Success and Failure
by Richard Bromfield
Excerpt from Handle with Care: Understanding Children and Teachers (a field guide for parents and educators). Teachers College Press, 2000. Richard Bromfield, Harvard Medical School.
It's near dinner time and Diana Roslyn sits at her desk. She typically enjoyed the peace and quiet of her third grade classroom late in the afternoon when the sun still shone in. But today she didn't. For today she was doing her students' quarterly grades.
96, 85, 99, 91, 78, 99... She enters the numbers into her calculator, adds them, and divides by 11. 92. An A for Patrick M. No surprise.
88, 78, 83, 79, 91... B for Shelia K. No surprise here either.
Kerry W. Ms. Roslyn, knowing what's to come, hesitates. She knows the girl's parents well. They aren't going to be happy, and Kerry is going to pay. 71, 68, 77, 81... C. Before entering the grade Ms. Roslyn redoes her math, hoping something better comes up; of course, it doesn't. C it is.
As a teaching assistant in college, she'd encountered undergraduates who begged and demanded that their Ds be raised to Cs and their Bs to As, because their parents would kill them, because they wanted to go to law school, or, the most outrageous, just because they'd never gotten anything less. When Ms. Roslyn got to elementary education she believed, that for whatever problems arise, grade-grubbing would not be one of them.
And that was the case. She'd yet to have a child ask for a higher grade. But she'd had a number of parents do so. Some pleasantly, some less so. Though she always tried to talk it out, to find out why the parents were so worried, she'd seldom changed a grade. She still kicked herself for once, in her first year, intimidated by an angry parent, having given an underserving A. Doing so, she recalled, had done nothing to gain that parent's respect, and in fact, as she looked back, seemed to fritter away what little there'd been.
Ellie T. 95, 98, 95, 88, 0, 18, 0... Ms. Roslyn did the numbers but she knew the score would be low. 56. If Ellie is an F student then I'm a kangaroo. She wanted to give her an A for Ellie was truly a strong student, but realized to do so would open up a can of worms that she didn't need. And so with confidence she wrote, Incomplete, knowing well the problem her parents were dealing with, knowing, too, that Ellie would soon be back on track and eager to make up her assignments.
Tyler, T. 71, 74, 77, 78, 76... The calculator said 73, but Ms. Roslyn knew otherwise. Enduring significant learning difficulties, she and Tyler had made wondrous progress together. He'd grown motivated to do well and had advanced in every way. The sameness of his grades, all 70s, perfectly reflected the constancy of his hard effort, steady performance and improved learning. B she wrote, wishing she could give Tyler the A she believed he earned, but fearing that his parents might misunderstand and heap more pressure on the son they, everyone knew, already had unrealistic plans for.
Earlier in her career doing grades had been an absolute anguish. Over the years she'd grown more comfortable, for example, no longer fearing parents' reactions to report cards. But, even with all this experience, she still worried about the effects her grades might have on the children. She knew that grades meant little to her; she knew just as well that she couldn't safely make that assumption about the children and their families. She'd seen report cards sadly discourage children whose hard-earned Cs were the best they could do, children whose work ethic and decency towered above the rest. She'd seen unanticipated good grades buoy children who hadn't believed they could do better than a D. And, she'd seen a few unfortunately exalted by their As, children who saw themselves as superior to the classmates who had to work so much harder and toward whom they showed little caring or respect.
If it was up to her report cards would have been in the rubbish years ago. Yet, she was a realist. Teachers, even the dreamers, typically don't survive and thrive unless they can cope with the reality that is. And so she did what she had to do to get by with grades. She did her best to explain what they meant, and didn't mean, to both her pupils and their parents. She tried to be fair and flexible. And most of all, she tried her best to do what she could do, reasonably if sometimes with compromise, so that her grades, which she seldom saw as doing good at this early time in a child's educational life, would at least do no damage.
And so Ms. Roslyn did her numbers, mostly for the record and as a ritual. But, of course, she didn't really need the numbers to know what grades to give her students. Her years of experience and days with these particular children had taught her just who they were and what they were capable of doing and learning.
