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Context: I am an assistant professor of mathematics at a small liberal-arts college in the US.

I did my graduate work at a large public university, and there I rarely encountered students who had previously taken a class from me, let alone ones who had failed one of my courses. Now that I'm at a much smaller institution it happens somewhat frequently, and I've only finished one semester here!

At this time I have no idea how I should react to these encounters. Generally former students and I exchange a pleasant greeting, but I find myself instinctively trying to avoid students who've failed because I'm afraid that they are still angry at me, I don't want them to feel bad, etc.

The title of my question says it all: How should I react when encountering students who have failed one of my courses? I could simply treat them like any other student, but I'm concerned about reinforcing the stereotype of "the tone-deaf mathematician with poor social skills."

Perhaps this question is a better fit for the interpersonal stack exchange, but I figured I'd start here.

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    Please refrain from writing answers in the comment section; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Mar 23 '18 at 19:26
  • believe that it is a 2-way street. If the student failed the instructor failed. When I get into math classes like intrinsic Math or Calculus I am a failure. I needed these classes for my computer science degree. These classes were consuming all of my time outside of worktime, When looking for help to understand these, I felt like I was on a deserted island. Some tried to tell me that this is the way computers work, but if that was true why are none of those function keys one a computer keyboard. I did graduate with 3.48, would have been hire with out Math. Continue to Nurture – StephanM Mar 29 '18 at 15:47

14 Answers 14

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Since you are at a small liberal arts college, I think you should not underestimate how much your own actions contribute to the culture of the college community. The notion of "avoiding" students is not something that you or your college wants to be known for (I imagine)! I think it is always best happily greet students that you know, perhaps ask them how things are going, etc. On some level, this kind of pleasant behavior is a professional obligation.

I don't think you should act any differently towards students who have failed your course (vs. students who did not fail, or haven't taken a course from you, etc.). Be cordial, and if the student wants to avoid you, then let them.

I will add that, while it's possible the student is mad at you, they may also be some combination of embarrassed and mad at themselves for failing. If they are embarrassed, then you avoiding them might make them feel worse, and you engaging with them might help them to get over the embarrassment.

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    This. Many students accept responsibility for failing a class, and often worry that you are upset that they failed your class. – Morgan Rodgers Mar 22 '18 at 6:29
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    Only the most entitled students ever gets mad at a teacher for failing a class, and you would've known them long before they failed a class. The exception is if you failed the majority of the students, but I'm sure you didn't do that. – Nelson Mar 22 '18 at 12:18
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    I'd only add that you reaction to students can have a profound effect on them. Failure happens, and should be allowed to happen. If you treat them like pariahs for it, you will only reinforce the negative. If, however, you treat them with dignity, it could become a learning point for them, and a turning point in their lives. Your relationship with your students doesn't end with turning back grades. – The Pompitous of Love Mar 22 '18 at 15:39
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    I second all the above comments, especially that from @ThePompitousofLove: a consistent amount of respect goes a long way for a student to feel that 'the door is still open' for them to succeed. It is challenging for the student to overcome the inertia of themselves, it helps if there is a steady and reasonable teacher they face along the way – cr0 Mar 22 '18 at 18:33
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    failure is one of lifes best teachers ... if everyone passed all the time there wouldn't be any need for grading. – CaffeineAddiction Mar 23 '18 at 3:28
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TL;DR: be consistent

Speaking from the other side of this: I once struggled severely with one math class in particular and ended up taking it 3 times. I failed the first two times (the first try was a dud - I was a terrible student; the second time I gave it a good try but found the subject very difficult) then the third time with my studiousness greatly improved and my understanding of the subject finally sinking in, I aced the class. Here's where it's most relevant to your question: I had the same teacher all three times.

As other answers noted, the students really ought to be upset with themselves. Even bad teachers - and I had some qualms about this teacher - are rarely the sole reason for failure, as if so many students were failing the school would or at least could be urged to intervene. A large part of my failure was my own habits and then my own difficulties with the subject. How did the teacher handle that, and how would I have preferred them to have handled it? Thankfully, both those questions get the same answer; that teacher did a great job in my opinion.

