When Should Students Become Responsible For Their Own Success?

I don’t blame Steffon for his distrust issues; after all, he’s bounced around from foster parent to foster parent.  I don’t blame Sara for her constant angst and depression; after all, she’s just come out of the closet and receives no support from her parents, who now remind her daily that she’s going to hell.  I don’t blame DeAnthony for his shockingly sparse vocabulary; born to a single mom with five other siblings, nobody read to him before he attended school.  And I don’t blame Angela for her emotional outbursts–she witnessed her mother get murdered in their trailer several years ago.

These are all real students I’ve had over the years–names have been changed, of course–and at this point, I can only pray that my attempts at guidance have helped add enough academic and life skills to their arsenal to become happy, productive, citizens.


Advising students who carry massive social, academic, and emotional burdens into our classrooms is, at times, an overwhelming task.  But as a high school teacher, I’ve got students who will be entering the adult world soon.  They need to take responsibility for their own actions.  Somehow, they must put their pasts behind them–a difficult task when such struggles are constantly creeping into their rear-view mirrors–and develop perseverance and grit to find success.

At what point should we educators, and society at large, blame young people for failing to overcome hardships and soul-crushing situations at home?  At what point should we expect, if ever, developing adolescents to confront their harsh realities and make a decision to take steps to overcome behavioral or academic issues?

I’ve been there, when I could care less that Rayvon is pissed off about his deadbeat father.  He had no right to continue disrupting class, seeking attention in all the worst ways.  I’ve been there when I’ve gone out of my way to stay after school for tutoring, providing a safe and productive place for students who’d otherwise be up to no good, only to sit at an empty table watching the second hand cycle around and around until packing up my bag and trudging to the faculty parking lot.  It’s frustrating, but I won’t stop trying.

It’s often individual educators–and not the system–who attempt to build academic and social bridges for our most needy students.  Yet there are other teachers who proclaim that it’s the students job to learn, regardless of background, ignoring situations like those mentioned in my introduction.

Americans love rags to riches stories, and there are enough tales of young people rising up from abusive homes, dilapidated housing projects, and abject poverty to become doctors, lawyers, congressmen, and professional athletes.   The exceptions are hardly, the rule, however–all you have to do is examine statistics about cycles of poverty and educational attainment.  Nonetheless, the rags to riches narrative holds a vice grip on our consciousness and our educational systems.  If he or she can succeed, why can’t you?

Yesterday marked the end of my ninth year teaching public school in and around Louisville, Kentucky.   It has been a tremendous journey thus far, and every year I’m constantly reminded of one concept from my teacher education courses: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Progress towards personal and academic growth is derailed when basic needs aren’t met.  When so many students come to school hungry, angry, stressed out, and overwhelmed, it’s no wonder that little learning takes place.

It’s not fair that some students carry massive burdens as they trudge from class to class, while other students breeze through private schools and tennis lessons, with the only uncertainty being which college or university they will attend.  And right now, many of our schools are not set up to create conditions where most students have a reasonable shot at similar outcomes as their more advantaged peers.  It will take a herculean effort.

Do politicians, and Americans in general, have the political will to reimagine school as places where students’ various backgrounds are addressed through alternative curriculums, more social worker access, and other interventions?  What is your take?  When should students become responsible?  Nature vs. nurture–am I emphasizing nurture–or the lack of it– too much when it comes to student development?


  1. This is an excellent post, and to me gets at the heart of American political philosophy. Stereotypically, Republicans are those who put all the responsibility on the individual, Democrats those who put it on society or the system. Obviously both have a point, but we can’t do much to change what individuals do, and we can do something to change society and the system.

    In the context of education, we clearly need a system that takes into account students’ diverse capacities and needs, but that also helps them transition to taking responisbility for their own successes and failures. Well-meaning individual educators like you will make a difference, but not enough. Just like I can’t stop global warming by buying a hybrid: we need a government to set a coherent policy. That doesn’t mean it’s bad to buy the hybrid in the meanwhile…

  2. I suspect that’s true. I am not an educator, but I imagine you/they feel very constrained by rules, reg’s and “politeness.”

