Teaching Reflections · Topics for Parents and Students

Responsibility is a virtue; failure a gift.

I laid into one of my senior level academic English classes this morning on the topic of student responsibility. They deserved it. After two weeks of walking them through the five steps of the essay writing process (as a review I may add), posting exemplars and videos of each step to my Google classroom, and offering conferencing as well as extra help for those who needed it, I received few essays on time; moreover, the overall quality of the submissions were very poor – essays seemed thrown together with little thought or attention given to the expectations of the assignment.

I should have seen it coming. After teaching and modelling each step of the process, then assigning homework for students to mimic it, few were ready to conference with me  in the following days. The excuses for not completing assigned homework  and the eventual essay submission on time varied as it always does:”I had to work”; “I had a basketball game”; “I forgot”; “I didn’t understand _________”; “My Internet wasn’t working”.

Sigh. Really? All weak excuses at best. I’ve been in high school; I was a varsity (and University) athlete; I had jobs. So did my peers,as well as the generations before us. Adolescent lives haven’t changed, but we have  – yes us, the adults; the teachers. We’ve taken on the responsibility of our student’s education, and not willingly. To be honest, I feel like it’s been slowly forced upon us by a combination of Ministry initiatives and social trends in parenting.

The Ministry of Education has been slowly killing the virtue of responsibility in the Ontario education system for a while now: reducing homework, eliminating hard due dates and ignoring lates and absences as they pertain to credit achievement. These strategies are ironically coined as ‘student success’ initiatives. Essentially, they are in place to increase student credit accumulation (i.e. help kids avoid failure based on the natural consequences of their actions).

Don’t get me wrong, I want my students to earn credits, but I also want them to succeed in life – you know, the ‘big show’.

Allowing them to dodge responsibility for their own education and actions isn’t something that I think will help them in the long run. But as teachers our hands are tied, and this is frustrating. Should I have let nature run its course and allowed the vast majority of my students sit with very poor or failing grades on their unit culminating essays? Yes; I honestly think that would have taught them an invaluable lesson about responsibility, time management, and the natural consequences of their actions.

In today’s education climate, though, that’s not something I can do even if I know it’s the best course of action. So…..I developed a new assignment whereby I would reteach various aspects and expectations of the assignment AGAIN, and allow them to select three specific areas where they’d like to improve their work, and re-submit their paper for re-grading.

I’ll be honest, I am also allowing my students this opportunity for redemption to avoid some uncomfortable conversations with parents. It’s not a secret that parenting styles have changed dramatically in the past 20 years, as have the relationships between parents and teachers. Student achievement is now viewed as the reflection of the teacher or their delivery, not of the student or their effort in the course. And poor grades often result in long conversations about what teachers can do (or didn’t do) to help students improve their grades.  This meme that frequents Facebook describes the trend perfectly:

teacher blame.jpg

If I (or any of my peers) failed an essay or did not submit it on time, we’d have to answer for it at home – and that would be worse than any grade our teachers could give us.  I clearly remember a few of my good friends bombing a grade 10 English essay that left their grades in ruins and bought them a first class ticket to summer school. But they survived;  they are now university graduates, and gainfully employed members of society. In short: they learned their lesson; there was no safety net to catch them.

I don’t know why the concept of failure is so negative in education and parenting today. After all, isn’t that how we learn best? The greatest inventors, thinkers, innovators and athletes historically all had great failures that propelled them to later success. From Edison (who was said to have made 1000 attempts before inventing the light bulb) to Micheal Jordan (who was famously cut from the varsity basketball team his sophomore year), there are a plethora of examples of the importance of failure in the path to success.

With failure comes the necessity for reflection, change and renewed focus and responsibility towards one’s goals. 

However, if we don’t allow our students the chance to fail, we are also robbing them of the necessity for personal responsibility. Why do homework if it doesn’t count for ‘marks’? Why show up on time if there are no consequences? Why attend class daily if you can still miss 30 days and earn your credit? Why hand work on time when the teacher will accept it until the last day of the semester? Why accept a bad grade when the teacher will let me re-submit assignments or my parents will fight for a better grade for me?

I want the best for my students, I really do – but I am not responsible for their education. They need to own it; after all, it’s their life.

Barack Obama describes this beautifully in his address to American students in 2009 . His message is simple: take ownership of your education; America can have the most innovative schools with the best teachers and full parental support, but if students do not own their future, it is all worthless.  The entirety of his speech can be viewed here: Obama to Nation’s Students.

As teachers we have an obligation to our students to teach them responsibility, but we can’t do that by creating road blocks to failure. Responsibility is a virtue and failure a gift. We need to teach this to our students; it may be the most valuable lesson of all.

Although I provided my students with an opportunity to revisit and resubmit their papers, I also handed them a half hour long lecture about taking responsibility for their own education. And tomorrow, they’ll be watching Mr. Obama’s address on the same topic. Hopefully, taking time to learn about this topic will help them take the necessary steps to change their actions in the future.

How do you feel about student responsibility vs. teacher responsibility in education? Comment below!

10 thoughts on “Responsibility is a virtue; failure a gift.

  1. Kyleen, this is so beautifully written, and sums up EXACTLY what some of the ridiculous problems inherent with the “student success” initiatives. Yes, we want students to gain their credits, but isn’t it more important that they learn? How are they able to learn the value of punctuality, time management, organization when they can submit work until the final hour, and where very few students are ever allowed to “fail”.

    I’m honestly hoping that the pendulum swings back again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, failure is ultimately a gift in disguise. There are many teacher groups on FB, and your frustrations are well echoed. The problem is, and has usually been, that teachers are often blamed for student apathy and failure to turn in good quality work on time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to hear that others are on the same page, Kimmy. The sad reality is that it doesn’t matter how good we are in the classroom; if there are no consequences for our students behaviour, or guidelines for their achievement, all is lost. I’m hoping for a pendulum swing again one day soon…..


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