The teacher was respectful, fair, and aware. It was a relatively small class at a huge school, so ultimately a pretty large class (~60 students). She acknowledged knowing me with simple eye contact, smile, nod that sort of thing and knowing my name (which is unusual in such a big class) but she did not make me feel uncomfortably highlighted at all, she respected my space and left it up to me to stand out or hide. She continued holding me to the same standard as before the 2nd and 3rd time I took her class, not wavering to have higher or lower expectations, which I appreciate. Lastly, she didn't ignore or emphasize the situation, but she did acknowledge it where appropriate: as I came to her for help one-on-one she'd gently give advice on where she thinks I need to focus efforts on or just general study tips, encouraging me to come to more office hours and work with TAs if I'm struggling, but then she'd leave it at that. No dwelling on past failures, no extreme pushing to get me through (I mean, she did fail me twice...err, or rather I failed her course twice). Even as I started to succeed (I eventually aced the class!) she maintained the qualities I described above, albeit more encouraging and "keep up the good work" rather than "I recommend you _____________". Her consistency with me, and also between me and other students, was an important part of the respectful relationship we maintained through it all (even despite my grumpiness through some of it, especially in my bad-student days where I'd try to put the blame on her when it laid most solely with me in that first attempt).

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    Thanks for posting the student perspective -- I think that's very valuable, here. – David Richerby Mar 22 '18 at 14:39
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    Repeating does not matter as long as you get there .I work with people who dropped in and out of college ,who started late and who have repeated stuff . – Autistic Mar 24 '18 at 0:22
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    Yea it's no big deal in retrospect. At the time it is a sensitive situation, if only because there's a perceived need to pass the class, and likely also an emotionally/socially challenging issue for teacher or student. But life goes on, and better yet if one repeats and their perseverance pays off! – cr0 Mar 24 '18 at 0:50
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    Wow you had a great teacher! In my 4 years at university only encountered 2 strict yet consistent and fair professors. – grayQuant Mar 24 '18 at 21:42
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    Yes, also in retrospect this professor was impressively good. At the time I disliked her, blaming my failing on her teaching style and thick foreign accent. Really she was a huge help and the sooner I recognized that the sooner I enabled myself to succeed. – cr0 Mar 25 '18 at 19:20
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I'm surprised at the premise of this question. You're assuming failure is bad.

As educators, there's a responsibility to teach a subject matter, but also an implied responsibility to teach a culture and skillset that prepares students for life. If you teach your students that failure is something to be embarrassed about to the extent that it makes you avoid simple interactions with people who are aware you failed, then you're missing the opportunity to teach them that failure is a learning opportunity. By avoiding students, you're playing into the negative stigma, which is the real way you're "failing" these students.

Some others above have suggested not avoiding the students, which I agree with, but I really feel you need to take this a step further and incorporate a "don't be afraid of failure" attitude into the class itself, versus just after the fact. Help students prepare themselves for failure. Even if they don't fail your class, they're going to fail something at some point in their lives, and you have an opportunity to prepare them for that.

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    I must admit this is one of the best First Posts I have reviewed. – scaaahu Mar 23 '18 at 13:41
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That students failed your course should not mean that you should avoid them.

I think lecturers should accept (and most do) that there is always the chance that a number of students will not pass their course. (Sometimes there might be good reasons. Sometimes your course just happened to be the one where a student learned a life lesson — e.g. "laziness doesn't help you pass your exams", or even "mathematics wasn't my destiny after all").

But that shouldn't mean that these students should no longer be part of usual human interaction, such as greeting people you know.

Actually, I would say avoiding certain students would be awkward and actually would contribute more to reinforcing the stereotype of "the tone-deaf mathematician with poor social skills."

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    Showing up as not remembering what actually happened may actually help. – akostadinov Mar 22 '18 at 13:53
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    @erfink downvoting an answer for words that were never used in the answer is inappropriate. Nobody but you even mentioned genetic ability. – barbecue Mar 22 '18 at 19:20
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    @erfink I meant that someone who failed a mathematics course might have come to realize that mathematics is not for them — it's a personal decision and also should not affect the usual human interaction with the lecturer of the course. – Earthliŋ Mar 22 '18 at 20:46
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I joined to answer from a student's perspective.

I failed a 3rd level calculus course. Briefly, I had taken Calculus 1 from a professor and wanted to continue with her - she was demanding, but a very good and fair instructor. In order to schedule Calculus 3 under her, I took Calculus 2 in an accelerated summer course. I wasn't well prepared and failed the Calculus 3 course. My feelings toward the professor were never negative. I still believed that she was a good instructor and my failing grade was my responsibility.

