aha moment, Be the change, being a teacher, being me, mistakes

When We Fail A Child


This originally appeared on The Guardian’s Education Blog

For the next five minutes Peter stood in front of me while his mother told me all the things he needed to work on. She told me how she was ready to give up and hoped I could fix him – but she wasn’t holding her breath. With every word she spat out, his shoulders slumped further and his eyes stared more intently at the linoleum floor. I smiled, and did my teacher talk, soothing the ruffled feathers as best as I could. Then I thought to myself: “This year will be great. I will make a difference. Wait and see, he will love school again. I will fix him.”

I had every intention of keeping my promise, but I didn’t. I tried to connect with Peter. I tried to make him participate, to find his voice, to fall back in love with learning. But when he did not do his homework, or messed about in class, I followed my rules for punishment. He lost recess, pizza privileges and had to speak to the principal on many occasions. When he did not conform, I punished him. When he did not work, I gave him Fs. After all, that was what teachers did when a child didn’t follow their rules; they handed out the consequences whether they made sense or not. At the end of the year, when he was suspended on the very last day for yet another bad choice, I knew that I was not meant to be a teacher – or at least not the type of teacher that overrode her own common sense to conform to what society thought good teachers did.

So that summer I found the courage to change the way I taught. I realised that the nine-year-old me would have hated everything about the classroom I had created. I would have been the child with the failing grades and the marks against them. I had to change. I had to create a classroom that I would want to be a student in, that I would want my own children to be a part of.

When we started the new year, I threw everything out. I got rid of my punishment system – no more lost recesses or phone calls home in the middle of class. Instead we would have a conversation and I would ask my students why they acted the way they did, rather than just assuming I knew. I got rid of almost all homework and made a deal with my students that if they gave me their best during school then they could have their after school time back. If they worked hard in class then we could learn what we needed to.

I limited grades, pushed back against classifying students by letters, and instead invited my class to reflect on their own learning, to take control of how they needed to grow and what they needed to do to get there. We discussed when assignments were done and we set goals. And slowly, my students started to ask why they were doing these things, if we could change what we were doing, and whether they could try something new. I said yes, instead of no, and then tried to be the very best teacher I could be.

I won’t lie, it was hard. It still is because every year, I am honoured to teach a new group of students who ask me why I teach this way. Every year I help students realise that they have a right to a voice within our classroom, that their voice matters and that school should be a place for them to thrive, not just survive.

But the system fights us every step of the way – school is made of boxes to define our students. My district is doing everything we can to break those boxes and tear down the notions of what it means to be a traditional school, and to truly make it about students again. We want to make school about curiosity, discovery and about each child, not just each teacher.

A few years ago, I saw Peter again. He had grown up and was no longer the kid with the slumped shoulders. I asked him how he was and he told me just fine. He had switched districts, but he liked his new school better. “I am sorry.” The words slipped out before I could catch them and he stared at me, confused. “I am sorry for not being a good teacher to you,” I said. He stared at me and then finally said, “No big deal, you tried.” And I thought to myself, yes, I did, but it does not matter how hard we try if the path we are on is wrong. And that is why I changed the way I teach. That is why I try to give the classroom back to my students and make school about the kids.

*Name changed to protect his identity.

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5 thoughts on “When We Fail A Child”

  1. I teach gifted kids and have totally changed my teaching philosophy to meet their needs. Homework doesn’t happen. They made a sign in the classroom that reads, “With freedom comes responsibility.” This way they are accountable for the freedom they enjoy. It works. It honors the students. They have made the room their home.

  2. Pernille, like you and ‘Peter’ as a child I was uncomfortable in the classroom. I felt intimidated. I would not raise my hand to answer questions in case I was wrong. I was scared of being reprimanded for not listening or guessing. I couldn’t wait for recess where I could shine on the sports field. I couldn’t wait for home time. Why did I only feel comfortable when I did well and was pleasing everyone?

    I vowed to become a teacher and ensure that every student in my care would feel safe to be their natural self, safe to be a risk taker and have a go, safe to make mistakes and be proud to learn from their mistakes, safe to understand how different we all are and we can learn from each other, safe to feel that their peers would support and look out each other.

    This all sounds like the perfect culture to develop in our classrooms – easier said than done! Of course, feeling safe and happy for each child does not just happen. It takes many weeks (or months) of hard work at the start of the new year to build this culture within the classroom.

    And then…learning happens!!!

  3. I applaud you for reflecting on your teaching and classroom management style and adjusting accordingly. Oftentimes, as classroom teachers, we do what is expected of us by others (grading systems, behavior charts, homework, negative punishments), though intuitively we know these systems are not effective. Bravo to you for being brave enough to break the mold.

    As for Peter, where was his apology to you?

    A few years ago I ran into my own Peter (in the form of Robert) while on my lunch break. As Robert was making my sandwich at the local deli, he said to me, “Mrs. Pust, I’m sorry for being such a difficult student. I was going through a really rough time, but things are starting to get better. I’m even working with the youth group at the church now.”

    I was a bit taken aback by his apology, but it was nice to hear. I know I wasn’t a perfect teacher, but I did my best. I’m sure you did your best as well, and for you to apologize to that student was pretty brave. However, I think Peter needs to take some responsibility as well.

    1. I don’t think he was ready at that time to apologize, I don’t think he needed to either. His life complications was larger than just school, I was just one more person failing him.

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