A few years ago, I was tutoring a ninth grader who was struggling in her geometry class. Her teacher’s teaching style didn’t mesh with her own learning style, and she also had a lot of test anxiety, so even when she began to master the material, it wasn’t yet showing through on her tests.

As we worked together, I observed my student slowly replacing her overwhelmedness with genuine interest and enjoyment. She started tackling difficult proofs, and her eyes would light up with excitement and understanding when all the pieces fit together. We were a few months into the long-term project of slowly building up her understanding when her dad made a decision, without my input, to pull her out of her geometry class because she was “in danger of failing.”

Even though my student understood the material, she got so nervous on the tests that if you just looked at her test scores it looked like she couldn’t do geometry. But she could! She consistently did it perfectly, by herself, in our tutoring sessions! When we reviewed her tests, the material made sense to her once she was outside the testing environment. And I was confident that she could pull up her grades if we continued working together.

In the sessions before her dad switched her math classes, I asked my student what she wanted to do. She told me that her choice would be to switch to another geometry class at the same level, but just with a different teacher. But for whatever reason, she didn’t perceive this option as being available to her—I’m not sure if it was a scheduling issue, a political issue, convenience, parental pressure, or something else.

What her dad decided to do was switch her into a “problem solving” class. My student and I met one last time after she switched into this class. Her book made me want to cry—it was a bunch of reasoning problems about things like Corey the Camel carrying bananas across the desert. (I’m serious. It really had problems featuring Corey the Camel.) The material was basically elementary-school level—no algebra, no geometry. Just simple word problems. Maybe the geometry class was 15% too hard for her, but this “problem-solving” class was about 100% too easy for her.

After that session, I did something I’d never done before. I wrote an email to the dad, explaining as diplomatically as possible and at great length that I really didn’t think this new class was appropriate for his daughter. I explained how much his daughter loved working on Geometry and was learning a lot even if she wasn’t yet testing well. And I expressed my concern that this class would limit her in the future, since basic algebra and geometry were prerequisites for so many other disciplines.

I wrote, wouldn’t it be better for her to take geometry and learn some geometry, even if she got a “failing” grade, than for her to take a class where she would learn nothing at all?

Her father’s response was vituperative. How dare I suggest that he allow his child to “fail!” And I never saw either of them again. I honestly don’t know how I could have handled this differently, but my heart still breaks for that student.

In comparison, another student’s family handled the perceived threat of failure very differently. I was working with a ninth grader who was struggling with Algebra 2 because her elementary school had failed to teach her basics like long division (she was supposed to “figure it out for herself”.) I believe when we started working together she was failing the class.

I was extremely proud of how hard this student worked, and she finished the year with either a low B or a high C. At the end of the year, her algebra 2 teacher suggested that she consider voluntarily repeating the class, just to strengthen her skills before moving on to more advanced math.

My student chose to repeat the class, even though she felt at least a little bit embarrassed to be the only sophomore in that class full of freshmen (at least I figured this was the case since she joked about it). She chose to learn instead of to look good. And her parents supported her. I was so impressed with her integrity.

By the end of her second time through algebra 2, the material that had brought her to tears the previous year did not phase her at all. But I think about the other family,

and how they didn’t want to let their daughter fail. Did that student ever get another chance to love geometry? Was she stuck in remedial math classes for the rest of high school? What did she did she do for her math requirements in college? I wish I knew. I hope she got another chance, instead of internalizing a message that she “couldn’t do math.”

Why do we protect our kids from failure, even to the detriment of their own learning?

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