The Life of Bon: I let my students fail my class.

Monday, January 27, 2014

I let my students fail my class.

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I had an interesting chat with a student the other day.  I really love this kid.  He is sweet and adorable and shows up to class every dang day.  He makes these awkward yet hilarious jokes and the whole class laughs with him because he nails the humor and has this quirky, odd confidence that we can't get enough of.

This student has never passed my class.  But he participates, he does work, he delights us with his charisma, he just can't get to that 60%.

At the end of second quarter he stopped trying.  While the rest of the class was working on their research paper, he just stared blankly at his computer.  Or he put his head down and took a nap.  I would tap him or ask him how his paper was going or what I could do to help him.  One afternoon when he came after school to get his cell phone I had taken from him (punishment for using it in class without permission) I told him how much I wanted him to pass second quarter and that I believed he could.  We wrote a "contract" together and if he could pass the class he would get a "key card" that my school gives out- an entry in a drawing for a car and a $25 gift certificate to one of many local restaurants and stores.  He only seemed half interested in the deal, and as our plan rolled out, he really never gave it an honest try.  He didn't put in any extra effort, and he failed second quarter.

Earlier this week I saw him messing around in class while all the other students were working on a group project.  I really want this boy to pass, but at the same time was a bit tired of pushing and prodding and not receiving any effort back.  So I asked him, "Do you have any desire to pass this class?  If there is even a small part of you that wants it and is willing to work for it, then I will help you.  But if you have decided you are not going to pass the class then just tell me and I will stop bothering you."

He was confused.  "You'll let me do nothing?"

"If that's what you want, yes."

"That's what I want."

"You sure?  You don't want to pass the class?"

"No."

"Ok.  You're free to do what you want then, just don't disturb the other students from learning."

And he promptly put his headphones in, laid his head on the desk, and fell asleep.

When I went into teaching I thought I would save all the children.  I had grand dreams of Dead Poet's Society and Freedom Writers and I wanted to be that teacher that made that difference.  The Oh Captain, My Captain!  I wanted to be the one that was there for the struggling students when no one else was.  I wanted to be the teacher that inspired the reluctant reader, that made the students work hard and discover how smart they were and how capable they were.  I wanted to be the teacher that shouted from the desktops "In my classroom, failure is not an option!"

Well, guess what.  I just gave a student the option to fail.  And he took it.

It took about a year of teaching before it dawned on me that I did not, actually, have endless amount of energy.  I discovered I had x amount of energy, and I could only do x amount of things for my students.  What they need is someone with boundless energy, limitless time, and that do and be everything for their students.  I am not this teacher.  No teacher is, in fact.  It almost makes me kind of mad at Hollywood for creating these perfect teacher movies or at the university I graduated from for making me think I would save the world, or I don't know, maybe at myself for being young and naive and thinking that I could (or should) rescue all failing teenagers.  I can't.

Once I realized I only had a certain amount of energy to give to my students, I started to be a little more selective with where I was putting that energy.  My first year of teaching I spent 80% of my energy on 20% of my students- the students who would fail no matter what I did, the students who couldn't care less, the students who had severe discipline and behavior problems or barely scraped by.  I spent so much energy on that 20% that I ignored the other 80% of my students- the kids who loved learning, the kids who wanted to please me, the kids who actual read the assigned chapters for crying out loud.  They were getting the shaft while I tried in vain to reach students who refused to be reached.

It isn't easy to let that 20% go.  In many ways I feel like I'm failing my students when I do this.  (Both literally and figuratively.)  I still don't have it all quite figured out in my head yet.  But I know I can't reach every student.  I know some kids are going to enter my class hating to read and they are going to leave my class hating to read.  Some students will never like me.  Some students will think my rules are stupid and my punishments unfair and I will never earn their respect.  Some students will leave my class and forget about me completely, holding no lasting memories of any of the work I put in to making that class fun or interesting or meaningful for them.

I don't exactly know why I'm telling you this except for that maybe I am trying to give myself permission to let go of the 20.  I don't feel one hundred percent great about letting my students down, but at the same time I know that to keep my own sanity, to avoid burn out, and to continue and enjoy teaching for years to come that I have to put limits on what I expect myself to do and accomplish in the classroom.  They are my students and I love them, but at the end of the day, it is my job.  My family will always come first, my religion will come first, my own selfish pursuits and desires may even come first.  (One of my pet peeves with Freedom Writers is that she essentially sacrifices her marriage for her students.  I hate that that idea is even suggested as a possibility for teachers... no teacher should ever be encouraged to sacrifice her family in the name of 17 year olds and a $35,000 paycheck.)

