Failure must be an option

I jingled the keys in my pocket. It was 8 minutes past the bell and I was still waiting for the first student to show up. A minute later one of my girls shuffled in. She was the only one in her class who had showed up to school that day, and wondered if she could just go home. I thought about the possibility of an early lunch, and sent her on her way.

Unfortunately this is an all too common experience in village schools. Attendance is abysmal in the fall because many students are helping with harvests, terrible in winter because the school is freezing and many catch colds, and bad in spring due to various tests, holidays, and sending animals off to the summer pasture. But the biggest reason why kids aren’t in class is because nothing is really expected of them.

If students come to class or not, they will get a diploma. No questions asked. It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to realize that under these circumstances most junior and seniors simply aren’t going to show up. Senioritis hits hard anywhere; if I had known 12 years ago that I could have skipped the entire month of May and still gotten my same GPA and diploma, I would have been a much better golfer that summer.

There are schools in Kyrgyzstan where administrative leadership and control is working well. One of my friends described her school days as orderly and quite strict with real consequences for not coming to school or not doing homework. If you were late, you had to run 3 laps around the school yard. If you didn’t do your homework, your parents were contacted. If you didn’t show up, you had to go around to every teacher the next day and explain why you weren’t there, take whatever verbal punishment was coming to you, and then do the homework anyway. Students were responsible for their actions.

 Epic signage fail…Tho you do have to give them credit for trying.

Sometimes letting someone fail is the best thing you can do for them. Always allowing people to pass right through life with the belief that what they do has no bearing on their outcome leads to disastrous results.

Additionally, you need to make sure the relationship between a student’s action and his or her failure is made clear. It can’t be arbitrary and it can’t be outside of their direct control. As an example, one of our seventh grade students was having some participation issues and so we assigned him a low grade for the day. When he complained about it I made the effort to explain to him: “Choose to screw around and you will get a D for this class. But also, you can still turn it around. If you consistently show up, with your homework done and work until the bell rings, you can still get an A for the quarter. It is your own choice. You will choose what grade you receive.”

The next time we had class he worked diligently, without disrupting other students, and even presented his written work in front of his classmates at the end of the activity. I was really proud of him and made the point of praising his efforts and announcing to the class his “A” for the day. (A culturally appropriate move.) The relationship between action and consequence—both positive and negative—must be clearly seen by the student and strictly followed through by the teacher.

Without the possibility of failure, it’s difficult to define success. When we take away the possibility of failure, nobody learns to appreciate what incredible heights of success they can reach. This teaches students to be satisfied with the mediocre and chalk their lack of achievement up to dumb luck or blind fate. If Kyrgyzstan is to see real improvements in development, this is the kind of “option” we truly need to eliminate.

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