Glad to be done, she closed her grade-book and walked it down to the front office, soon forgetting the scores and thinking about tomorrow's lesson on electricity.
* * *
Success and failure. Seems pretty clear-cut, doesn't it. But as every teacher can attest, that's anything but an absolute truth.
Sure, that boy earned an A on his professionally done geography project but, his teacher realizes, his parents did a bulk of the work. That teacher can't help but see so much more success in the somewhat messy, tilted and less than perfectly accurate poster board that another boy put together by himself. Sure, too, isn't it impressive when a child goes through a year of school without misspelling a single word? But isn't it also impressive when a classmate likely doomed to misspell for her entire life, coming to terms with her significant language disability, adaptively learns to use a spelling checker?
Though they know that success is usually found at an A or B address, teachers have enough times seen success residing nearby Cs and even Ds. Who can they say succeeded more: the girl who, out of poor effort, slipped from an A to a B, or the girl who, doubling her study, went from an F to a D-plus? Any child, it seems to many teachers, who betters herself in some way, arguably any way, is succeeding. Success, for many, is simply their struggling or trying, showing up for that dreaded oral presentation, admitting that they need extra help, and the most common, no more than doing the best they can do.
Tim handed his junior high social studies teacher a coffee-stained and tattered yellow sheet of composition paper.
Mr. Tran looked quizzically at the paper.
"My essay on political parties. I know, it was due Monday."
"Tim, you understand I can't give you better than a C even if it's a work of art."
"I know," Tim replied. "I wanted to do it."
"I'll look forward to reading it."
As it happened Tim's paper was nothing like a work of art. It was disorganized, the handwriting was barely legible, and confused. But then, it was three paragraphs long, showed some actual research, and included a humorous jab that revealed some insight into the political process. Moreover, the many erasures and crossed out words showed that Tim had tried to improve it. In short, it was light years better than anything he'd had ever passed in.
Tim got a C-minus. But neither he nor his teacher cared much about that. Like the apartment hunters who can see a beautiful home behind the grotesque turquoise wallpaper, Mr. Tran was able to see the success in this belated, soiled and haphazardly done piece of work. He could see that, however much punctuality, neatness, good topic sentences and word processing were needed, meaningful change comes slowly and in baby steps. Time might prove him wrong, of course, for the depth and sincerity of Tim's gesture was yet to be proven. Losing a kid from education was always sad for Mr. Tran, but not doing everything he could to try and bring one back cost him sleep.
Tim read the encouraging note that followed his grade and that praised all of the good and new things his teacher had seen in the essay. "I think we're headed to some place good," he read last.
Tim's teacher was able to grasp an iota of promise and hold onto it, when his student was likely not going to be able to. Had he refused the paper, or simply flunked it, Tim may very well have given up. Children like Tim are unable to try and try again. When they try, and it's not noticed, they are self-destructively prone to not trying again for a long time.
Honoring and nurturing such small steps toward success, however, can be hard for us, especially when these steps are tiny compared with the hill yet to climb. It isn't easy to get excited about a ten-minute assignment that comes in a week late (though that might be a positive sign coming from a child who never does her homework.) We might not readily light up when a child who endlessly interrupts our class, with some self-restraint, does so just a little bit less than usual or likewise, when a self-centered child allows someone else to go first just once.
Some teachers, and non-educators, I'm certain, are finding this discussion tiresome and unreasonable, suggesting, so to speak, that these children rob five banks a week and then, (have the audacity to) want us to throw a party the second they hold up only four. Come on, they think, get real. They're sick, they might say, of psychologists and pie-in-the-sky do-gooders telling them yet one more way to coddle what they might judge to be undisciplined, unmotivated and irresponsible kids. Why should a couple of wayward children consume so much of a teacher's attention and be given breaks and rewards that the children who do their work perhaps don't get? This opposition and argument is not foolish and must be considered.