In the end, I hope this makes me a better teacher.  It might not.  But I like to think that while I may lose that 20%,  I can give more to the wanting 80%.  I can devote more of my energy, time and love to the students who really need it and want it.  Believe it or not, there are teenagers out there who love learning, who are genuinely interested in what Jay Gatsby's tragic flaw is, who crave the love and attention of their teachers.

So I'm going to give it to them.

72 comments:

  1. I don't think people realize just how hard being a teacher is. My husband was a middle school teacher for two years and it really took it out of him. Especially in the district the he worked in, people expected teachers to be super heroes. But they only have so much in them. The kids need to meet them halfway.

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    1. Yes! I definitely agree with that... the "superhero" mentality for teachers. Society does put a ton of pressure on teachers and expects us to put in overtime and be here before or after school for the kids and do way more than we could ever fit into a 40 hour work week and for such a meager paycheck. It's a weird society.

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  2. This is the conflict of my entire teaching career. I spend hours and hours at the back table with my struggling kiddos, but when they never ever come early for help, or do their homework, or even try to stay out of trouble at recess, its so discouraging. And then I wonder if I'm doing the rest of my class a disservice by focusing more on my struggling kids than the ones who eat up my every word. In teaching, you're always taught that it's worth the effort to save the one kid, but at what point do you begin to waste that effort, when it could be helping others?

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    1. YES! Exactly. Like my principal says, You're not Jesus. Don't leave the 99 to rescue the 1. It sounds harsh, but at some point it is true. You have to give your energy where it will be taken and appreciated.

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  3. I've been struggling with this same thing as second quarter came to a close, too! Thank you for the encouraging words.

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    1. You bet! I don't know if they were exactly encouraging, I just know I can't keep expecting myself to do it all.

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  4. I love this! It's the biggest conflict ever--where to focus your attention. As much as you'd love to, it's nearly impossible to give the same attention to every single student in your class. What I try to do is get the parent's into it. I keep in contact with the parents of those with deficiencies in my classes--that way we have two fronts of support. But, that's all I can expect and hope for.

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    1. I agree that parents are key. When they are fighting for their child's grades the odds that the kid will pass are so much higher. I have never taught in a high income demographic, however, so parental involvement is usually minimal.

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  5. Another one came to my mind--I have a student who was new to my school, so he was already at a disadvantage because of the intensity of the English program here. He also had dyslexia that affected his processing--so, anything that was left-brained was affected. He wasn't wired to think of the big picture, but if you sat by him and helped him step-by-step, he was able to do grammar and writing. Thing is, he wanted to try so badly and wanted to succeed. He was one of my most respectful students and put more effort forth than anyone. But, he still struggled--badly. I couldn't spend half of every Language Arts period giving him his assignments orally and working through them with him one by one...as much as I wanted to since he honestly put forth an effort. So, with a heavy heart, I suggested he be moved down to the class of only 6 who needed more help with grammar and writing and went at a slower pace with more one-on-one help. His parents, the SP ED director, and the principal all agreed because we believed that he'd be able to succeed better this way and I'd be able to give more attention to the rest of my class.

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    1. Now to me THAT Is where the real travesty comes in, when the student genuinely wants to learn and is willing to put in the effort and just simply can't keep up with the work. Luckily, though, there are programs in place to help students like that but then the question is if they continue to go at a slower pace and the "regular" kids continue to go at a faster pace does the gap between them just get bigger and bigger? No easy answers in education, that's for sure!

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  6. what a beautiful heartfelt and honest post. thank you for sharing with us!

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  7. I'm not usually a comment-er, but I just wanted you to know that you're definitely not alone. In college they always said that “Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.” And while it sounds great in theory, it's a little bit more complex than that isn't it?

    Now that I have a little teaching experience, I've come to a personal conclusion that the students who want to learn and want to try are the ones that deserve the most of my attention. I try to give positive attention when someone is doing something good rather than feeding the need for attention in those who are being lazy or disruptive. Of course this is pretty difficult sometimes!

