There comes a point in every teacher’s career where he or she is faced with a decision that could alter a student’s future.
Last week I shared a story about Zaina, the first deaf student I taught. A few years later, another deaf student showed up in my course. Kyle was a business student. Like Zaina, Kyle was focussed and determined, with exceptional people skills. Unlike Zaina, he was not multilingual. In fact, he did not know American Sign Language.
Kyle had been sent to an oral/aural school for the deaf. He explained to me that the type of education he had received had focussed on lip-reading, using contextual clues to understand spoken language, capitalizing on any residual hearing abilities and integrating students into mainstream education. Sign language is not used in this approach.
A fourth year business student, Kyle was not excited about the prospect of taking Spanish. It was a requirement of his program and he needed the course in order to graduate. This was not uncommon for students enrolled in certain programs outside the humanities. The difference was, of course, that Kyle was deaf.
He openly confessed that his English grammar knowledge was minimal and that he struggled with concepts around language such as grammar and syntax. He was also open about the fact that he didn’t spell well.
But you could tell, Kyle was sharp. He arrived to class every day dressed like a business student. He lived and breathed business. He had excellent interpersonal skills and a keen sense of how to manage his time and his priorities. He sat at the front of the class and despite his trepidation, he was determined to succeed.
Standing by as a student sinks
Every week he would visit my office during my posted office hours to review his homework and ask questions. He stayed after class to ask for clarification on points he did not understand. He arrived at class early every day, having made an honest, sincere attempt at his homework. Kyle was the epitome of an engaged, interested student. The reality was, he struggled. He struggled so desperately, it was pitiful to watch…
He found it almost impossible to form the sounds of Spanish words. His lack of knowledge about grammar made it hard for him to figure out the mechanics of language. His spelling was worse in Spanish than it was in English. His self-confidence plummeted. Yet, he persevered.
Kyle was a straight-A student whose performance on the first Spanish test of the semester was an undeniable failure. I asked him if he had an advisor in his program who might be able to make an exception for him in terms of the second language requirement of his program.
He shook his head, “I tried,” he said. “They said no. Every student has to meet all the requirements. I even asked if I could take sign language instead, because I thought it would be really useful to me to know it. But they refused that, too. Sign language is a continuing education course, not a credit course. They said that I could take it, but it would not count towards my degree. I still had to take another language that was part of the undergraduate program.”
I sighed and nodded my head. The university was strict about its rigorous program requirements. I thought to myself, “This is lunacy.” Here was a brilliant, engaged, focussed student who, despite his most sincere and eager efforts, was unlikely to pass my course.
If that happened, he would not graduate that year. He would need to repeat the course or try a new language in order to make the language requirement of his program. If that did not work, he would need to transfer into a program with no second language requirement.
It reminded me of the helpless feeling I had as I watched my mother die a few years earlier. Then, there was nothing I could do to prevent her passing. But Kyle was still struggling and still hanging on, if only barely. He still had a chance. I felt compelled to help.
I picked up the phone and made an appointment to speak with the head of program that Kyle was registered in.
When reason falls on deaf ears
After shaking hands with the program head, I said, “I’m here about Kyle Smith”.
“He’s one of our best students,” she replied. “… A shining example of what we wish every student would be.”
“I know,” I replied. “But this second language requirement is killing him.”
She nodded. “Yes, I remember that he came to us asking if he could take sign language instead, but there is no credit course in sign language.”
I advocated on his behalf. “It is not like he isn’t trying. This kid comes to class better prepared than any other student in the class. He does all his homework. He even pre-reads the entire chapter before we start it. It is not that he is incapable of learning. He’s smart. It is that the amount of time it would take him to get all this stuff is probably ten times longer than we have in our course. Is there anything we can do about this?”
She shook her head, “I am sorry. The program requirements are very strict. We can not make exceptions for a student just because he or she is disabled. This is a business program and it is our job to prepare students for the real world. The real world does not pander to people who can’t keep up. If he wants to graduate with a business degree, he needs a minimum of a C- in this course. End of story.”
“The real world does not pander to people who can’t keep up?” I asked myself. Forcing a deaf student to take a second language when he has no background in languages and questionable affinity for the subject area is hardly a reliable benchmark for his overall success in life.
I thanked the program head for her time and left, angry. I realized that this was more about the program directors choosing to stick to their bureaucratic guns than it was about ensuring the success of their students. If there had been no other indicators of success, I might have agreed with her. But here was a straight-A student, with experience working in business, with great people skills, and that keen sense of determination and focus that is hard to actually teach anyone.
By that point, I had taught over 1000 students in my career. For me, there was no question in my mind that Kyle was going to be a success in life.
Paying it forward
I returned to my office and sat down to process what had just happened.
My mind was taken back a few years to my last semester of my undergraduate program, when I had been hit by a car. I missed the first month of the semester as I recovered from the accident. I returned to classes, determined to do whatever was necessary to graduate.
