The Right Tough: and ponderings on "F’s" in school

Falling is scary. Most of us fall down sometimes. I can trip and fall flat on the ground.

When I fall down I have two choices. I can sit there or I can stand up (if I'm still physically able to.)

What about failing? Children fall a lot – especially when they are learning to walk. But falling, as we get older, is something we really try to avoid at all costs. As bones get more brittle, we are afraid of not getting back up or of getting really hurt.

Let's get one thing straight. Failing and falling aren't the same thing. It is odd to me that kids (and adults) don't mind a “fail” in a video game. In fact epic “fails” go viral on the Internet as people mess up and do dumb things that are laughed about later.

An F makes me as a teacher feel I have failed to teach

I don't receive any benefit at all from giving an “F” for failure. To me, an F represents something I haven't taught. Now I know many teachers have their rooms full of kids and it is very hard to get to them all. But an “F” of any kind puts a bulls eye on a student for me to give them extra attention so they can understand. Maybe I shouldn't feel this way, but I do. It is part of my teacher DNA that I want every student to learn. Every single one of them!

Are you tough or are you just not teaching?

I heard someone talking once about how “tough” they are as a teacher: “you make what you make, I don't drop grades, I don't go over homework – learn it or fail.”

Such an attitude puts all of the responsibility for learning on the student. While I do expect my own children to “own” their learning – I also know what it is like to parent kids with LD. Most teachers who say such things are what I call “worksheet wonders.” You wonder how they could teach at all without worksheets.

Ten neatly completed worksheets in a class period doesn't mean you've taught anything. For some kids, interacting with words on a page is as meaningful as listening to Charlie Brown's teacher. I used to have a couple of worksheets a day in my class… a long time a go when I first started teaching. Because I thought that worksheets meant I did something. I thought that was how classes and teachers were measured. Now, I care more about what gets into the minds of my students and what can be applied by them.

The difference between being a tough teacher and tough to pass

That said, I know some extremely tough teachers but if they give homework or they give work – they give feedback and do go over what kids miss. They are tough but they still teach. These teachers are as good as gold.

But there are some teachers who brag about being “tough” who I think are being rigid and aren't teaching at all. There is a difference between being a tough teacher who expects a lot out of kids and pushes them to be more — and being tough to pass because the teacher is so unhelpful and provides little feedback.

The Right kind of tough

I would consider myself “tough” as a teacher in that I don't allow any student to disengage and do nothing. They must be working on the task at hand – they don't have a choice to doze off or disengage.

I consider myself tough because the work is due when it is due. Period. No monumental extensions – get it done or be late. When it is late, I do take the work but not for full credit.

I consider myself tough because I expect to teach my students tough things that “high school kids aren't supposed to be able to learn.” Sometimes people look at my curriculum and comment that it is more like a college course. Yes. It better be. I want them to be world class.

But I also consider myself tough in that I'm going to be after anyone who tries not to learn. I'm going to pursue relentlessly those who think they can't do it. I'm never going to quit trying to teach the kid who things they are unteachable. I'm tough because I never quit.

Don't settle for I don't understand

Yesterday I had some kids that just weren't getting a concept I was teaching in computer science. As the other kids moved on to continue their computer “dissection” project, these kids stayed behind with me until we understood and grasped the concept of the CPU, heat sync, and the quality of components.

They had said, “I just don't understand stuff like this” and “This is another language to me.” It wasn't when we were done – they did get it. The walls were knocked down and we moved on.

Good teachers are a wrecking ball against any obstacle that keeps kids from learning.

I don't care that this stuff is “geeky” and some consider it irrelevant – some of you are teaching squinting modifiers and drawing molecules – those things are geeky to. ;-) No matter what I'm teaching, I want every child to learn it. Every child must. As a teacher we must be bold advocates for our subject, whatever it is.

An “F” means I've failed at teaching. I wish I didn't feel this way, but I do.

What happens when the student really tries to earn an F

But then again, I'm the scorekeeper. I don't “give” grades – they are earned.

When kids pursue of failure. And sometimes some students really try to get that F. They try so hard. Often it is a poor self image – “I'm a failure so I deserve an F” is a part of what many of them think. If I can talk to kids and get at the root of why they are pursuing an F because in my class, very often, I've seen self sabotage. If it is a psychological reason they run towards failure, I can often get at that and they can do what it takes to pass.

When kids have a magic number in mind. Most kids know in their minds what grade they think they “want” and will often apply they brakes if their grades are increasing too quickly. (Why do they do that? It makes me so mad!) I've often found that this number is near what their parents expect their kids to make. This is also something to tackle head on with kids individually when it happens.

So many F's or kids not performing up to ability can be handled privately when you get at the driving reason that it is happening.

When kids need to be held accountable. This is my 12th year of teaching. I've only a handful kids EARN F's. Notice I didn't say “given.” I said earn.

After I lie on the battlefield spent and a student refuses to turn in the work they've promised and refuses to let me help – I will give them the grade they've earned. In every case, each of these claimed and swore to my face that they thought I'd “give” a passing grade to them.

I don't “give” grades. Period. I told them that the world doesn't “give” you anything and I won't either. You might as well learn that now. You get what you earn in the real world and giving someone a grade they don't deserve is a disservice to the world. There is a time to let a student earn an F but we don't “give” grades in school to anyone – not if we're a teacher worth anything.

I'm lucky because my administration has always supported me and always been very involved when this happens. I know teachers who have had principals take the grade book and change those grades.

But my administration was in the loop and knew what was happening. The parents all knew and the student knew – holding breath and holding out that I'd “cave” and “give” the C — nope, doesn't happen. Not here.

What I tell all students about grades

I tell my students that “you are not your grades. You may make an F in a class but you are an “A” as a person. I believe that you are all made to be “A's” and –in my own belief system I believe that ‘you are God's workmanship' — but it is your choice if you're going to work on your own ship. Are you going to be the “A” you're designed to be. And being an A as a person often has little to do with the grades on your report card.”

Understand your belief about “F” so you're ready to face the beast

I think we all as teachers must sort through our opinions about failure. I do find that there are taboo's and things that teacher's won't discuss at the lunch table. One of those sensitive areas has to do with “being tough” and “dropping grades” and how we grade because each of us have deep seated opinions on this one about what is the right way to grade. It is not bad for kids to see it done many different ways because they'll have many different bosses and life isn't always consistent and fair.

But what needs to be understood by every teacher is our own perspective on “the F.” Wrestle with it now and know what you think.

It is vitally important that we are ready to cope with it. I've never put an F on a report card that didn't cause me to be very upset. It isn't something I've done easily or with gusto — it always hurts because deep down I feel I have failed in some way. But ultimately, if a student has earned it, the best lesson I could teach is to let them earn it — at least in my class. If you read Ecclesiastes – there is a time for everything and I would read that sometimes there is a time to be tough and allow a student to earn the F he or she deserves – but those times should be few – very few.

Just ponderings from a tough teacher with a soft heart.

What are your thoughts on “being tough” and “giving F's” versus “earning F's.” Please share in the comments so we can see other valuable perspectives. I'm sure many of you wrestle with this like I do.


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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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