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Kirby! The "Fairness is everyone gets what they need" is really hard on me because all students have great needs, they might just vary in "priority." Even the smartest, brightest kids have needs from their teachers but the troubled students' needs are so blatant and hard to ignore that I feel like sometimes the "needs" of the good kids never get met. Yes, it is complex!

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  8. This is exactly what i'm struggling with too. It's so hard to give so much energy and focus to your struggling students who don't care when you want to give so much attention to the ones who try so hard. I really loved this and could relate so much with you. I love your outlook and i'm going to make an effort to start giving more of my attention to those who truly want and deserve it. Thank you so much for sharing!

    Katherine Nicole

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    1. You're welcome! And I don't know that it's necessarily the "right outlook" for me it's almost just a survival technique. In some ways I have to let the 20 go in order to save myself for future years of teaching. Interestingly enough once I allowed myself to not do everything I felt like a much better teacher.

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  9. I used to teach kindergarten and first grade before staying home with my kids. No matter how much you try to ignite the love of learning, in some children it will not light. Sadly, I could even see it in the young age group I taught. A big part of that was the home they went home to every night. It is heartbreaking as a teacher to know that you can't reach some children. I totally understand this post.

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    1. Wow! I can't believe that you could see it even at that young of age. And yes, the home they go home to at night makes all the difference.

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  10. Preach it! I've been teaching for 18 years, and this rings true for me as well.

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    1. 18 years! Wow! I am sure you could teach us all so much about how to do it!

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  11. Bless you for the work you do!!

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  12. Thank you for this. I needed it today. I always think of it like this, we may not have made a difference that we can see in the year we had the student, but every year of school is a building block to where there life takes them and we contributed to that. The thing I love most about the teaching profession is that most people are in it to make a difference. It is just so hard when you can't reach every student. Thank you for sharing this!

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    1. Yes! Thank you for this reminder. It is the combination of the effort of a lot of teachers that makes the difference. This helps me to not feel so much pressure to be everything to these kids.

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  13. Also remember that in Freedom Writers she moves up with them in grade level and then goes and teaches them at a college level too. So basically she's reaching as few children as possible and sacrificing her marriage to do it.

    And you're not letting anyone down. You can't write the paper for the kid, but if he had been willing to put in the effort you would have been there to guide him and help him. That's really all you can do!

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    1. Wow! I didn't realize she moved up grades with them! It's been years since I've seen it- maybe it's time to revisit it so that I can realize how unrealistic it really is?

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    2. That movie was based on a true story. Erin Gruwell is a real teacher who did work very hard for her students, albeit that small group of students. But since they graduated in the 1990s, she's been continuing her program to help millions of students and teachers alike reach common ground and be successful in the classroom.
      Aside from that, I agree with everything you said in your blog. And even though Freedom Writers was based on a true story, it does represent a very small percentage of teachers who can work magic like that for their students. I'm a 3rd year teacher and I try to find the middle ground between what I dream about doing (reaching everyone, inspiring my students, changing their lives) and what I can actually do. Sometimes it does lean more towards the fantasy side, but rarely.

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    3. That movie was based on a true story. Erin Gruwell is a real teacher who did work very hard for her students, albeit that small group of students. But since they graduated in the 1990s, she's been continuing her program to help millions of students and teachers alike reach common ground and be successful in the classroom.
      Aside from that, I agree with everything you said in your blog. And even though Freedom Writers was based on a true story, it does represent a very small percentage of teachers who can work magic like that for their students. I'm a 3rd year teacher and I try to find the middle ground between what I dream about doing (reaching everyone, inspiring my students, changing their lives) and what I can actually do. Sometimes it does lean more towards the fantasy side, but rarely.

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  14. I totally understand. When I went into youth ministry, I wanted to help EVERY SINGLE KID. I was going to inspire them and help them to believe in themselves. I would be the one to pick them up in case they were stranded after a party and throw them a baby shower if they got preggo and help them to fix their relationships with their parents and they would get baptized. But there were kids I could never reach. No matter what I did, I couldn't help them. They ignored me, or yelled at me, or I would have to tell them they couldn't come on the big trip simply because I couldn't trust them. It was definitely one of the hardest parts of the job. But... we're human. We can't fix everyone and help everyone. Maybe there is that teacher or youth minister or someone else who can. We aren't their savior. And sometimes letting go of the ones we can't reach will give us the freedom to help the ones we can.

