What A 55 Looks Like On This Side [Fail Is A Strong Word]

Jose Vilson Mr. Vilson 6 Comments

Sifting through the multitude of ungraded papers, I looked for some sign that they actually learned something.

I hate entering in 55s in my Excel sheet. A teacher can say whatever they want to the kids, and threaten them about not doing well, but most of us prefer that all of our kids do well from the early going. Even when we hold high standards for our students, none of us actually want our students to get a 55.

I don’t necessarily let it happen. I more wait to see if the student gets the idea that I’m hopeful, encouraging, and downright reaffirming, but I’m not going to back down from the level I want them to achieve. I’ll meet them where they are, re-re-repeat my lesson, ask students to re-re-re-explain everything we just did, let them work together, in groups, in pairs, as a class, give them homework, or not, a lot of problems, a few problems, a long, short, medium problem that they have one or two days to complete, and …


A few days before the end of the marking period, a couple of students will rescue themselves, not with extra credit, but making up their assignments. I’ll be nice and accept them for some credit. But the others who need it the most won’t get the hint, even after I make it plain for them. I’ll huff and puff and think to myself, “Like, yo, What the …, do my monologues count for nothing these days?”

Of course, we’ll sit there during parent-teacher conference. I’ll break out the call logs, the works I’ve graded, the work I ask them to hold for their portfolio, the progress reports mid-quarter, and the set of questions that sound less like a teacher, more like Jack McCoy:

  • Did you, in the night in question, do your required assignments?
  • Did your teacher, Mr. Vilson, actually give you the grade or did you earn that?
  • How is it unfair when he gave you weeks to turn those in?
  • How do you think he feels about the grade he gave you?

I won’t get that far before I re-establish a common vision with the parents in question about how the student ought to perform, but shortly thereafter, I’ll sit there, looking at their grade, wondering about my next steps. I’ll move them to the very front, let them inhale some of the fumes from my oft-used dry erase markers, make them repeat and respond to another student’s remarks more often than I already do, pat them on the shoulder more often, read all my articles on Edutopia again, and let them haunt my thoughts, and wonder what their experience was before I got them that made them into the student they are right now.

A quarter into the school year, and I’m hoping we can meet at least halfway on their achievement, because my job is to help them get the rest of the way through.

Mr. Vilson, for sure.

[Sidebar: I get some of you live in school systems that allow for you to say: “Then why grade at all?” You’re fortunate.]

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 6

  1. BronxSecondCareer Teacher

    Most times the 55 is almost as hard on the teacher as the student…..your post really speaks to all the emotions we go thru….Thanks for articulating this for us!!

  2. Alfonso Champion

    Others enter 55 and keep it movin’. Taking no ownership. Concluding that this grade is due to the failure of the student. Enter Mr. Vilson. They “haunt” your thoughts. Wondering what else you could do. Salute.

  3. ExasperatedTeacher

    “A few days before the end of the marking period, a couple of students will rescue themselves, not with extra credit, but making up their assignments. I’ll be nice and accept them for some credit.”
    That’s your problem right there. I announce at the beginning of the year: NO MAKEUPS. The work is not just to satisfy some silly requirement, it is a tool for learning and must be done at a particular time to serve its purpose. This deters many students from thinking there is a last minute save.
    Also, when social promotion is truly eneded ( not the fake version Bloomberg claims), more students will take school more seriously. If a student is failing, they get MORE work to do, not less.

    1. Post

      Anytime I hear “That’s your problem right there,” all that makes me think is, “I have way more problems than just one.”

      Seriously, to each their own. I have yet to see evidence other than sparse anecdotal evidence, to suggest that ending social promotion (as you’d have it) or the no makeups policy actually works to prevent students from failing a class, which is the bulk of my essay here. Maybe I’m a dreamer …

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