Today I finally received the first of what are sure to be many similar inquiries in the coming two-plus weeks until classes end. One of my students, who has basically done no work since October and whose grade average is somewhere in the mid-teens, came up to me this morning and asked, "What can I do to bring my grade up?"
"Let me make sure I understand you correctly," I replied. "Today is the 29th of May. You've spent the past nine months doing no work, sleeping through every class, coming in 20 minutes late, chewing gum, talking to other students, showing no interest in anything we've been doing. And you are coming to me now to ask how to bring your grade average up?"
"Well," came the inevitable platitude, "I really need to pass your class."
I told him bluntly, "You are not going to pass this class."
Most teachers, I imagine, would not have been so frank. Many would probably be inclined to actually give this student a chance to pass the class for the year, even though he did almost no work for nine months. I myself have never been inclined to do that; neither am I any longer inclined to give students like this the illusion that they have a chance to pass (in order to get them to keep coming to class and maybe do their work from now on) when in fact they do not.
I have discussed in earlier posts the fallacy of students thinking they can make up for nine months of inactivity and willful negligence by writing one essay or taking one test in June. Take another look at the Twenty Questions Common-Sense Quiz, particularly Question 18. It is high time students are compelled to accept that the choices they make from day to day are what determine their academic outcomes. Where kids are conditioned to believe that they can do nothing for nine months and then "make up for it" in June, they have no incentive to do their work throughout the year.
I had another student like this three or four years ago, a senior, who came to me with tear-filled eyes on the next-to-last day of school, while I was taking my posters down and closing up my classroom, and said, "Umm...Mr. Braiman, umm...Can I talk to you about my grade?"
"I don't see what there is to talk about," I replied.
"See, umm...I really need to graduate, so, umm...is there any way I could get a 65?"
"You came to class seven times this semester. You wrote a grand total of four entries in your notebook. You did none of the four writing projects. Your actual grade average is twelve. You are not going to pass."
"End of discussion."
Some readers will surely accuse me of being insensitive, cruel, cold-hearted, etc. Others will immediately demand to know what I did over the course of the semester to get this student to come to class, do her work, and pass, and will doubtless be dissatisfied with my answer and tell me I should have given her what she wanted, or at least given her "another chance."
Even disregarding the fact that this student had been in my class the previous year, and therefore knew precisely what the requirements and expectations would be, she chose not to meet them, or attempt to meet them. She chose not to come to class and not to do her work. That is, and should be, the extent of the discussion. She made the wrong choices, and those choices led to the bad result. Same for the boy who approached me this morning.
Students like this need to have their bad choices come back to bite them. I have never accepted and will never accept that every student should have a chance to pass the class right up until, and even after, the end of the school year. Some students choose to fail almost immediately, and continue to make that choice day after day after day until they reach the point of no return. No good can come from rewarding such bad decision-making by rendering it moot.
I've been saying for years that most students only care about their grades on the day they get their report cards. Students should care about their grades every minute of every class, every day. Anything less than that, and they forfeit the right to complain.
Of course there are apologists out there who will tell me I'm wrong, that I'm being mean and unfair and I should be more "understanding" about the children's "issues."
Maybe it makes me a bad teacher. Maybe it's better that I am leaving the profession, so kids don't keep getting their feelings hurt. Fine. But as long as I'm here, I refuse to feel sorry for kids. I refuse to coddle them, to tolerate their self-indulgent excuse-making, to un-do their mistakes for them, to send them the message that it's OK to make irrational, counter-intuitive, negligent, destructive and downright stupid decisions from day to day throughout the year, as long as they wake up at the end and pretend to care.
Just recently I finally saw the highly-regarded Brad Bird animated film The Iron Giant. One of the central themes in that film is, "You are what you choose to be." Students need to be much more conscious of, and much more careful about, the choices they make. As I've written previously, we do them no favors by teaching them that their feelings matter but their choices don't.