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    1. Yes! And I think that is one of the greatest lessons that I have to remember... I am not their savior, not even in just an educational sense. I think the idea of agency is so powerful and so in the end I will have to allow them to use their agency to make bad decisions, even though I wish so bad they wouldn't.

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  15. Just remember this Bon: "Those who do not learn now will learn later within a hard life lesson."

    A teacher back in fifth grade told her entire class that and I stuck onto it for dear life. Hope that quote can help you feel better about struggling with the 20%.

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    1. What a perfect lesson! I will try to remember that to tell my students.

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  18. Some people are lazy and have no desire to succeed. They just want to do the minimum to get by, or mooch off of others, That's not your fault. You're a great person. :)

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    1. :) I definitely deal with a lot of the "do the minimum to get by."

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  19. My second grader struggles but I am thankful his teacher spends the extra time with him...but he gets help at home and we are putting in the time to get him up to grade level. I found out the harsh reality of what you said above when the teacher stated the same thing. I am supposed to work with the kids that are still reading at a kindergarten level and are in second grade but now we have moved onto the kids that actually show up to school regularly and actually have a chance to succeed because they care and their parents care. It was hard to say really we are just going to not work with the others but I see the point much better now...thanks Bonnie.

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    1. I have no problem spending extra time with kids who struggle. I don't want the idea to be "these 20% are stupid, we're moving on." It's the 20% who don't WANT to learn. If there is any spark of a desire there or a willingness I am all over it, but I just can't invest caring so much on students who themselves don't care.

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  20. I think a lot of this goes back to parents as well. Even if I had told a teacher, yeah I'm cool with failing, my mother wouldn't have allowed it and would have rode my butt til I got that grade up. You can't save them all though. I think its a mark of a good teacher knowing and admitting that. Give the ones interested in learning all you've got and the other ones will figure something out. That's truly what I think. God bless.

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  21. I am not a teacher, I have no children, I have no idea what I'm talking about. So you can laugh at my ignorance, I don't mind :) That out of the way - do you know WHY this student has no interest?

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    1. Great question. He already is deficient so many credits that at this point he's just given up graduating from high school. He's a senior and has failed most of his credits from other years so I think he's just showing up mostly for something to do at this point.

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    2. I've had students in the past who purposely fail a class. Or, they only get Ds so that their GPA is below graduation requirements. When I'd consult with their counselor, I was told that they were dragging out their years in high school so that they could collect their monthly checks from the state.

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  22. Teachers can only "do" so much, ultimately it comes from the parents. If education & learning are valued at home, then there is a culture of intellectual curiosity. It is a shame for the kid not to care & hard to watch, it sucks but you can not save everyone, it needs to come from within.

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    1. Exactly. I feel bad for kids like this because it certainly is no fault of their own, but when they express NO interest whatsoever it's hard to be the only one fighting for it.

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  23. I have no kids and have never taught so take this for what it's worth but ... I think this realization can't help but make you an even more amazing teacher than you already are. There are a lot more factors that go into a kid's lack of motivation than just whether their teacher was inspirational or not. Maybe school isn't important at home. Maybe that kid has been told his whole life that he's mediocre and one teacher can't possibly change that view for him. Maybe he knows college isn't for him and will end up in a more skills/labor related job. Maybe he just flat out doesn't care. And there's nothing more stubborn and difficult-to-motivate than a teen who doesn't care. It's sucks that some students don't care and I can only imagine how hard that is for a teacher to witness because you, through the benefit of age and life experience, know that his not caring probably won't lead anywhere positive. But, at the same time, you have many more students who do care, who have the drive, who want to succeed, and who need you to help them achieve their maximum potential. I think they will come to appreciate you all the more for this new attitude and approach. And who knows what the side effects of the new approach will be? It sounds like you're giving an awful lot of attention to students who don't appreciate it for what it is. Maybe when the unmotivated student sees others getting that attention instead -and benefiting significantly from it- he'll change his attitude, too.

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    1. Great point, one that I never thought of. Hopefully the positive reinforcement for the kids who are busting their butts will ignite something in the others.

