Bill Page

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Article & Video presentation! Teachers and students are in a relationship, each with his/her own responsibility. To move toward greater professionalism, teachers must make certain they have fulfilled their part in the teaching-learning relationship. A beginning point might be to ask the question:

When Is Student Failure The Teacher’s Fault?
With accompanying video!

by Bill Page
Regular contributor to the Gazette
July 1, 2008

Increased student achievement requires a corresponding improvement in classroom instruction. While there are several ways to achieve instructional excellence, a practical step individual classroom teachers can take immediately is to critique their own teaching procedures. One question that has helped me critique myself meaningfully is this: “When is student failure my fault?”

And my answer is, “When I have failed to do everything a professional teacher could reasonably be expected to do.” We could quibble over what is “reasonable” and what is “expected,” but the onus rests squarely on me as the teacher. When the teacher has exhausted all possible resources for producing learning, and the student still fails, only then might s/he focus on the student’s responsibility, problems, attitude, and knowledge.

However negative this question about failure may appear, the answer is, for me, a way of concentrating on the changes I can effect personally to improve my instruction. I can’t really change the kids; they must do that for themselves. The onus for change is on me. I can change me. I am a professional. I chose to teach. I get paid to teach kids assigned to me. The kids did not choose my school or me. They are not volunteers; they are compelled to attend school. Once they show up, they have done their part.

Examining my own teaching methods, critiquing my own priorities and understanding my own professional expectations, I have come up with the following list of strategies I chose, and that any teacher might use to examine whether a change in their teaching might result in greater student achievement, and that might reduce or eliminate student failure.

Telling Is Not Teaching

It is axiomatic that students retain little of what they hear, but much of what they say. The lecture mode of instruction, of course, has its place: It inspires, it motivates, and it stimulates. But it is probably the least effective way to transmit information. Real, lasting learning requires that students do the thinking, planning, writing, and discovering for themselves. This inquiry mode is a method of instruction that actively involves the learner. If the lecture mode begins to take precedence over the inquiry mode, one simple solution would be for the teacher to stop in the middle of the lecture, ask a question and then break the class into discussion groups of three or four as a means of shifting the thinking responsibility to the students. As the students discuss, the teacher can listen in, assist those needing direction and perhaps pulling out three or four students to form a group with him/herself, giving help to those who need it most. A teacher also might check his/her ratio of lecture versus inquiry time on a given unit.

When is student failure really teacher failure? When a teacher fails to use both the lecture and the inquiry modes of instruction appropriately and proportionally.

Evaluating By Criterion Reference

Norm standards of evaluation guarantee built-in, predestined student failure. Many teachers themselves have been in classes with “curve-wreckers” or have sought to maintain a decent grade in the midst of students “smarter” than they. Norm standards ensure performances above and below average. I once taught in a school where the average student was two years above grade level. Student who operated “only” at grade level could not keep up, were considered slow and were frequently retained in grade for the year. To compare students to one another can be demeaning and inappropriate.

Students should be compared only to the course criteria. First grade is no more than a set of criteria every first grader is expected to master. Biology is no more than a set of criteria every student receiving credit for the course (not a certain percentage of students) must learn. The fact that some students already meet the criteria or that some achieve it more quickly than others should not result in penalty for the rest of the students. Should A’s be rationed? Are there only so many A’s that can be allowed? If a student gets 80% correct on the final examination, which 20% of the course material is it permissible for him/her to have failed to learn?

If a student is enrolled in a biology class, there are only two possibilities: Either the student can meet the criteria, or s/he cannot. If s/he cannot, s/he can withdraw from the course, not flunk. Or perhaps s/he needs a prerequisite course, or s/he should have been screened out in the first place. If s/he can measure up to expectations but doesn’t do so, then it is the teacher who has failed. In either case, it must be the teacher’s intent to teach 100 percent of the students 100 percent of the materials to 100 percent proficiency. Further, if grades are to be given, all student who meet the criteria should receive a grade of “A”, not be punished with a lesser grade because other students perform above the criteria level. Unless and until criterion reference is used exclusively, some students will be penalized with low grades through no fault of their own.

When is student failure really teacher failure? When a teacher grades on the curve or uses comparisons, norm standards or bell curve rather than criteria.

Encouraging Students

We know that students learn best through encouragement; but too many teachers seem to have an automatic response in terms of what students don’t do, haven’t done or can’t do, and they are too quick to use negative grading and evaluating rather than encouraging them to succeed. Furthermore, some schools seem to be organized for the purpose of encouraging only the top students -- those who are already motivated to succeed -- and thereby discouraging those at the bottom most in need encouragement. A colleague once remarked, “If they ever give me a class of good kids, I’ll encourage them, but I sure can’t encourage the ones I have now. There’s nothing to encourage!” My thought was, “If ever there were a class that could profit from encouragement, it was this one!” Imagine being in a class without receiving encouragement.

