Waving from the Edge of the Pit: How To Get Over Your Obsession with “Teaching Them A Lesson”

Is being able to fail students one of the perks of the job? Is it really teaching students the “consequences of their actions”, or is a lazy way we have of making ourselves feel better about what we’re not doing to help them learn the material?

Why do we believe so much in our points systems? When we were learning the fine art of setting up a gradebook, which many of us were never actually formerly taught,  how did we decide what was worth what? How many points should be assigned? Now that standards based grading is a thing, how do we decide how to weight the rubric? If we grade on a curve, why? If we grade on “participation”, if we give students points for study guides, if every last thing in our classroom is worth points or it doesn’t happen, if we use points as punishment, as motivation, how is that working for us? Is it really possible for us to create an assessment, any assessment, that demonstrates without fail that our students have learned everything we were trying to teach them? I feel like we need to check ourselves on that one.

Are our systems working? Are we using failure, the fear of failure, the fear of “working at McDonalds”, to motivate our students? Have we ever actually questioned why we do that?  Why we set up a system which thrives on the certainty of failure, and the equal certainty that students will get in a hole they can’t crawl out of?

Why do we wait for them to fail and then wave at them from the edge of the pit?  

I didn’t coin that awesome phrase. I heard it in a staff development workshop a few years back. But it stuck. Along with the following question.


Why is a zero a zero? Now bear in mind I teach drama, not math, which is all the more reason for me to question the numerical value I assign to tasks I expect my students to complete. I struggle with how many “points” something is worth in the grand scheme of a course. I adjust every year. But one thing I have come to embrace is that I no longer give zeros.

A zero means nothing was done, and it can never be done.

Now imagine that instead of zero, you put the same grade in at 50 percent. 50 percent means you expect it to be done. 50 percent is an insurance policy, where you grant students the trust that they will get it done in order to master what they need to know in your class.  Again, not my idea. I learned it in a training. But a really good one to think about.

A zero stops dialogue. Do it by my deadline, or else fail.  No late work. No excuses.  No bathroom passes. No excuses. Points off. Points off. Points off. 

Do we actually hear that every day at work in these “non McDonalds jobs” we want our students to aspire to? How long would anyone, all other things being possible, happily work for a boss who conveyed that message to us day in and day out?

Most of us would not.  And yet this is how some of us are conducting our rooms. We are using arbitrary numbers as weapons in what we are depicting as some sort of  giant battle to ensure student compliance. Without reflecting on the why or how, we are depending on numbers to do our communication for us.  And then we wonder “why we can’t reach them.” Why they aren’t more understanding of the fact that we are human. Why they are rude, and off-task.  Why they are disorganized and confused.

But if they aren’t there, how can I give them a grade? It’s not fair to the others. Reader, we all know that a student who does not show up and do their work will eventually fail. They will fail, without intervention, whether or not you’ve given a zero or 50 percent. But what about the day they walk back into class after whatever it was as they sometimes do? What then? They screwed up a semester. They didn’t commit unspeakable crimes against humanity. Why are we so attached to the power to “teach them a lesson” ? If they can’t come to our class, it’s pretty likely that they have a lot more on their plate than what we’re trying to pass along.

This doesn’t mean I don’t fail students. I am reduced to that occasionally. What it means is is that my class is not based around failure as a constant threat,  and my belief is that this makes my students feel safer to take risks, more creative, and more likely to work harder.

Instead of constantly threatening our students with failure, what if we set up another structure, where we meet them halfway? What if we set up checkpoints along the way, so that before they fail, there is a net to catch them?  When I talk about that, I am talking about ungraded tasks and practices whose chief purpose is to monitor information about how students are doing. Today’s buzzword for these is formative assessments, which provide us with the feedback about student performance we need to rescaffold so that we aren’t just failing people willy-nilly, trusting the points over our professional judgement.

Teachers new to teaching drama may wonder what that looks like.


  • Mini lessons for scene work, focussing on just one skill to practice (today, let’s make sure everyone in the scene is projecting. Here’s how. Let’s practice acknowledging unseen offstage events. Here’s how. )
  • Readthroughs of proposed material, making sure it fits the performer in both ability and interest. If you hear a mismatch, you have time to make a change before it counts.
  • Watchits, where groups perform for a small audience of peers and receive informal feedback before performance
  • Memorization “quizzes” halfway through the scenework process, focusing on the first 10 lines or half the scene. Have students score them, but don’t put them into the gradebook, instead use the data to identify those kids who are struggling with memorization BEFORE the public shaming of getting onstage and blowing it for a grade
  • Do-overs- No penalty phase where the unready must actually get onstage, demonstrate unreadiness, and receive more time to prepare.
  • Interviews and Self-Assessments. Grading these assignments defeats the purpose of them.
  • Production Meetings- Either whole group or small, time for a group to formally confirm where they are in a process involving a larger product, such as a festival of one acts.


In the “real world” of work, it’s common to meet to discuss ideas before implementing them and assign tasks to stakeholders that then need to be completed. In the “real world”, while being unprepared for a presentation may eventually lead to being fired, it does not lead immediately to being cast out of the office and being forced to work in the boiler room.  In the “real world”, actions have natural consequences. I am in no way saying that our role as teachers is to coddle and hand hold students, or that students should never fail,  but I think we need to get over our fear that if nobody fails our class, nobody learned anything. This idea that you need losers to make winners, that the way to success is to master an arbitrary system,  is ill-conceived, particularly, for the following reasons:

It fosters the kind of sociopathic competition among students that we’re always shocked by. We say we want our students to be “good people” first. We’re in it for the “outcome, not the income”, we say. If that’s true, why do we leave it to a gradebook to decide what our room looks like?  We need to examine whether we’re in it to ensure that high achieving students maintain their status and low achievers make them look better by comparison, or whether we’re really in it to create individual growth and learning in all students.

It ignores the contributions of many gifted students and maintains an intellectual status quo. Earning points doesn’t actually motivate some of the brightest kids. They have different needs. They are motivated by being able to develop ideas or pursue their own interests. Some of them are motivated by a desire to lead or stand apart. How are we articulating the purpose of assignments for these students and connecting them to the material?

It presents as an irrelevant, hopeless game for our lowest achieving students. If you know you can’t win, you won’t play. These kids won’t grub for points, because they don’t translate into power for them. Community will. Responsibility will. Connection will. But those things need safety to function and I would argue that by creating a competitive, points driven climate in the classroom you are destabilizing safety as a curriculum. How do you grade someone’s ability to care? To self-advocate? How do you grade empathy? Passion? Those things have to be in place in order to create an person who wants to achieve. The most beautiful thing about teaching theatre is that it contains a story for everyone.

We have the power to fail students, but we also have the power to ensure that they don’t. We have the power to decide what lessons to teach.