Adults typically don't change easily and only after they themselves begin to realize that they have a problem. Whether its alcoholism, cruel behavior, not getting enough exercise, sloppiness, etc., it will not begin to improve until that one person, the so-called bad-doer really wants it to, not in a casual or fantastic kind of wouldn't it be great kind of way, but in a my life's got to change and I'll do what I have to do get there spirit.
The facts of change and staying the same apply as well to children and students. Some children are not going to check over their routinely jumbled and indecipherable math worksheets until they decide they care about it (or until they get the help to overcome built-in obstacles). That a dozen other children need only the teacher's raised eyebrows or red zero on their paper to mend their ways is not the point. We're talking, right now, about the other child, the one who doesn't work that way.
And so, ultimately teachers are left in a quandary. To at least try to reform that such-and-such child, they, with forethought and free will, might decide to work with his lying, cheating, bullying, disrespect, and shoddy work, accepting and acknowledging a bit less of the noxious behavior today, because they believe they can live with an almost imperceptibly slow rate of success, a rate, they also know, that is about as fast as the child can muster. Not every teacher can do this, and probably, not every should.
* * *
Learning for learning's sake. The goal of all education. Teaching children how to learn so they can be self-learners for a lifetime. How does this actually happen, and how do we help it along?
For some fortunate children, meaning those born to good enough parents and those born with good enough biology, learning begins happening early. Often these children have parents who from day one prove themselves and the infant's immediate world to be reliable, trustworthy and loving. Curiously enough, it is this early experience of being responded to and cared, of being shown that what she does makes a difference, that helps to solidify the ground from which the child grows. These parents admire their child's first steps (and not just the walking kind), revel in her curiosity and work to create a home which she can safely explore. Her messy experiments with applesauce evoke in them the same delight she feels; it doesn't, as happens in some other homes, bring out their disapproval and sternly wiping washcloths.
In these early days children find two major forces propelling their behavior: the wish to please their parents and the wish to gratify something in themselves. More recent studies have well documented what parents have long observed, that even babies will repeatedly shake their arms, make gurgling sounds and grin for no other reason than the reward they know is coming, the crinkling eyes and glow of their mother's smiling face. Children who do not know this joy can find themselves at risk of becoming more passive, needy and depression-prone. They also can grow into adults who feel helpless in and hopeless of pleasing anyone, or they wholly lose touch with their own selves, devoting their lives to trying to do whatever it takes to make someone, anyone, notice and react to them.
When children grow up in homes that recognize who they are, what they think and feel and do, without ridicule and undue criticism, they can grow to feel more engaged in their own lives, to be more active and less needing of others to give their life meaning for them. Their attempts to build mom a lamp, despite the horrifying fear of their playing with electricity, brings more cheer than rebuke. Their love of reading is nurtured and not put down. Their interest in computers, even when it occasionally crashes the home system, is welcomed and seen as a talent and skill well suited for our age of technology. Their parents are willing to help, but have no need to take over. Here's the answer, we show today; here's how to figure the answer, we'll demonstrate tomorrow; and, here's a book that can help you figure out your problem, we'll offer the child next week.
Not that these parents don't recognize the value of a reward now and then. They try to use them judiciously, less often than more. For, they appreciate, children do love to work hard for, not only smiles and pats on the back, but for ice creams, special outings and money. If all there is a cold cash, however, meaning that it's is given mechanically, without pleasure, and lacking genuine pride in the child's effort and accomplishment, rewards will steadily lose their appeal and power. And, if they are overused, if children are accustomed to being bribed for the slightest bit of cooperation (e.g., put your boots on nicely and we'll stop for a treat on the way home from school), they'll soon enough wield the leverage of the mightiest labor union, working only when the conditions and pay are enough and desired at that very moment. Keep your five dollars. I don't feel like taking out the trash and I don't need your money.
By experiencing a variety of incentives, and by having their own early wishes to please their parents recognized and fostered, those profoundly soothing sentiments become part and parcel of the child. She now, one day realizes, that she wants to clean the cellar, work on her essay or do well in algebra because it pleases her, brings her pride, makes her feel good inside and helps her to avoid the awful feeling of letting herself down.
