Failing to Learn

Learning to learn and learning to teach mean failing again and again.


in Features


The day my 11th graders began The Catcher in the Rye, Duane* said, “Man, this book is so boring. And what’s he got to complain about? Why we gotta read about this whiny rich white dude?”

“What’s he getting kicked out of school for, anyway?” Gary asked.

“He’s failing most of his classes,” I said.

“You can’t get kicked out for failing!”

“In private school you can. And in college, you can also get kicked out for failing. Or put on academic probation.” I was a second-year teacher, no longer so incredulous at what my students did not know.

Gary shook his head. “Man! If you could get kicked out for failing, half this school would be gone.”

Their school in South Central Los Angeles, where I began teaching in 2003, was labeled a failing school by nearly every measure. According to state standardized tests, that year only 11.2% of our students scored proficient in English language arts and 9.6% in math. Students knew the school was failing them and their community. There was a general sense of self-deprecation: “Why would you want to teach here?” they asked. But there was also a feeling that our principal characterized as “don’t nobody call our baby ugly but us.” We knew that “failing” was just another way to say “poor” or “school where no white families send their kids.”

When I administered the California Achievement Test to my tenth grade homeroom, I watched Cristobal, who weeks before had been suspended two days for huffing air freshener in the stairwell. In minutes, Cristobal had completely bubbled in his Scantron. When he caught me looking at him, he turned it sideways so I could see. His answer choices formed a sleek fighter jet.

For a few months before moving to LA, I had graded such tests. Those tenth graders wrote things like, “Dude, why am I telling you? You can read the story, I don’t want to mess it up for you.” Or “The school and his grandma were wrong because they both told him to take the Graduation Test and that it wasn’t a pointless test.” Or my favorite: “And one more thing. If you grade this test, I have only three words for you: get a life.”

My students worried slightly more about failing their courses than they did the tests. Near the end of the grading period my first year, a slight 9th grader named Paloma stopped by after school bearing some pencil tracings of Piglet and Winnie the Pooh.

“Will you count these as extra credit?” she asked.

“These are nice drawings, but you have to make up your missing work to improve your grade in here,” I said.

“That’s exactly what my math teacher said!” she wailed. “And I’m failing both English and math!”

A few days later, Marvin came to my desk and asked, “I just wanted to know…am I passing?”

“Marvin, your average is a 32. I’ve been trying to get you to make up work for weeks now. I’m sorry, there’s no more time left.”

“Okay, that’s what I thought. But I had to check.”

I’d been holding the threat of failure over my students’ heads, believing it would have some effect on their actions. I still thought of failure and success as fixed points on a vertical baton, the way our language and grading scale describe them. Your grade dropped. You’re at the top of your class.

Now, years later, it seems to me that a failing child is one who looks around and sees adults working two shifts at the factory, or out of work. He eats breakfast at school, on a Styrofoam tray, with everything in cartons or plastic wrap — a pint of apple juice, a stale Danish. He does not see himself going to college, despite all the cheery pink and yellow posters in the guidance office. Or a failing child is one who hates school. He would rather smoke pot and ride his skateboard under a blue sky than sit at a desk and stare out the window. Or a failing child is one who draws instead of taking notes, covering her notebooks, jeans, and arms with elaborate ink. Since she is quiet, her teachers leave her alone until they realize she has a 46%. She dutifully takes an extra credit packet and tells the teacher she will try. Weeks past the deadline, the packet falls out of her backpack, blank except for the back page, which is tattooed with dragons and sorcerers and anime characters with enormous eyes.

In high school, a failing child is almost never what we pretend it means: one who has not mastered the material. It is almost always a student who, for whatever reason, has not done the work assigned. Students who do every single assignment and extra credit option, even if they don’t understand the material well enough to pass the tests, will probably pass their courses.

Don’t they care they’re going to fail? I wondered. No, they didn’t. And yes, they did. Most failing kids act like they don’t care, but this apathy is self-protective: if they haven’t really tried, they haven’t really failed.