The words of my Spanish professor rang in my head, “You will get through this. I’ll do what I can to help you. Don’t worry about the grades. Just work hard,” she said.
She believed in me and my abilities at a time when my self-confidence was failing and my future was still uncertain. Her confidence in me lowered my anxiety and propelled me to work harder than I had worked before. At a time in my life when I needed it most, a teacher believed in me.
In that moment, I understood what she was really saying. The sub-text was, “You are safe here. Trust me. I am not leaving your side. You will succeed. I won’t let you fail.”
I sat back in my chair. Almost fifteen years had gone by since that conversation. I had never forgotten it. I knew that it was time to pay it forward.
Doing the right thing
I understood that the situation with Kyle was different from the situation when I was a student. This time would involve a bigger risk on my part. I did something that I had never done before, and have never done since. I adjusted the rules, in order to do the right thing.
Leadership and business guru, Peter F. Drucker said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Assigning grades is one of the management or leadership functions of a teacher. We assess, evaluate and ultimately assign a number or letter grade to each student that goes on his or her permanent record as an indicator of performance.
I already had permission from my own department head to make Kyle exempt from the listening exams. I had permission to re-organize the percentage of marks for the remainder of his work so that they would add up to 100% for his final mark. We reconfigured the percentage so that writing counted towards his final grade.
Since I already had permission to adjust the distribution of marks for the work he did, I made one other adjustment that I knew would ensure his success.
This was a subjective element of grading that allowed us as instructors to award marks based on class participation. It was our way of preventing students who were not really engaged from getting an A if they never came to class. If a student never showed up to class and only came to write the tests, got 100% on all the tests, but got a zero for participation in the course, the best grade he or she could end up with would be a B+.
The saying goes that 80% of success is showing up in life. So, if a student never showed up, it was impossible to get 100% in the course. It may seem sneaky, but that’s how it was.
Kyle demonstrated evidence of “showing up” in every possible manner. He had perfect attendance at class. He showed up having made a sincere stab at completing his homework. He stayed after class to ask intelligent clarifying questions. He came my office hours every week religious for extra help. At one point, he had hired a tutor to help him, but the tutor had no idea of how to help a deaf person learn a language and it didn’t work out.
Kyle did everything within his power to “show up”.
Since there were no grades awarded for discipline, focus or homework completion, I made a strategic decision to increase the percentage of his participation mark.
There are rules and regulations in institutions for a reason. They set the standards that guide our professional behaviour. We are obliged to act in ethical ways that demonstrate an understanding and respect for the traditions and honour of our profession. Individual faculty members are required to abide by the rules established by the institution.
But what happens when the rules do not fit the situation? We have a choice. We can play by the rules or we can break them. (Yes, re-writing the rules can count as breaking them.) If you break the rules, you can be fired. That is part of “the real world” that my colleague in the business program was talking about.
Was I willing to risk it all for one student, whom I had known for a semester? The thought of it left a big knot in my stomach. I wanted to vomit. I could lose my career over this. It was like playing Russian roulette with my own future.
Inspired insight: Use deep reflection and analytical thinking to drive a tough decision
I reflected more deeply. Would I want to look myself in the mirror every day, knowing that I had upheld the bureaucratic rules, knowing that Kyle was all but doomed to fail my course and that was very likely to change the trajectory of his career? (Do things right, according to the rules).
Or did I want to take a chance on a student who was almost guaranteed to succeed in business and in life, but possibly risk my own career to do it? (Do the right thing).
I had a deep sense of not wanting to look in the mirror years later and ask “What if?”
I firmly believe that when we are faced with the impossible choice between doing things right, and doing the right thing that ultimately, it is more honorable to do the right thing. The price you might pay for doing so is ultimately less than the price you pay, in terms of your self-respect, ethics and integrity, for not doing so.
I had significant evidence that Kyle was going to make it. He had a solid track record of stellar grades, he showed up in every possible way and he had those intangible qualities such as people skills and determination, that never officially get factored into students’ grades. My own deep reflection, coupled with the evidence of success that this student had already demonstrated, ultimately led me to analyze the risk and decide that it was worth it.
Kyle received a passing grade in Spanish. And he worked harder than any other student in the class for what would turn out to be the only C- on his transcript. The grade broke his straight-A record, but we both knew how much it was really worth. He graduated from his program and has gone on to work for major multi-national companies.
Looking back, I could say that it wasn’t just Kyle who was deaf, it was also the institutional bureaucracy…. a system that did not care to listen to or take into account all the possible factors that contributes to a student’s success.
Peter F. Drucker also said, “The best way to predict your future is to create it”. As teachers, we have the opportunity to help our or hinder our students in the creation of their own futures. There are times though, when doing so is risky business.
When have you been faced with the choice between “doing things right” and “doing the right thing”? What struggles did you face? What did you ultimately decide, and more importantly, why?
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.