When Making a Difference Means Failure

Making a difference makes us feel good. As educators and those who work in an educational environment, I honest believe it’s built into our DNA. The desire to make a difference is what makes our work meaningful.  The gratification that comes from helping someone, seeing a student finally “get” the concept, or watching a student grow and mature is relatively short-term. We see it in within the semester or so that we are working with specific individuals.

But what about the students who we couldn’t reach? We all have worked with them – the constantly absent, texting aficionado, excuse ridden, unengaged students. The ones who don’t do the homework, do not participate in class, or fail tests without caring often end up with grades that reflect that behavior. They do the bare minimum. They are also the ones, who at the end of the semester, are searching for extra credit or some way to blame you for their poor grade. They leave us thinking – is there something else I could have done? Does this student have extreme circumstances that I don’t know about? Is there just a personality conflict? Should I give them the benefit of the doubt, or should I let them fail? If they fail, will they come back and try again? These are tough decisions to make sometimes, especially given the conversations we have had this week about the Aspen Award.

How does this go back to making a difference? Maybe, by letting them fail we ARE making a difference – but with no gratification for us. Maybe the student who really didn’t earn a passing grade must learn the important lesson of setting priorities, time management, making choices, or even simply being present for the commitment he/she made. By passing them, are we simply delaying future, more consequential failures? Are we really doing them any favors by bumping up a borderline grade?

Unfortunately for us, we often don’t get to see the impact that has on a student in the future. Sometimes it is not until much later in life that they realize that failing that class set them on a new, more positive course. By then we don’t see the difference we made. And those differences often require more work and energy from us. I would like to argue that, in fact, a difference was made.


One thought on “When Making a Difference Means Failure”

  1. Hi Chris,

    I try to focus on the ones who are “getting it” and leave the rest for the day when they are ready to show up. Yes, it is difficult to see students fall away, but be of good cheer. We can’t motivate students who aren’t ready. And I have seen students return when they are ready, and then watch out!

    Tina Luffman, YC FYE Coordinator


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