Paloma, with her Winnie the Pooh tracings, made up enough work to pass, though she understood almost none of it. Marvin, who understood the material quite well, turned in almost no written work and failed. I knew this did not make sense.

When I mentioned to the assistant principal my concern over my many failing students, she asked, “What kind of numbers are we talking about?”

I said 50 or 60 percent.

She paused as if choosing her words carefully, and then said, “That is not unusual.”

My first year, I was failing as an English teacher by nearly every measure there is — except my evaluation.

Take my attempts to maintain order in Cesar’s 9th grade class, for instance. Cesar did this popping thing with his mouth, sticking a finger into his blown-out cheek and making the hollow thumping noise I associate with the 1950’s song “Lollipop.” Cesar popped his cheek once the classroom had finally gotten quiet and my back was turned. Whenever I called his name, Cesar squawked, “What!” This irreverence cloaked as compliance invariably got a laugh. Cesar never had a pen or a pencil, and he had lots of questions about words he didn’t know, like brow. When he asked these questions, his voice became so soft I had to lean close to hear him, and then the rest of the class erupted in noise behind me. If I called on him to read, Cesar sat stone-faced, shaking his head.

In those first months, I sometimes scribbled notes on post-its in my roll book, like: “Cesar: you are a jerk.” If I maintained some forceful eye contact while writing, students actually thought I was marking down something that could affect their grades. It was not a good thing to do, but I was so miserable, hating Cesar because he was so talkative, always turned around in his seat, and antagonized Devon to the point that Devon blew up and called him a fat ass, and then I had to deal with that, and the riot of laughter it set off in Gabriel and Chris.

And Cesar was just one of 28 students who threw paper, talked on their phones, cursed, slept, talked incessantly, and refused to write anything down unless they could copy it directly from the board. They were rude and apathetic. I yelled nearly every day.

Before becoming a teacher I had not had much experience with failure. Because I had done well in school, I had assumed I would be successful at a job. Now here I was in The Real World, and among my many failings, the largest seemed how angry my students made me. I understood logically why I should hate the system or society’s abandonment of these children, but what I hated were the students. Rage sharpened me, made me its weapon. I failed their tests each time. Was I patient? No. Resourceful? No. Able to rise above the taunts of a 14-year-old? No.

My failures were clear to my students, who were pretty smart, though they did not want to do any of my assignments. None of us took responsibility for the catastrophe unraveling in our shared classroom. I threw up my hands and said, “I can’t do anything with these kids! They’re all failing!” Which was true. When I called out a student for talking or using a phone or eating, he said, “Everyone else does it, too!” Which was true. As the bell rang to end class, Peggy hollered, “Thank you, Jesus!” a sentiment I both resented and understood.

The day of my first observation by an administrator, there were no fights, and students more or less participated in the discussion. No one yelled out “I hate this fucking story!” about The Odyssey, as they did most days.

A month later, I received my typed evaluation from the assistant principal, with comments like:

Students enthusiastically responded to the questions you presented. They were not allowed to “yell out” answers. (But they did anyway.)
You had a very “gentle and quiet way” of presenting your lesson and talking with your students. This set a very calming tone and created a very positive learning environment. (But I don’t like them, and they don’t like me.)

At the end, she complimented my “well-planned lessons” and “outstanding classroom management and discipline skills.”

I was disappointed to see these lies on paper. The day before, Alvaro had chased Corey around my room with a rock while I shouted helplessly. Didn’t anyone see what a bad teacher I was besides my students and me?

Weeks later, I read another evaluation, this one from Rosa, a senior trying for the third time to pass 10th-grade English. She had written:

I wish Ms. Beatty would of spent more time talking to students and getting to know students. She could of asked about our problems and if we needed help.

