Every Student Has the Right to Fail

Every student has the right to fail.”

– Sam Smith (1934 – 2019)

Failure is the Condiment That Gives Success Its Flavor

In 1995, the University of New Hampshire’s Academic Senate established a Writing Program to, among other things, help students “…use writing as an intellectual process to learn material and to discover, construct, and order meaning.” Still active today, UNH’s Writing Program features a University Writing Requirement and related Writing-Intensive courses. When, 11 years later as a UNH sophomore, I put a dent in that requirement by taking Nutrition 405: Food and Society, I had the good fortune to meet Sam Smith.

In 2002, Samuel Cooper Smith had already been teaching Animal Sciences, Biochemistry, and Nutrition classes at UNH for over 40 years. After marrying his wife Elizabeth and receiving his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Penn State University, Sam moved his family to Durham and began his career at the University of New Hampshire. He was a warm, bright, and kind man who often left me wishing he were my grandfather. In the words of one UNH alum, when asked what he ate to stay healthy, Sam’s answer was simple: “I eat peanut butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread with a glass of milk.”

Sam Smith, circa 1996

Beyond dietary advice, Sam fed his students hearty nuggets of wisdom. More nourishing to me than any other was the time he informed his crowded lecture hall, without a hint of anything but goodwill, “Every student has the right to fail.” It was those moments, not peanut butter sandwiches, which inspired me in later years to teach recitation periods as one of Sam’s Writing Fellows.

Never Confuse a Single Defeat With a Final Defeat

Recently, I found myself teaching again, this time to a class of one. The student? My 11-year-old daughter. The lesson? Remember to do your chores. Over the preceding months, Aubrey and I had tried various approaches to help her meet her end of our domestic bargain. There was the “You’ll-Earn-A-Reward” approach, the “Three-Strikes-And-You’re-Out” approach, and the admittedly futile “Dad-Will-Just-Pretend-He-Doesn’t-Care” approach. Unfortunately, none fully did the trick. After things came to a head one night, Aubrey and I wrote a list of her privileges and the behaviors required to keep them. As we put our finishing touches on it, Aubs was confident that this approach would be the one. “I promise,” she said, “you won’t regret this.”

Aubrey’s Privileges and Behaviors List
(Corgis are her favorite)

The next day, shortly after she finished eating lunch, I watched in horror as Aubs headed for disaster. The kitchen table wasn’t cleaned. Dirty dishes were left in the sink. Lights were still on in another room. And she appeared oblivious. What should I do? I wondered. It’s okay, a voice in my head said, it’s not that big of a deal. Just remind her to do her chores. She’ll remember next time. But another voice, one that sounded very much like my former professor’s, was crystal clear: Every student has the right to fail. So she did and lost all of her privileges as a result.

It Is Hard to Fail, But It Is Worse Never to Have Tried to Succeed

Once her inevitable anger and frustration over losing her privileges subsided, Aubs and I talked about why each of the approaches we tried had seemed to fail. We agreed that the reason was partly on her – she needed to accept the consequences of her actions – but partly on me too. In searching for a single solution to our problem, I’d overlooked the progress she had made along the way. More and more often, Aubs was remembering to do her chores without being reminded to, even if she wasn’t doing all of them all of the time.

Afterward, we adjusted our approach again to incorporate some of our lessons learned. Now, any privileges Aubs might have lost are reinstated at the beginning of each day. We take a few minutes each week to review her recent performance and identify any behaviors she can focus on improving. It’s not perfect, but neither are we – we’re just two students of life trying our best to take what works and leave the rest. As Sam explained in a 1996 article on him after being named a Distinguished Professor,

You must treat students as the kind of people you expect them to become in ten to twenty years. Most of them will respond and rise to the challenge.”

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