Letting kids struggle in class

Maureen Jimenez

As difficult as the concept of letting students struggle in class is, personal experience has shown that this is something that helps students grow as learners. Before I allow a student to struggle on their own, I will take time to look into their past history. Throughout the years, there have been a multitude of differences in the students that I have had enter my classroom. But there is one major difference in the students who are struggling in one of my classes. There are students who cannot do the work - and there are students who will not do the work.

    Of these categories of struggling students, the majority of my time and energy will be researching the past performances of the students who will not do the work to see if they are capable. It takes some time to identify these individual students and to see if they will be able to bring themselves up to the standards that are set in the class. One tool I will use is to look at their transcripts as a gauge of their capabilities. Have they had successes in recent years, or even this year? This success indicates achievement possibilities that I will use as bargaining evidence with the student.

    When discussions are held with the student regarding their performance, or lack thereof, their general attitude is taken into consideration. Do they own their behavior, or do they make excuses for their lack of effort? Have they given up, or do they want to try again? For the students who are aware they have dropped the ball, every effort will be made to help them achieve. I will ask what they need of me to help in their path to achieving their goals. A recent student of mine was constantly making excuses for why her work was not completed or why she did not come in for tutoring. She claimed that any time she came in (the one time she came in), all I did was to give her more work to complete. Her perception was that I was piling up more for her to do. I asked her what was impeding her from finishing the work and what could I do to help her be more successful. She was in shock that, instead of anger or blame, I came to her with willingness to do more. She saw that the onus of accomplishing her goals was entirely on her shoulders at that point.

    But not every student is like this or wants to make the effort. For some students, it seems like their personal challenge is to see how much energy I will give before I let them struggle on their own. It is not easy as an educator to make these decisions, but, as a form of self-preservation, we have to know when to let go. We can end up fixated on a handful of students and find ourselves making generalities that all of our students are performing at a low level just because that is all that is seen in front of us.

    We also cannot let the few interfere with the many who are there to learn. The distinction is clear, and the choice is theirs in the end. There is no amount of calls home, detentions, referrals, or parent-counselor-principal meetings that will make this student work. But this is not the fault of the teacher if they have exhausted all other avenues. This is a lesson that the student has to learn.

    One period a day, I teach an online credit recovery class for biology. The students find themselves in the class if they failed the course in the classroom setting. This course is set up for the student to pace themselves through several units that include lessons, projects or labs, quizzes, and a test to be completed in a certain number of class hours. Some of the students enrolled in the class are determined to complete the class to have their transcripts show the higher grade before they are sent along with their college applications. There are also some students who are determined to sit and stare at the screen all semester and have a failing grade recorded on their transcripts a second time. Do I try the above-mentioned motivation tactics on them? Of course, but then there is the point in which I have to focus attention on those who are willing to participate in their learning. Do I think the students who are staring at the screen are learning a valuable lesson? Well, they are learning a lesson. They may not see it as valuable at that immediate moment. I can only hope that there are a few who will contact me years later to share their current successes with me.

    My wish as an educator is that some of these students (because I know all would be asking too much) will catch on sooner than later. They would be able to save themselves time. But they would also miss out on the experience of picking themselves up from their failure. I rarely have to move students for excessive talking and had one student this year who disregarded my warnings. After a couple weeks in her new seat, she was completing her work and her quiz grades were vastly improving. When I made mention of it, she admitted she was happy I took the extra step to try to help her succeed. I said, “Sometimes the Wicked Witch knows what is best for you.”

   She agreed. 

Maureen Jimenez has been a classroom educator for the past 16 years. She has taught a range of students and science classes from ESL and credit recovery to honors and Advanced Placement. She enjoys the challenges and learning that comes along with the career choice she has made. She is someone who is always looking to collaborate and work on production of new and interesting ways to share information with her students and her colleagues. She firmly believes in being dynamic as much as possible and is also willing to admit mistakes and learn from them.