(Of course, there are exceptions. Children who, despite the least encouraging, most stifling or least enriched of homes, are hungry for books and learning; or who, despite the best of parenting, care little for education and must be railroaded through every inch of their schooling. But, while exceptions mean everything in the world to that individual and his family, they can't be used as guides to the understanding of what goes on generally.)
Based on their inherent nature and those years at home children tend to enter their classrooms already somewhat fixed in how energetic or inert, curious or uninterested, motivated or not they are. Teachers do their best to work with what they are given. By the end of the very first few days of the school year an experienced teacher can probably point out the active learners. The task with these children is not so much to create a learning attitude and aptitude as much as it's to keep it going, to not squelch them and their love of learning. Those other children, the ones who see no reason to learn anything, they are another matter.
But strong, creative and determined teachers thrive on tougher matters, don't they. While they protest obsolete textbooks, unsafe corridors and unceasing discipline problems, they are more than willing to take on the reluctant learner. Using every ounce of their natural enthusiasm, understanding of development, interesting lessons, love of learning and uncanny ability to see even the dullest spark in a student's eye, these teachers, come hell or high water, will turn a goodly number of such children around. Being like good parents, these teachers will lend themselves to the cause, making clear to the child their pleasure and pride at what the child is accomplishing, or perhaps, is just attempting. They will offer external rewards wisely and just enough to waken the child's apathy, weaning them off it slowly but surely, substituting their words for treats (I'm so proud of you!), substituting the child's words for their own (You must be so proud. You did it all by yourself!)
The sooner the rest of us recognize that learners, like Rome, are not built quickly, the better and sooner those teachers who daily live by that credo can pursue their important work with the children we love and worry over.
* * *
Most of us can't help but laugh when we hear that some New Yorkers get their just born babies onto waiting lists of the more elite elementary schools in the city. That's so New York, isn't it? Well, from what I hear, it's becoming so Boston, so Chicago and so a lot of other places, too. But, I suspect, even the parents who fill out these near prenatal applications would agree with our own shaking heads.
While standards can be a good thing, and we know the dangers of expecting nothing from our children, they have surprises and side effects of their own. What does having Go Harvard, even if implicitly, embroidered on his crib sheet and diapers, overalls and sleepies, sweatshirts and wallpaper, do to a child? And what does it feel like to have parents want more than she can deliver.
Most every teacher can recall families who, even when their child was in elementary or junior high school, made their aspirations clear. That their child was of average ability didn't seem to slow some of them from unrelentingly pushing him for more and better. Nor did their child being of much less than average ability deny others their belief that she can become whatever she wishes (which equaled all that they wanted her to be). What a burden to go through their lifetimes of education, not only feeling to be less than what their parents want of them, but to ever work, work, work, never getting recognized for their valor, forever one or more steps behind the fast academic company they're forced to keep, and ever overwhelmed by the work they barely sustain by running on cylinders they don't have to burn. And even when these standards are in line with the child's intellect, they can steal away the child's inherent experience, teaching the child that learning is of value, not in itself, but for the status, opportunity and fortune it can attain.
Worse, still, are children who come to school with too little expected of them. Some come from families that stressed, barely surviving poverty, having been little educated themselves, simply cannot see bright futures anywhere in their hard life or who have no direct experience to believe in an educational system that traditionally has been so white, so removed. Others of them come from homes that, having known every advantage, have little energy and interest in a child who seems destined for what they see to be mediocrity.
When teachers inherit these children, they may find themselves challenged beyond belief. How troubling and painful to be the one, the life-saving one, who help parents see that their child, not only isn't college material, but that he has profound learning deficits. How frustrating and near impossible it can be for a lone and modest teacher to convince Mr. And Mrs. Corporate America that their overachieving pressures are doing in their daughter. How angering it can be to confront a father who shows no interest in his child's brave and successful battle with math and reading.