In Cesar’s journal entries, he wrote about Jesus and how much he loved him. He also wrote about a Christian rock band that he had met: “I like them because they’re Christian and I’m Christian too.” As I read his journal, a strange thing happened: suddenly I wanted to spend time with Cesar. I read in his chunky, block lettering how it hurt his feelings when people called him fat. He wrote, “My stupid father left a long time ago and sometimes forgets to call on my birthday.” When I read that Cesar thought I was a better teacher than his teacher last year, I was not so much flattered as flabbergasted. How could I be a good teacher, when he knew neither what brow meant nor how to spell it? And when I had hated him, even as he had trusted me to read these words?

The only way I know to become a better teacher is through failure. My second year, I tried harder to like my students. Hector was easy to like, even though he was failing. He was very short with a shaved head. Most days he wore a plain white t-shirt with crisp folds in the sleeves that made it look fresh from the package. He did not speak up in class until we read a poem by Native American Diane Burns, “Sure You Can Ask Me a Personal Question,” which students liked more than The Odyssey.

In the poem, Burns mocks the stereotypes others hold about Native Americans with lines such as:

So that’s where you got those high cheekbones.
Your great grandmother, huh?
An Indian Princess, huh?
Hair down to there?
Let me guess. Cherokee.”

After reading the poem, I asked students to write down stereotypes they face. Clicking his pen nervously, Hector volunteered to share: “Not all Mexicans cut grass. Not all Mexicans sell flowers by the side of the road.”

Everyone laughed. We knew some people believed such things. Hector looked startled, then emboldened. “Not every Latino boy who wears a plain white t-shirt and has a shaved head is a gangbanger. Not every Latino is Mexican.”

Soon after, Hector told me, “I’m gonna start doing my work.”

“You’re so smart! Why do you have an F?”

“I’m lazy. But I’m gonna start doing my work, I promise. I used to be a schoolboy like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t know what happened.”

“Do you want to go to college?”

“Yeah. I guess. I don’t know.”

Hector told me how hard life was for his older brother in Chicago, who worked all day and took classes toward his G.E.D. at night. He told me when he was ditching my class and when he was legitimately absent, though he always sauntered in with an official readmit slip. “This time I was absent for reals,” he’d say and smile.

In February, Hector got kicked out of his Spanish class for the rest of the year by Super Mario, which was the students’ nickname for the strict teacher next door. Hector claimed his exact words were: “Don’t you ever come back in here.”

“What did you do?” I moaned. “Wait: I don’t want to know.”

After that, during the period when he used to take Spanish, Hector was a service worker in the library. This time coincided with my planning period, so we often ran into each other at the copier. One day we were talking quietly about how he didn’t want to move to Sacramento with his father when the new librarian interrupted Hector mid-sentence.

He boomed, “Ms. Beatty, pleasure to meet you. I’m Mr. Kuzwill. Like your cousin Will. Kuz Will. I am so excited to work with you on lesson plans, media literacy, you name it. I really want to open up this library, utilize it, you know? Is there anything I can do to make your job easier?”

I did not look at Hector.

“Not that I can think of right now,” I told him. “Thanks, though. Nice to meet you. And welcome.”

He wandered off.

I turned to Hector, whose eyebrows were raised.

“I can’t remember where we were,” I said.

“Who is that guy?” Hector asked.

“You heard him. The new librarian.”

“I know. But I mean, who is that guy?”

The next day, during a final review of the characters and themes in The Catcher in the Rye, Hector’s group called me over. He said, “So, Ms. B. How do you like the new librarian?”

I smiled.

“He’s pretty cute, huh?” Carlos persisted. “I seen him, too.”

“Do you have a question about the book?” I asked.

They shook their heads.

“Your papers are due in ten minutes,” I reminded them. “Get going.”

As I walked away, Carlos yelled, “I can set you up!”

Hours later, at home, I pulled their papers out of my bag. The last question was “If Holden Caulfield went to our school, who would he hang out with and why?” There were all kinds of answers: the goths, the rockers, the jocks, nobody. But only Hector had written I think Holden Caulfield would hang out with me.