    I had a student (albeit college age) who was massively disrupting my class, with only 13 students, and finally took him aside after class and demanded to know what his deal was…turned out he was putting himself under massive pressure to get internships/hired, etc. and felt he could never make a mistake. We talked for about 90 minutes….I think no teacher had made the time to ask why instead of dismissing him as (which he was) an annoying presence.

    People are usually annoying and troubled for a reason. It’s up to us to care enough to find out why — and have a real convo with them. I told him that having Plans A-K was probably less stressful than insisting he MUST get the dream jobs he wanted.

  3. I also don’t think enough educators are candid enough with at-risk students: “Look, it stinks that the odds are currently stacked against you–just look at the statistics. What are you going to do to break the trend? It’s not going to be easy, but know I’m here to help you navigate through this class, school, and life in general.”

  4. Grant,
    I agree nobody is helped by being blamed. I wonder how many high school students who are checked out, so to speak, have experienced true accountability and consequences for their choices along the way. If nobody guides them or checks in on them as they struggle through schooling, either for behavior or learning, then the whole concept of accountability and consequences is also abstract.
    On another note, I’ve also come to accept that I can’t “save” all students:

  5. I love how you never ask tough questions! 🙂

    I am not sure anyone *can* teach it. I suspect it is something we see modeled and then emulate; my mother has survived five kinds of cancer. So I have very little patience with whiners. She got through it (albeit with alcohol!) I know I am a very resilient person and have never resorted to drugs or alcohol to escape. I always have been able to make friends, and that has been essential.

    Maybe those who should teach it are those who are successful survivors who are really willing to be candid with kids about how tough it can be, but the lifelong value of hanging in there…?

  6. You raise a vital question, one that was on my mind yesterday as I visited the Camden County Voc-Tech Center where kids were doing projects. I saw one girl who was working hard, even asked me for some help – and was told she was living in a homeless shelter. Nothing would have signaled trouble of any kind in her demeanor. On the other hand, there were a few who were completely checked out, yet were being allowed to be so as part of the ethos of self-responsibility in the program (i.e. the ‘bill’ would come ‘due’ when their projects were to be turned in by the next week).

    Having been a coach and a dad as well as a teacher i would say that no one is helped by being blamed – I thought that was a perhaps revealing word in your post. Rather, everyone should be held accountable and see the consequences of their actions. The same kid who blows off class works like a dog at Burger King sometimes. Consequences exist. That’s the great thing about sports: no one has to ‘blame’ you for striking out 4 times and making 2 errors due to lack of concentration and heart. The key, in other words, is to engineer as much reality therapy as possible so that it is not merely a question of failing to do one’s work in school – which is, when you think about it, a fairly abstract commitment based on trusting adults.

  7. You raise powerful and important questions.

    When a kid’s underlying issues are un-addressed, even un-acknowledged, hell ensues. I was eventually told I was no longer welcome at my private all-girls’ school when I had become (truly) disruptive and miserable. But NO one, ever, bothered to ask me “What’s wrong? Is there anything we can do to help?” I got high grades, even so.

    But I am also pretty impatient with people who cling to their misery and say it impedes every possible bit of their progress. I survived (with a good school academically, and a summer camp where I felt valued) a bi-polar alcoholic mother and father who spent most of his time traveling for work. And a not very nice stepmother…Resilience is a skill you learn, use and practice. We all have some shit to get through. My issues have affected me throughout my life, even with therapy.

    At some point, you just have to get ON with it.

  8. Thanks for stopping by Debbie. Please share with your colleagues so perhaps we can create some dialogue here about possibilities, collaborating with the WordPress community.
    We can’t change the parenting crisis or who walks through our building doors, but our schools are way too similar in approach to be effective in giving all students equal opportunity.

  9. I do believe that schools should have the flexibility to create the environment, the structure,to serve its students. I also believe it will be a herculean effort. I hope our just announced state approval to be more innovative in how we provide education (and the nurturing necessary to do that) will help kids. The answers have to come from those who are reaching the hard-to-reach, like you. I hope others comment, so our district leadership will have the best ideas….

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