself. Luckily, I had a great step-mom who took me aside and said, "This isn't you. You aren't a failure. You need to get your crap together." And with those words, I began to turn myself around. I crawled out of a deep academic hole and managed to find a major that motivated me. I even won an award for my student teaching.
I had to deal with academic failure again in graduate school. And that experience obliterated my self-esteem. I think there were 12 people in my program. I remember the faculty brought all the grad students in for an initial meeting before the semester officially began. We were all sitting together in a classroom. I could say we were bubbling with excitement but that would be a lie. In truth we were sizing each other up. My graduate program was very competitive and we were all well aware that every year, at least one person in the program didn't make it past the first semester and at least one more person failed their comprehensive exams. These statistics were often recited as a point of pride by the chair of the department.
The year I did my master's, I wasn't the one who didn't make it through the first semester. I remember that student because she had come all the way from Boston. I was the one who failed one of the comprehensive exams. All the grad students had mailboxes and if you failed your exam, you didn't get a letter stating your results in your box. I didn't get a letter in my box. All my fellow students were also aware that I didn't get a letter in my box. In fact, most of them knew I had failed before I did. I understood what I had to do next because the department chair had discussed in detail the procedures to follow in case we failed our exams.
Once I fully understood that I had failed, I made appointments with my profs. I talked to each professor and they discussed with me how they read my essays and they all felt they weren't up to snuff. None could tell me what I was missing. They couldn't tell me what they were looking for and yet they were confident that I had indeed failed. They wouldn't discuss how they had arrived at my scores. I guess they weren't aware of instructional rubrics. I could retake my exams but I had to wait a semester and I needed to register for another grad class and pay for it. Then they complimented me for taking it all so well. I never felt like such a nothing in my life.
I passed my exams the next semester but not without the department chair telling me that even though I had passed, I had not done significantly better than the first time. I didn't go to my graduation and I didn't set foot on that campus for another 15 years. It took me a decade to move beyond all of it.
The reason for this post is that I know that how we talk to children and what we think about them as learners impacts them very directly. It is critical that we sharpen our knowledge about learning process and how to elevate struggling children. Seeing yourself as a failure is like you are alone in a pit with slippery sides and there is no rope to pull yourself up with. Today I had a conversation with a first grader that was convinced he was dumb because he knew he was held back and he couldn't read. I asked him why he thought he got held back and he said he didn't get his spelling words right and he couldn't get his work done. He said that he was doing better this year but that he still isn't a 2nd grader. In order for this child to progress, his teachers will have to repair and rebuild his faith in himself. It may take more than one school year. The feelings of failure run deep for kids, just like they do for adults.