And of course he would. It all cheered me: that I knew Hector well enough to realize the truth of this; that Hector had found something in this whiny rich white dude with which to identify; that all was not lost in my classroom; and sometimes small, good things could happen. Whether or not Hector had an F in my class for not writing an essay seemed irrelevant just then. I put his paper on my fridge.

2015 was my 10th year of teaching. In May, my seniors and I read Adrienne Rich’s speech from convocation at Douglass College in 1977, entitled “Claiming an Education.” In it, Rich tells students: “You cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one.” She urges students to accept a contract that “means assuming your share of responsibility for what happens in the classroom, because that affects the quality of your daily life here,” a responsibility that “means that the student sees herself engaged with her teachers in active, ongoing struggle for a real education.”

The general response to failing schools is to view them as problems to be fixed, or sometimes problems that can’t be fixed. At successful schools, though, we are just as afraid of failure — maybe more so — and the consequences of this fear are also problematic. These mostly suburban schools, like the one in North Carolina where I now teach, are attended by children of more affluent families, where we want 100% graduation rates, ever-increasing test scores, and, in the words of Garrison Keillor describing the fictional Lake Wobegon, all the children to be “above average.” We institute grade floors, whereby it is impossible for students to earn less than a 50% on a test or quiz, regardless of mastery of the material. We mandate cumulative retests, which give students a chance to replace a low test score with a higher one. We hand out remediation packets so students have a chance to do work they never completed for weeks after the grading period or even the school year has ended. All of this is a numbers game to get to 69.6%. We give students many chances, but we do not give them the one chance that they need: the chance to fail in a way that is safe, meaningful, and productive. Our system’s real goal is not that they learn, but that they not fail.

The vertical baton of success and failure, I now believe, does not exist. I am not a success because I got good grades in a system that was rigged for me to win. My students are not failures because they don’t understand The Scarlet Letter. We are all moving along a horizontal continuum, chalking up our successes, reckoning our failures. How far we move seems dictated at least in part by our resilience, which we gain by grappling with failure.

Resilience may be the single most important quality needed to turn new teachers into veteran teachers. New teachers will be laughed at. They may be shamed by parents, administrators, or colleagues for failing to handle defiant students well. Their notions of themselves as smart and competent will be challenged externally by their students and internally by their doubts. What too few veteran teachers say to new teachers is that we learn to avoid power struggles by losing power struggles, or that we learn to create engaging lessons by designing boring ones. That you go back. That day after day, you show up to watch yourself fall short of the teacher you wish you were. That skill accrues slowly, invisibly.

As I read Rich’s speech, I thought how much she speaks to teachers as well as students. We are all in an “ongoing struggle for a real education.” We are all complicit when kids fail to thrive in a classroom. As my department chair in LA once said wearily, “There’s plenty of blame to go around.” Recognizing this responsibility is also recognizing our own fallibility: at some point, we will fail. 100% proficiency, 100% graduation rates, students who never fail — this seems a bill of goods our education politics sell us in lieu of acknowledging hard truths about the real work of learning to learn and learning to teach — which for most of us means failing again and again.

One afternoon in 2004, Hector’s class was clowning around during vocabulary work for The Scarlet Letter. It was Friday and Liliana’s birthday, so she had a distracting bunch of helium balloons tied to her chair. Gary kept shouting jokes and sending his classmates into eddies of laughter while I stood up front, silent and reproving. Eventually I capped my marker and said, “All right, Gary. It seems you like being the center of attention today. Why don’t you come up here and teach the vocabulary for this chapter?”

I sounded vindictive, an angry person trying to be calm. By this point I understood that teachers should not speak or act out of anger, but I did not know how to avoid it. Some days I still don’t.

Gary scooched down, his hair running in twin braids like thick seams over his scalp. He apologized and repeated, “Nah, nah, nah.”