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  24. This is a beautifully written post! And so true!! Thanks for sharing your perspective! :)

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    1. Thank you Marianna :)

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  25. Very true, though so hard to accept. I think sometimes when you really go for it with the 80% though, there are still some of the 20% that want in on if you genuinely care about what you're doing. So there is that.

    And YES THANK YOU AMEN about the sacrificing of the marriage in Freedom Writers. I actually talked about that with my students when we watched it. Essentially I said, "I like you guys, but you best believe I'm OUT if Patrick Dempsey is about to leave me…I mean, my husband."

    I appreciated when my second principal interviewed me and asked, "How do you juggle your priorities with teaching?" My answer? Sometimes I leave a stack of ungraded tests on my desk for over a week because I need to spend time with my husband or my family, or something else is important, and I just tell my students that I have a life outside of the classroom, and though I love what I do and it is important too, it's often not THE most important thing. And that principal? He THANKED me for that answer and I think it's because he's seen the burn out too often.

    Great post.

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    1. Wow, what a great interview question! And I identify completely. I think schools like it when they see the outside passions and interests of their teachers- avoiding burn out is key! Have you ever read Nurture Shock? I am reading it right now and it is so interesting- all about the way we teach and raise kids.

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  26. 100% true. Every year, around the beginning of the 4th quarter, I usually shift my focus from that bottom 20% to those that with just a little bit of push can excel and the ones that love to learn.

    This year, that shift happened after Christmas break. I love my first graders this year, but I felt horrible seeing how I wasn't paying enough attention to those bubble kids. I still meet me with my low ones to encourage them (luckily they do care) but it's been amazing to see the growth in my middle kids.

    It's a tough thing to realize that it IS just a job and that your family and your life is your priority. I've discovered you can still be an amazing teacher and not put in ten hours a day and ignore your family. Awesome post Bonnie!

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    1. I can't believe that you already see that with first graders. That would be really rough for me. At twelfth grade you feel like they can make their own choices a bit, but at so young I can see how hard it would be to understand where to put your focus and energy.

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  27. Today I sat with my low achieving students for a little extra guidance on elapsed time. There was a student in each of my 2 math classes that continued to distract the rest of the kids that were eating up the extra support.Your words kept running through my head. Here I am seven years into this career, and I still can't let go of the kids that are sucking the life out of me. I sent them back to their desk because you are so right. I can't give help to a child that doesn't want help. It's hard to grasp that a fourth grader is already willing to fail. Thanks for a great post!

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    1. "sucking the life out of me." Spot on. The truth is I feel like as teachers it is this 20% that does suck the life from us, that drains us, that makes us hate teaching. I know for me at least one behavior problem in a class can ruin the entire morning when there were 60 kids who were awesome and one who was a stinker.

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  28. I spent two years studying elementary education and dreaming of working in an inner city school and inspiring kids day in and day out. After an internship in an inner city school where I lived off coke, donuts and gas station food. I realized I simply couldn't handle it. It was too painful for me to see kids left behind. It was painful to see smart kids brushed to the side because someone else was below grade level.
    I'm so inspired by great teachers like you. Who recognize that you CAN make a difference, but you aren't necessarily a miracle worker. And ESPECIALLY that your marriage had to come first.

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    1. Brooke that is is interesting that you eventually decided to switch because of how hard it is to leave some behind. I can totally get that. And for me it's not they get left behind because they are below grade level it's because they don't care. If a student cares we can do miracles, but when they're lazy, unmotivated, don't show up, don't come in to make up their work, give sass... that's when you leave them for the other 80.

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  29. Best post yet.

    It isn't easy to let that 20% go. In many ways I feel like I'm failing my students when I do this. (Both literally and figuratively.) I still don't have it all quite figured out in my head yet. But I know I can't reach every student. I know some kids are going to enter my class hating to read and they are going to leave my class hating to read. Some students will never like me. Some students will think my rules are stupid and my punishments unfair and I will never earn their respect. Some students will leave my class and forget about me completely, holding no lasting memories of any of the work I put in to making that class fun or interesting or meaningful for them.