When is student failure really teacher failure?
  • When a teacher fails to encourage every student on an ongoing basis.
  • When a teacher fails to give positive feedback, not only in grading or assignments but also in all other endeavors.
  • When a teacher fails to use encouragement creatively. Some students respond well to public acknowledgement; others are embarrassed by it. Some respond to a challenge, others tend to give up easily. Some react well to a letter mailed to the home address; others seem indifferent to receiving personal mail. Professional teachers encourage students -- every one of them, many times over, in a variety of ways.

Providing For Learning Styles

That students very greatly in their learning styles, that there are several learning modalities, and that a multi-modality approach is effective, is not often questioned. The question is: Should students be forced to accommodate their learning to the teacher’s teaching style, or should the teacher’s style accommodate the variety of learning styles in the classroom? To me, it seems the least we could expect of a professional educator is that he or she would:

  • Acknowledge the existence of different learning styles.
  • Use a variety of teaching styles.
  • Allow for varying modality strengths in students. For example, during a lecture by the teacher, the tactile/kinesthetic students might illustrate some point on the chalkboard, while the visual students watch those at the board.

Because teachers teach most naturally through their own modality strength, they must be careful to expand their teaching to include the other strengths. For instance, auditory teachers could use more charts, posters and visual aids for visual learners and provide more projects, scissors, blocks and movement activities for kinesthetic learners.

When is student failure really teacher failure? When the more important elements of each lesson are taught through only one modality and when a teacher fails to use a multi-modality teaching procedure.

Accommodating Personality Styles

Along a continuum, there are organized people and disorganized people. (They usually marry one another!) In the classroom such “marriages” can be equally troublesome. It starts when a perfectionist student is assigned to an easygoing teacher or when a persnickety teacher ends up with the school slob. It seems irrational that so little effort is made to match student personalities with teacher personalities. To lock in a young child with a teacher of the opposite personality type for a full year seems unlikely to be beneficial to either.

As a spontaneous, non-systematic, freewheeling personality, I myself, enjoy flexibility in plans, changes in procedures and variety in routine. I realize, however, some of my students become frustrated, confused or even upset by this apparent lack of structure. There are other bases for personality conflicts and differences within the teacher’s responsibility.

When is student failure really teacher failure? When a teacher fails to adapt his/her style to the child’s needs, instead of expecting the child to conform to his/her teaching style.

Developing Attitudes

Students frequently form attitudes in the classroom that can last a lifetime. By my approach to teaching the elements of Mac Beth, I may turn my students off to plays in general or Shakespeare in particular; if so, I have defeated the purpose of the lesson.

On the other hand, a professional educator who develops in students a positive attitude toward the subject while covering the content is like a coach who builds morale and enthusiasm in a team while teaching the fundamentals of the sport. An esprit de corps and camaraderie that enhance the learning experience are thereby established.

There are two basic ways to influence attitude. The first is through the teacher’s own attitude. Every student I have ever taught has learned atleast one thing in my classroom; they have learned me. All my students know whether I value the use of class time. They know whether I respect them. They know whether I like every one of my student or just the “goody-goodies”. They know whether I plan to follow through. They learn me. So the first thing any teacher must do is get an attitude adjustment. If the teacher doesn’t think the subject is exciting and worthwhile, if the teacher doesn’t think that every student will succeed, then why would the students?

The second way to change or influence attitude is to help students see things differently. A new perspective results in behavioral change. In other words, if they see what I see, they will do what I do. Give students new and different experiences. Break the subject down into its parts. Help them recognize different perspectives. If they view it differently, they may act differently. That is, essentially, the growth or maturation process. Perhaps, more importantly, a student who has a positive attitude is likely to go on learning long after the course is finished and will retain and reinforce this learning for years to come.

When is student failure really teacher failure? When a teacher fails to be as concerned about students’ attitude toward the subject as s/he is about covering the course material.

Teaching For All Learning Levels

When I learned that acquisition of knowledge was the bottom rung of the learning ladder, I made a dramatic change in my teaching, in my goals, in my techniques and in my thinking. The ability of the learner to analyze and synthesize what s/he learns must be an integral part of any course taught atany level in any class. Continuing on from acquisition of knowledge through Bloom’s Taxonomy of application, comprehension, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and principles and generalization, represents highly skilled professional teaching. In today’s society, those skills are even more important.

