My mother is notorious for her constant use of old-fashioned sayings. Some regular highlights include: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, and “heavens to Betsy!”. Throughout my entire life these quirky phrases have peppered our conversations, and often caused me to raise a curiously confused eyebrow while she explains the outdated meaning.
I wouldn’t say this is a trait of hers I’ve consciously tried to pick up. However, I couldn’t help but crack a small smile when I leaned back in my office chair and exclaimed “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink!” after a particularly tricky day at work.
It was the last day of the fall semester, and I had distributed final grade reports to the students in my first year seminar that morning. Our first year seminar has a pass/fail structure (no letter grades), and the high majority of students pass with flying colors. However, four of my students failed to earn a passing grade. While my other emails to these particular students typically had a mysterious habit of ‘getting lost’ and therefore never read, this final grade report caught their attention. By the end of the day the blur of impromptu office visits, unhappy phone calls, and upset emails left me drained and questioning my actions.
“I just don’t understand. It almost takes more effort to fail this class than it does to pass it”, I lamented to my supervisor as I continued to receive an avalanche of disgruntled communication. In order to earn a passing grade, students had to reach a certain number of points (roughly 65% of the points offered). All four of these students failed to meet this mark, due to various combinations of not completing assignments, not following directions or putting in effort on assignments they turned in, and racking up high numbers of absences. On the surface, you would think this is a relatively ‘cut and dry’ issue. They didn’t put in the effort, and their grade was a direct reflection of this poor effort.
But as the day wore on, I couldn’t help but feel as though the failure of my students placed a big red F across my forehead as well. Not one, not two, but four of my students had failed. Did that make me a failure too?
Like any stereotypical student affairs professional, I’ll be the first to exclaim how much I value my students. I try to show them this by setting up structures that help them be successful. Over the semester, I vigilantly kept my grades updated on Moodle, time-delayed weekly email reminders for what assignments were due in the upcoming class, met with each student individually at least once, and took pride in the comprehensive syllabus I developed. I sent ‘red flag’ communications to those who I saw struggling. Yet, even with these structures, students in my charge didn’t reach their academic goals. How much of that is my fault?
Though I still feel uneasy about the whole scenario, I do find some comfort in thinking about my mom’s silly phrase: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. I had put solid and consistent effort into helping my students be successful, but ultimately whether or not they succeeded was up to them.
Who else has ever felt this way after a student failure? Let’s start a dialogue about ethics, worth, and failure in student affairs!
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Podcast With Valerie Heruska on SA Professionals Role in Development Efforts