    This paragraph was exactly what I needed to hear today. We all do our best every day and for some kids, it's just not enough. I am learning to be ok with it. It's a slow process though:)

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    1. I think it translates into other areas of our lives as well. (For me as well.) I have to give up the perfectionist in me... not easy when the "product" you are dealing with is the education of our youth.

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  30. I really needed to hear this today. Thank you. It is SO hard as a teacher (and impossible) to reach them all. Just today one of my lower students completely a packet while listening to speeches in class after I told him not to. He did this to get the assignment done and not miss his wrestling meet. I flat out asked him if he was okay with getting a bad grade on the packet to make his wrestling meet and he said yes. I felt defeated and let him turn in the packet and leave. If he didn't care, how could I waste anymore time making sure he did it correctly? Frustrations.

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    1. "If he didn't care, how could I?" I think that is key right there. When I care more about their grades then they do then I know there is a problem.

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  31. Oh this is definitely the hardest part of our jobs. My principal has been blantant with us about this issue lately. I struggle with this because I teach 3rd grade. How does a 3rd grader decide he just doesn't want to try?! The 20% struggles are the hardest but those 80% sure help!

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    1. What do you mean your principal has been blatant with this issue? About helping those failing 20? My old principal preached it hardcore (I think he wanted our school to have higher pass rates and graduation rates so we looked like a good school) but lucikly my new principal basically says "Let them fail if they don't deserve to pass." It's been really nice to not have that pressure to pass them all.

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  32. I so needed to read this post after my Monday, which I feel was the same feeling of all of the comments, but I tend to make it my mission to 'fix' those 20% not only because I want them to want better for themselves but also because those 20% can influence the 80% so quickly and change a class. But after reading your post I realized how neglectful that makes me feel of that 80%. And I know that when I am stressed out by the 20% everything school and personal tends to suffer. So thank you for the honest post, hopefully there will be a new teacher tomorrow!

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    1. YES! I agree with you 100% on the when you're stressed about one kid everything else suffers- school and personal. It has been so amazing as I have let some of those "bad kids" go how much more energy and enthusiasm I have for my job. It's like another commenter stated... they suck the life out of you!

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  33. Amen, and AMEN. I fight this same battle in my head daily, and I just get so BURNED OUT trying to force all the kids who don't want do learn to learn. (It doesn't help that my school really expects us to have pretty much everyone accounted for, everyone passing, as much as we possibly can). It's totally exhausting.

    I was just telling my husband tonight over dinner that my number one pet peeve with being a teacher is that I positively HATE having to expend so much of my energy on people who positively hate and refuse to learn.

    Maybe I'll just take up your philosophy and just focus my energy on more positive pursuits. If nothing else, it would surely make ME more sane, which can only translate to a good thing (especially for that 80% that you were talking about).

    Thanks for posting this. I needed something like this today.

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    1. Yes! It will make you more sane. And happier. For me I have been trying hard to reinforce the positive behavior and ignore the negative. It is amazing how much more positive there is then I realize when I am focusing on that instead of the troubled kids.

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  34. I'm in my first semester of teaching as a professor at a state college and I'm finding this same thing! It blows my mind that some students just do not try, no matter what I do. Thanks for voicing this, I was beginning to wonder if I am alone in this struggle...

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    1. so interesting that you see this at a college as well! Sheesh, you'd think by the time they enrolled in college they would have a thing or two figured out. There was one commented who said she struggled with this with her kindergarteners- I suppose it has no age limit, just a human behavior issue.

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    2. I agree with you - no age limit for this kind of stuff. But also those college students that don't care about failing may just be there because their parents are footing the bill. I know someone that is on track to finish a Bachelors degree after 8 years of college (it will take that long because he has failed so many classes). His parents have paid for his cost of living, loans, and will continue to do so until it's all paid off. No consequences for his actions.

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  35. Wow! That must've been a difficult decision for you because, like you wrote, you don't want any students to fail. It makes sense though since you cannot make them want it. You can't do the work for them, you can't pass them if they are failing, and you only have so much energy. You can only do so much.

    I think it's great that you put your outside life ahead of your work life (in particular your husband and religion). Our society is so consumed with workworkwork and I think we would all benefit from having more focus on other things that make us happy.

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  36. Great post! I don't comment much but I often read your blog. My students also love Freedom Writers and it has always bothered me that they (and others) do not see the huge sacrifices she makes to accomplish what she does.

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