When is student failure really teacher failure? When a teacher fails to go beyond the regurgitation of information, the recitation of facts and the primary concern for “stuff,” to the higher levels of thinking.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

In the quarter century since Pygmalion in the Classroom by Rosenthal and Jacobsen caused me to examine my prejudices, many articles and much research have shown that teacher biases and prejudices deter learning for many students. Male and female teachers both tend to grade girls higher and to interpret their actions or behavior more favorably than they do those of boys. Gender of students, slow learning, social status and race are some forms of bias that must be dealt with before a teacher can become more truly professional. The mere knowledge and acceptance of this fact by teachers could bring about both the desire and the steps to reducing teacher biases.

I remember a summary of four studies in the United States and England on questioning techniques used by teachers. Teachers who had a class long enough to rank-order students from best to least competent were observed in three areas of their questioning techniques: (1) the length of time elapsing between the teacher’s question and student response; (2) hints or clues given to students; (3) reinforcement after student answer was made.

The gist of the findings was that the better students were allowed twice as much time to answer as the poorer students. The better students were given clues, and at times the questions were even rephrased for clarity. Such comments as “Very good!” and “That’s right!” encouraged the best students, while the poorer students, even when answering correctly, seldom received much-needed reinforcement. In fact, teachers’ comments to them often bordered on the sarcastic: “Lucky guess!” or “Finally got one, huh?” A follow up program showed that given equal opportunity to answer, all students learned to respond equally well.

When is student failure really teacher failure? When the teacher is unwilling to acknowledge the possibility of prejudice, keep on the alert for signs of bias, work to treat all students fairly and reduce bias in their treatment of students.

Using A Variety Of Techniques

As a professional, my obligation is to make the decisions that cause my student to learn. If the decisions I make do not produce learning, I must be able to adapt or augment them. The professional must be continually in the process of upgrading and improving the repertoire or, through need and expedience, create new tools and procedures.

A professional teacher should be reluctant to admit that a student cannot or will not learn his subject. The professional does not get paid to fail student, to tell which students can’t or won’t learn, nor to explain the reason for their failure. The professional teacher gets paid to teach. S/He is responsible for finding or creating alternative ways of achieving successful learning. But if teaching were simply a matter of applying certain techniques in the classroom, we wouldn’t need professionals. We could hire and train laypeople to “technique” students. It is precisely when the student doesn’t respond to the technique or fails to learn, that professionalism comes in. The teacher’s job is to teach, with all the decision-making, skill, judgment and creativity that word implies, not just to technique students.

When is student failure really teacher failure? When a teacher fails to accept the responsibility for student learning by failing to develop more techniques for more help for more students.


I could have added many other teaching strategies to the above topics, including some that might be considered by individual teachers according to their style, subject or grade level. Your list would probably include current topics such as differentiation, student participation, brain compatibility, hands-on learning, memory techniques, constructivist theory, use of portfolios, alternative assessment, rubrics, assessment, benchmarks, and so forth.

However much more there may be to learn about teaching-learning processes, however much research may yet need to be done, and however much we strive to improve our competence as educators, the one thing a professional must never fail to do is use the knowledge, research and procedures that we already know, have proven and do understand. The extent to which each teacher is willing to accept the personal responsibility to improve, to constantly strive to learn, apply and create appropriate teaching-learning procedures, is precisely the extent to which they are becoming more professional, more responsible, and more effective; and is the extent to which they can assure that they “Leave No Child Behind.”

With joy in sharing, billpage@bellsouth

Watch and listen to Bill Page delivering a presentation on this topic! (11 minutes)

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About Bill Page ...

Bill Page, a farm boy, graduated from a one-room school. He forged a career in the classroom teaching middle school “troublemakers.” For the past 26 years, in addition to his classroom duties, he has taught teachers across the nation to teach the lowest achieving students successfully with his proven premise, “Failure is the choice and fault of schools, not the students.”

Bill Page is a classroom teacher. For 46 years, he has patrolled the halls, responded to the bells, and struggled with innovations. He has had his share of lunchroom duty, bus duty, and playground duty. For the past four years, Bill, who is now in his 50th year as a teacher, is also a full time writer. His book, At-Risk Students is available on Abebooks, Amazon, R.D. Dunn Publishing, and on Bill’s web site:

In At-Risk Students, Page discusses problems facing failing students, “who can’t, don’t and won’t learn or cooperate.” “The solution,” he states, “is for teachers to recognize and accept student misbehavior as defense mechanisms used to hide embarrassment and incompetence, and to deal with causes rather than symptoms. By entering into a democratic, participatory relationship, where students assume responsibility for their own learning.” Through 30 vignettes, the book helps teachers see failing students through his eyes as a fellow teacher, whose classroom success with at-risk students made him a premier teacher-speaker in school districts across America.

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