Teachers can do their best, too, to watch that their own prejudices don't get in the way, leading them to write potential winners off as losers, or, because of her name, or color, or address, to believe less in her, not envision her as vividly in cap and gown, and not see her as readily as tomorrow's leader, CEO, and teacher. Knowing also that such children -- of poverty, of color, of immigrant families -- can carry an extra heavy weight of their own, feeling themselves the family savior, the one who must succeed both symbolically, for the generations, and literally, to earn money and resources for those at home, teachers can help to hold and feed these boy-men and girl-women as they do what they feel they must, however arduous their journeys. And, of undeniable import, teachers can do what they can to help prevent a children's being left in the margins because they are not classic college material or because they want a career, not behind a desk, but one building homes, styling hair, driving a bus, repairing appliances or doing something else that serves their interests, their skills and our society.1
Though Dickens wrote about a London far from here in place and time, his caution that what we aspire for can be a double edged is still worth listening to. Wish or demand too much, we can dampen or kill a child's spirit. Expect too little or less we can ensure a child's growing into the poorly motivated and low achiever we once mistakenly saw him to be. Parent or teacher, the lessons of our great and not so great expectations applies to us both.
* * *
"Pass your papers up, please," Tamara Sanders asked, collecting them from her third grade class. "Write a story about something wonderful," she'd directed her students. "It can be about anything you wish. But it must be about something wonderful. Something special or magical." Watching their earnest work had pleased her for she'd hoped the assignment would fit well into their school-wide curriculum unit on fairy tales and myths of the world.
But Lucas, she'd noticed, hadn't written anything. A bright enough child Lucas, she was well aware, had little confidence in his abilities. He did well on straightforward tasks, like adding numbers and fill in the blank questions. He simply floundered when asked to create something out of nothing.
"Now, let's try and make up a wonderful story as a whole class." Ms. Sanders spoke aloud, as she ruffled through the papers as if randomly browsing them. Finding the one she looked for, the blank one, she looked up. "Lucas knows something important about wonderful stories. He knows you can't just write anything to make a special story. How many children thought of ideas that just didn't seem special enough?"
Lucas tentatively watched as several children raised their hands.
"Lucas," she said, walking to the boy's side. "Would you share one of the ideas that you didn't think was special enough?"
Lucas looked at his desk.
"Tell us something that wasn't special enough for the story."
"A parrot? What about it?"
"A parrot that can talk," he said a bit louder.
"Parrots can talk," the class know-it-all said.
"To people. But not to dogs," added the girl behind Lucas. "What if the parrot could talk to cats and dogs."
"Hey, the parrot could talk to all animals.
"Only animals he wanted to," Lucas said, speaking with a little authority.
"Only animals he liked, right?" another child agreed.
On and on, the children made up their own wonderful story. And Lucas had jump-started it all, his classmates' enthusiasm and wonder borne out of his self-proclaimed not-so-special notion.
"Great story," one child congratulated Lucas. "Yeah, I want a parrot like that," added a second.
Ms. Sanders was as wonderful and magical as the stories she'd been reading to her class. But she wasn't special in the sense of being rare for every day in most every classroom teachers do this most amazing feat: finding the success, or potential for it, in failure.
Regularly these teachers help turn instances of failure into moments for teaching, opportunities to take a step and a risk toward a new way of seeing, doing or understanding. Not even the children devoted to proving themselves failures fool such teachers. With a steadfastness strong enough for all their students these teachers hold onto their firm belief that most all children can succeed, and that all children, deep down, want to. These teachers know that there's life after failure, because they experience it hourly. And they appreciate, too, the different kinds of smarts and intelligences that their pupils possess, seeing the keenness, the cleverness, the creativity in the most obscure, seemingly failing, and even most uncooperative places.
* * *
For most teachers, success and failure aren't opposites to be pursued or avoided. They are more a natural part of life and learning, the warp and woof of the fabric that is the classroom and every child. Seeing the failure that can tarnish success, and, more frequently, the success that can come out of failure, teachers help their students to learn about, not just geography and science, but life and themselves.
From Handle with Care: Understanding Children and Teachers (a field guide for parents and educators). Teachers College Press, 2000. Richard Bromfield, Harvard Medical School.