by Chuck Sandy
I hadn’t realized my 10th grade math teacher had been watching me struggle, but as I closed my book and put my pencil down in frustration she walked over and asked me if I was alright. “No, I’m not all right. I can’t do this,” I said. She pulled up a chair and sat down. Then she asked, “are you using everything you’ve been given to solve the problems?”
Thinking she might be criticizing me, I got defensive. “Of course I am,” I said angrily. “I don’t think you are,” she replied as she opened my book back up to the proper page. “Who have you asked for help?” I thought about this for a moment and said, “No one.” She handed me my pencil and said, “then you haven’t used everything you’ve been given to solve your problems. Let’s get to work.”
As I noted her use of the word let’s and her shift from the problems to your problems she asked if I was willing to let her help me. I agreed I was and she promised that she would. Then for the last few weeks of that semester between classes, during class, and after school she set aside time to work with me.
Whenever I didn’t understand something she’d say, “so you’re not ready do to X yet and that’s ok. I know you can do Y though, so let’s go back to that point and figure out where we got lost. Meanwhile, try this.” Then she’d offer me some new strategy to use on a problem I could do, and when I used that successfully she’d congratulate me. “See, I knew you could do it,” she’d say. Eventually I started to believe her and as I did something changed inside me. I started to feel good about myself and looked forward to her class. Maybe I wasn’t a failure after all.
That’s why it wasn’t a catastrophe when my high score on the final exam wasn’t enough to save me from getting an F in the course. Yes, I failed the course, but because this teacher had given me a place to stand, a way forward and a path out, the second time through her course I came pretty close to getting an A.
More importantly, I finally broke out of the cycle of failure I’d gotten trapped in.
Over the years I’ve thought a lot about this teacher and the way she’d helped me to break the cycle. By the time I’d gotten to her class in 10th grade I knew for a fact that I couldn’t do math. I was also pretty sure I was a loser and that everyone knew it. Though I could tell you the long story about how I’d come to believe this about myself, I don’t really need to because my story could be anyone’s story.
You hit a bad patch, skip a few classes, and now you have no idea what’s going on. Then you move to a seat in the back of the class and hope no one will notice how lost you are. You haven’t done your homework because you don’t know how so why even bother? Then what’s this? It’s a quiz on which you just scored close to zero. All you want to do is get out of that room where you’re failing and find some place where you possibly could feel better about yourself.
But that’s when your teacher decides to pull you over and tell you that you really need to try harder and wonders why you’re so unmotivated and says something like “you’re going to fail my class unless you shape up” without giving you a clue about how you might do that. That’s what my 6th grade math teacher told me before adding “and don’t ever come to this room without your homework done.”
All that talk does is scare you and when you do come back with your homework done it’s all wrong because you still don’t know how to do it. But all you get is that lecture again and then you fail and you fail and you fail and now it’s not just that one class. It’s everything and you’re sinking fast and there’s no place to stand until you get to the 10th grade and you’re lucky enough to have a teacher who gives you one. Yet there’s more to the story as there always is.
There’s also the story about how much easier it is to turn on the television or hang out with friends than it is to work at something you’re not good at. Then there’s the story about not fitting in with your peers or maybe you come from a family who doesn’t have much and your whole life is a struggle, or maybe it’s that you’re overweight or your clothes are out-of-style hand-me-downs or you don’t feel well or you’re depressed but you know this part of the story, too. There are a million reasons why someone might start the slide into failure and wind up in danger. Failure is complex, multi-layered and human. No one is immune.
Whatever the reasons students might get trapped in a cycle of failure, I’ve never seen any of mine get out of that trap because someone’s given them a lecture about trying harder or because they’ve seen some meme on social media about how failure is just a part of success so stand up when you fall down. The only times I’ve seen real change made were those times when someone pulled up a chair like my 10th grade math teacher did and offered a place to stand. Then even if a failing grade should still happen, that not really failure because there’s now at least the possibility that the cycle of failure could be broken.
I learned this as I was failing a 10th grade math class. None of this is easy and there are no guarantees it will work, but I’ve learned that the way out begins by asking are you alright? Are you using everything you’ve been given to solve this problem. Who have you asked for help? Well, I’m willing to help you if you want some help and yes, I do understand you can’t do this now, but I know you can do this other thing and here’s how we could get started on that.
That this offer of help is sometimes rejected hardly matters. Even pulling up that chair and making the offer let’s students know that their struggle has been acknowledged, that there’s a place to stand if they want one, that there is a way forward and a path out. It says I know this is hard for you but I’m here if you need me. You could open your book, pick up your pencil, and we could begin here.