As the end of the year approaches (or has already arrived for some), let’s talk about failing students. Some will be surprised to learn that a student can fail an art class.  I agree with them! It’s not typically that the material is too difficult or that the child wasn’t intellectually up to the challenges. It’s often more of a matter of effort. I often say a student must work hard to fail my classes. Over the years, I have developed some best practices for failing a student.

My Personal Checklist when Failing A Student

Some things I have learned over the years about failing a student: 

  • I documented everything I have done to try to prevent a failure. I document all communications to parents, after-school appointments for extra help a student has missed, refusals to work during class, etc. 
  • I put personal feelings aside and make it a point to check in on my failing student, even if the student hasn’t asked for help. If I see their hand up, I make them my priority.
  • I strive to be consistent. If a student fails a quarter, I ensure I am consistent and that my mid-term report reflects the developing problems. 
  • If applicable, I am in contact with parents, the student’s guidance counselor, school administration, and Special Education teachers. The earlier I can identify a problem and start communicating with all the school’s support personnel, the better.
  • If attendance is an issue, I ensure I know and follow my school’s attendance policy. 
  • I review IEPs and 504 plans a student may have to ensure I provide all the appropriate support for a student. It’s the law and good teaching. 
  • Are students failing because they have zeros? I reserve zeros for the students who do nothing. If a student begins a project but doesn’t finish it, I still give it a grade because they have done some work toward completion. 
  • If your school has formal progress reports for struggling students, take advantage of them. Alternatively, you can create your own weekly progress reports. 
  • Is the student involved in sports, and is their coach supportive of academics? Again, this can vary, but I’ve had amazing results from coaches who are willing to prioritize academics over sports. Tapping a coach in those instances is very worthwhile.

What is Circle 65?

One day, early in my career, I was angsting about a student failing my class to my mother, a former English teacher. In this instance, the student wasn’t a “do anything” type all the time but didn’t finish or always turn work in and often wasted time. I was feeling pressure to pass him. My mother asked if “circle 65” still existed. What was this circle 65, I asked? She explained that it was a policy when she was a new teacher (in the 1960s). If a student fails, you might strike a bargain to bump the student up to passing (65 is often but not always passing), but under the contingency that the school doesn’t allow them on in the curriculum. So, if I circle 65’d a student in Art I, he then met his art requirement but could not take any class for which Art I was a prerequisite.

I went to the guidance counselor about this idea, and we came to an agreement. Now, this concept will only work in some schools for various reasons. My school happened to be large, and there were other electives the student could take. In a small school with limited electives, it might not be workable. One art teacher shared that it was an unwritten rule at her school: if students failed their required art class, they would retake the class with a different art teacher the next time. Well, the teacher said she ended up with the student again and went to guidance to complain, and it turned out the student took and failed the class with two other art teachers, and guidance ran out of art teachers! I can’t help but think it was time they tried an introductory music class for their fine arts requirement! 

Relationships and Classroom Management

If I needed further proof that relationships between students and teachers matter, I need look no further than my home. I have one child who would walk on hot coals for a teacher they loved. With a teacher they didn’t love? God help us all. It was going to be a long year. 

I’ve seen the relationship element play out in my teaching. I had a student who was late for class on the first day I took over for a teacher on an extended absence. Knowing the class was in bad habits from having different people covering until I stepped in, I decided to be strict about his tardiness. Well, this student shut down completely. There was, as there often is, a backstory, and I tried everything reasonable to get this middle school student to work, but he never came around, and I still feel I made a bad call there. Fortunately, I was able to turn the problematic class around, but that relationship proved irreparable.

Teaching is an art form, and part of our challenge is to create an environment where students can learn and grow. Over the years, one of the problems I try to nip in the bud is allowing students to not work on their projects. In my Intro High School art classes, even one student not working can be contagious and often impacts the whole classroom mood. I take one from Benjamin Franklin, who said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” School is often won or lost in the first month when the habits and routines are established in your classroom. I’ve had specific classes with higher-than-normal failures, and they typically involve struggles. This is normal in some schools and communities and comes with the job. When you have class after class with higher-than-average failure rates, you must reflect on why, and that’s a whole different article. 

Failure is Essential to Personal Growth

I know there are schools out there that won’t allow you to fail a student. A school I worked at had a policy that wouldn’t let students receive less than a 50 for the first term. The rationale for that was so a student had a chance to pass the year. It helped ensure that students hadn’t dug a hole so deep that they couldn’t get themselves out of it. I understood and accepted the policy. 

I commend teachers and schools that support failures. It’s fine and even good for a school to be aware of failure rates and take steps to mitigate failure, but failing is essential. Allowing students to pass when they have not earned it undermines the whole educational institution of grades. According to the website Bored Teachers, “Failure is a crucial part of the learning process. When we prevent kids from experiencing it, we are impeding their social and emotional growth. Students need to learn that there are very real consequences that come from sitting in class and doing… nothing. I believe art also teaches the importance of a work ethic. A student needs to learn how to plan and execute a project from beginning to end. While students, and even some parents and administration, may not see art as all that difficult or important, problem-solving and perseverance are essential life lessons and 21st-century skills. 

Does your school allow you to fail a student? What are your strategies for failing students? Please share your thoughts in the comments!