The class began chanting “GA-RY! GA-RY!” like on The Jerry Springer Show. He looked around. No escape appeared. He walked to the board like a captive but once there began to smile.

Guadalupe asked, “Do you want us to act with him the way he acts with you?”

I smiled mysteriously and threw my feet on my desk to ham it up, indicating to Gary with a desultory wave to get on with it.

“So, class,” he began, shifting from one foot to the other. “Today we’re studying The Scarlet Letter.”

“Duh!” Hector shouted.

“Don’t you ever speak to me like that again!” Gary yelled. “Detention for you, young man.”


“Hey, we’ve only got 15 minutes, and we have to get through this vocabulary for our homework this weekend,” Lorena said.

“Okay, we were on humility,” Gary said. “Does anyone know what humility means?”

“Ms. Beatty, we’re never going to get this done!” Liliana, who moments before had been laughing along with Gary, gave me a desperate look. I smiled.

“I know what humiliated means,” someone said at last. “It’s like being embarrassed.”

Gary looked at me for confirmation and I nodded.

“Good!” Gary said. He turned to write on the board: EMBEARAS

“That’s not how you spell it!” Papers balls flew.

“I need to get some referral forms!” Gary said and made for my desk drawer.

“And,” I asked, breaking my silence, “is humiliated the same as humility? They’re related words, but they don’t have the same meaning.”

“Our teacher’s dumb,” someone whined.

“Yeah, our teacher’s like Mrs. Dixon! She always be misspelling words on the board!”

A new spray of laughter, full of recognition.

“Don’t talk badly about other teachers, please,” I said.

“Ms. Beatty, she does! She misspells like a word a day!” Lorena called.

A chorus of affirmations seconded this.

“Don’t talk badly about other teachers in front of me,” I said, wondering how they could recognize misspelled words on a blackboard but not in their own writing.

Then Tayshaun, Gary’s best friend, yelled, “Mrs. Dixon! Your wig’s crooked!”

Without missing a beat, Gary put down his marker and turned to the class with a confused, concerned expression that even I recognized from Mrs. Dixon’s face in meetings. Gary pantomimed straightening a wig, carefully patting the space over both ears. “I appreciate that, young man,” he said, in a pretty good imitation.

The class howled. They had obviously seen — and reenacted — this before. I stared at the floor so they wouldn’t see me smile.

“We’ve only got ten minutes left and we’ve got a dumb teacher!” someone said. “We want to trade!”

“Yeah, teach us something!”

Now, instead of chanting GA-RY, they clamored, “Teach us! Teach us!”

Gary slammed the marker to the ground, gave me a sheepish grin, and said, “I quit!”

I resumed my place at the board, no longer angry.

They weren’t perfect students, and I wasn’t the perfect teacher, but we all felt a part of whatever nameless thing had just happened. Something unmeasurable, but real.

At the end of the period, vocabulary finished, notebooks slid into grungy backpacks, one red balloon escaped and floated to the high ceiling.

“Oh, no!” Liliana said.

“Don’t worry, I got it,” Carlos said. He hopped on a desk, but the string dangled a foot above his reach. “Who’s the tallest?”

“Ms. Beatty the tallest,” Gary said. “Or Duane.”

Duane and I climbed up beside Carlos.

“Give them a notebook or something!” Hector shouted. “To catch the string in.”

When the bell rang, the three of us were still standing on desks, clapping notebooks open and closed like pinchers to try to capture the elusive string. The rest of the students formed a shouting circle of encouragement below us, all of us reaching, grasping, and failing — yet buoyed. •

*Names have been changed.

Art by Maren Larsen. Source images courtesy of jdog90, Rafael Castillo, and Alex Starr via flickr (Creative Commons)


Anne P. Beatty is a high school teacher in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her nonfiction has appeared in The American Scholar, North American Review, Vela, and elsewhere.