Several students advised me to retake Cal 3 under a different, more lenient professor. Instead, I retook the course under the original professor. She never treated me as a sub-par student, and I never treated her as if my failure was her fault.

My point - treat your student as a former student that you have met before, but not as one who has animosity toward you. It's very possible that they learned from you and still hold you in high regard in spite of the failure.

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In public, you should treat them as any other student. Being able to play the tone-deaf one is actually an advantage here! If the situation arises, you may acknowledge casually you have met before (without specifying when and where). The worst thing for them would be being singled out in front of their fellow students (like in "...advancing to the next problem. X, you should already know how to handle that... that is, if you have been revising since...").

If you want to improve the local culture: when you have opportunity to take them aside very discreetly for a moment, you might offer to them something like this:

If you want to know what went wrong the last time, or want some pointers of what exactly the goal that you will have to meet is, just drop in at my consultation hours - and I'll explain.

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    I have taught many calculus classes, and students failing my classes is not at all unusual. Sometimes on the first day of Calculus 2, I might make an offhand remark like "Some of you look familiar, I may have had you for Calculus 1" even if I in fact recognize some of them as having previously failed Calculus 2. I hope this causes some students to have a feeling of relief: "The professor remembers me from somewhere, but he doesn't remember me specifically as a student who failed." – idmercer Mar 22 '18 at 15:11
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    Currently this is the only answer that suggests mentioning it to them and offering it as a learning opportunity which would be my reaction as well, upvoted. I wouldn't take them aside though but would instead just mention it as part of the announcement @idmercer has suggested "Some...familiar...may have..Calculus 1; for those who find themselves repeating the course I am honoured you are taking it a 2nd time round and would be happy to offer some additional pointers on where things may have went wrong last time." – RyanfaeScotland Mar 23 '18 at 0:38
  • One lecturer pointed at me and said that some people like my course so much that they keep returning .Other students burst out laughing .I just said Bloody Students because I was technicaly a staff member because I had a part time research position .I thought it was a big joke but I am a rough diamond .I guess that really sensitive people could get upset. – Autistic Mar 24 '18 at 0:29
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Honestly? As a student I'd find it more awkward if you were. Just smile and say hi like you would with anyone else. I always find if a professor is friendly and approachable then it's more reassuring.

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If they're angry with you, they shouldn't be.

They failed your course, you didn't fail them. If anything, their attitude should be one of apology and yours should be, I expect you to try harder this time.

A little bit of indifference on your part is not too much. They have to prove themselves to you, after all. Once you see they are making an effort and that they are likely to pass this time, you can lighten up.

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Background: I was a student at a small science and engineering school (which has since reclassified as a liberal arts college), and I failed my first semester freshman math class (calculus). I made up the class by taking a comparable class at an adjacent school. In my sophomore year, it became clear that being a semester behind in math was going to make all my science and engineering classes that much harder. I wasn't sure about the best way to catch up, so I sought advice from the only math professor I knew at my school: the one whose class I had failed.

I dropped in during his office hours and explained that I was looking for advice on how to catch up.

How I wish the conversation had gone: Prof: "Good question. What options have you considered?" Me: "Doubling up on math classes next semester or taking a differential equations class at a community college over the summer." And then we'd weigh the pros and cons or maybe he'd suggest a third approach.

How the conversation actually went: Prof: "You failed my class? I don't remember that." Me: "Well, yeah, water under the bridge. What I need now is--" Prof pulls out grade book and tallies up all my homework and exam scores (twice) and compares it to the curve for that semester and repeatedly apologizes because it was "really close." I didn't need or want to hear that. The effect was that this completely derailed the conversation and made the whole thing an uncomfortable visit to a past failure.

Takeaways: Students fail classes. They may blame themselves or you or external circumstances. Regardless of the actual (or perceived) reasons, at a small school, they're likely to need your help in the future. They may even end up in another one of your classes. If they're still at the school, working toward a degree, focus on now and not on the past. Treat them like all the other students. The ones who blame you and hate your guts will avoid you. If you avoid the others because you think it's the polite thing to do, that might embarrass/intimidate them from seeking your guidance or signing up for another class that might actually benefit them.

