Failing My First Student

Teaching Lessons Learned from a Lost Student

Going to class Years ago and fresh out of graduate school, I was fortunate to land a position teaching night classes at a local community college for continuing education students. I was ready for the challenge with creative ways to teach arguably some fairly dull material - college composition. As a hip teacher, I came wide-eyed with presentations utilizing off-beat scenarios. "In the event of the zombie apocalypse, the student who can correctly identify all 5 grammar errors in my example will survive. The remainder will suffer to walk through eternity with a taste for brains."

Most students, and I do mean most, climbed right on board for the ride, and one girl found a hidden error that prompted a 10 minute debate on the merits of the Oxford comma. I was then able to direct conversations to analyze the causes of compound sentence issues, point-of-view diversions, and conjugation missteps. I was on top of the world. I was teaching, and students were learning.


Then came time for my students to submit their first paper. Most were punctual, a few were a day or three late, and one student, the one who had been most insightful during discussion, was simply a no-show. "This is college," I thought. "It's not in the student's best interest for me to badger them for their assignment." I asked respectfully after the third class when the paper would be handed in, and the response was "Soon, I promise." I was getting my own teaching lesson at this point.


By the time the next assignment was due, there was no first paper. Or the second for that matter. "Is everything OK?" I asked. "I'm just behind. I'll have both papers for you before next week." I believed her. She continued to lead discussions in class, and seemed to have a knack for engaging with the introverts who hung at the back of the classroom. I began to think she could shine as a teacher, if only she would simply hand in her work. I envisioned the papers on her desk at home, nearly ready but just not polished enough in her opinion to hand in. "You'll get a late grade," I said. "But something is better than nothing." The student smiled and said thank you.


The last two paper deadlines passed and I still had no assignments from this student. The final project was a serious overhaul of previously notated edits, but she didn't have a single one to work on. "I don't know what else to do," I told her. "I've been really busy at work," she said. "I'll get them in before the last day, I promise." I still held out hope, and the last day of class came and went without the papers turned in.I wasn't feeling good at this point about failing a student, but it was going to happen.

That night, I calculated final grades, and was compelled to give this student full-credit for her participation, and for her in-class journal work, both of which were well-deserved. This however, added up to only 10% of the final calculation, and I had to assign her the 'F'. I asked myself how I could have failed this girl, who came to class every night, who was so incredibly intelligent, but whose only error was not handing in her work to demonstrate her knowledge. "I could have done more," I thought. I could have reached out to her more than I did. I should have scheduled one-on-one time to review outlines and rough drafts. I could have instilled and shared the work ethic that I hold myself accountable to.

Lesson Learned

For weeks, I felt the terrible gnawing of doubt fade as the light slowly dawned. I was allowing myself to view her choices in a practical sense. I was not her parent, nor was I her 8th grade teacher. I began to understand that I couldn't lead her to an education, but only encourage it and provide the tools and instruction to succeed. I knew then it was nothing personal, and learned that sometimes, on very rare occasions, I had to let a student fail in order for them to succeed.