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You should not avoid the repeats. They do not feel bad in general. Remember that if somebody is doing your course again, he or she may have done really well in other areas. Failing the odd course here and there is normal at a credible tertiary institution where they do not give degrees away and hence the degree still holds value. Remember that final exams have multiple candidate numbers and you did not specifically fail that person because there were no names on the scripts .

When I repeated control systems in 1986, the lecturer was very surprised to see me back because he thought that I was good in class when it came to asking questions. I get on with him fine. If you have a sense of humour, you can crack jokes about your repeats. Some students deliberately fail the odd thing to prolong a nice social life anyway. They will pull finger and pass when they feel like it.

At university everyone is clever enough to pass with a C or better because otherwise they would not have passed the entry exams .The dean said this in 1979 . If somebody fails it is because they are lazy. The only stuff I failed had early morning lectures and I through being lazy got myself in the internal assessment boat where I needed more than 50% in the final to pass where others could pass on say 38%. So none of this is your fault so the repeats can’t feel bad about you.

I am very thankful that my department made me repeat. It was borderline repeat material but I needed the year to grow up. Instead of working on the door, I got a part-time research position. At the time I was the only undergrad to have one; so I realised that it was a privilege and pulled finger and made something of it. So some repeats have nothing to be angry about at all.

  • I tried to give your answer some structure, but it is still very tedious to read because you are jumping between different lines of thoughts. If you can, please edit it to be more coherent. – Wrzlprmft Mar 24 '18 at 8:09
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I suppose failing does happen, but perhaps the answer here is to best as possible prevent students from doing so. Have you considered during the term trying to reach out to underperforming students to discuss their progress in the course? Many of them may be too embarrassed to reach out when they are struggling with the material, and it may be best also if their grade is at a point where they can't turn it around to advise withdrawal from the course rather than fail [this could be a particular institutional quirk - but in the universities I attended it was considered better to withdraw for no grade than fail and receive a 0].

This pre-loads the awkwardness to during the semester, but intervention can help some students bring it around, or at the least feel that their difficulties are acknowledged - and will help ensure a continued professional and respectful relationship.

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Though there are many good answer, felt to add a few lines. Failure and success is a part of the game. Don't underestimate the students who have failed your course and that does not make you an inefficient teacher provided you have given your best. Treat them as other student but give them more attention and try to understand why they have failed in your course. Talk to them friendly and try to know the root cause of the problem so that with the due course of time they can over come that challenge and gain success next time.

"Actions speak louder than words", give a good gesture to the students and encourage the students who have failed so that they would try their level best to come as successful candidates next time.

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You should always remember you are judging the performance of the student, not the student himself/herself.

It maybe this person has to work outside school hours to make ends meet, needs to take care of someone at home, has boyfriend/girlfriend trouble, has medical issue etc, - a thousand circumstances none of which are of your business to know - so she or he could not devote enough time to your class.

Failing (or doing poorly) should never make you loose sight that you are teaching real people with real and sometimes complicated lives. Thus, treat him/her like you’d treat any other student, irrespective of score in your course.

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At this time I have no idea how I should react to these encounters. Generally former students and I exchange a pleasant greeting, but I find myself instinctively trying to avoid students who've failed because I'm afraid that they are still angry at me, I don't want them to feel bad, etc.

I'm not a professor, so take this for what it is. The reason you're asking already establishes that you care, which is a great thing. You care for your success in being a teacher as well as the success of your pupil.

If it were me, I would ask the student if they would mind meeting with you after class. There, I would have a conversation. Acknowledge that they were previously enrolled in your course and were not able to perform to the satisfaction that you think they are capable of — it's important to express you think they are capable of succeeding (otherwise you would be having a different conversation) because it communicates to them that they have potential and you aren't discouraged by their past performance.

Over the course of the conversation I wouldn't focus on their inability to perform, but express that you would like them to succeed. In order to do so, you would like to identify what did and did not work for them last time (perhaps it had little to do with your course and there were external factors affecting their performance) and determine if there are any steps you both could take to ensure success. Perhaps leading to a plan for them (or possibly you) to follow through on.

In any case, don't act like you have never met the student or their previous time in your course did not happen. Don't shy from events that occurred or let them influence your behavior. You formed a student/teacher relationship last time, this time will be building on it.

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