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The EDU Scarlet Letter: When SHOULD you label a student with an F?

The scene of my high school graduation is a bit foggy now, but I can still remember standing on the steps of the church (I went to a private Catholic school) shaking hands with a few of my 12th grade teachers. One by one a few approached with a wry smile or a look of tentative hope on their face.

“Theriault, I was going to fail you, but you’re a nice kid and I didn’t want you to not graduate so I gave you a D. Good luck.”

I bring this up because I want to make this perfectly clear: no one and I mean no one WANTS to give a student an F. The principal, the school board, the parent, the student, and most of all, the teacher they all WANT the student to pass through the system.  But more often than not this is the Metamucil approach.


Metamucil is something you take when you want to pass things successfully through your digestive system. School is a system and sometimes we have difficult students in our class, in our school, and we just want them to move through the system with as little pain as possible. But that’s not the approach I want you to take, because that’s not treating the underlying cause of the pain- the student Is NOT merely a pain wait out and pass on to another.

A brief side note on grades [1. I will write a blog post later about my grading philosophy- I’m going to try and maintain my focus on just the idea of a F grade 2. I’m pretty compassionate about grades, I accept late work, I offer extra credit, and I round up grades all the time 3. My biggest problem with the push to put all students in CP classes is that it can also push them out of a comprehensive educational setting;  (see this article in the LA Times) graduation is and should be an important goal for everyone involved in teaching and learning. 4. This blog entry will not get into the pros or cons of programs like ZAP or other F or 0 point avoidance strategies- I will save that for later. 5. There are many things a teacher and a school can do to help a student get a better grade BEFORE final grades- you MUST try everything in your power as a teacher to reach and help the student BEFORE giving that final F. ]


You should NOT give a student an F when they have a 59%. Give them a D, no one is getting into the UC system or Harvard with a D so you are not hurting anyone and they obviously engaged in your class. You should NOT give a student an F when they earned a 58.5% and they were a pain and a jerk so you aren’t going to round up for them.

So when SHOULD you give a student an F?

You should give a student an F when it’s obvious they need help. When they have a 24% or 32% and school seems like the last thing they care about or can deal with. An F is a signal to everyone: parents, teachers, and administration that something isn’t working and we need to find out what. Several Fs can spark a Student Study Team investigation that can lead to various necessary interventions and strategies.

An F can lead to a student being placed in an alternative educational setting. Often times we feel like failures when a student leaves the comprehensive high school setting, but some students need the small group setting of a continuation school or the one on one of adult school either for a limited time, or a longer time.

An F can tell us that perhaps the student is struggling with their home life or personal life. Perhaps they are struggling with depression; or they are struggling with physical or emotional abuse; or perhaps drugs and alcohol; or perhaps they are struggling with an eating disorder; they might even be struggling with their gender orientation or identification. [resources for help in links]

Basically an F is a big signal for help that can’t be ignored. Cs can be ignored, Ds can be ignored (Ds lead to degrees) but Fs let EVERYONE know that something isn’t working.

Lastly, an F lets the STUDENT know that something isn’t right. If a student keeps sliding by with Cs and Ds they might feel like everything is fine, when actually there is something large and difficult looming in their life that could use the assistance of educational professionals and social care workers (psychologists, doctors etc… ) It can force a student and their parents to communicate even if that communication is difficult.

You should give an F when it comes from concern and compassion and NOT when it comes from frustration, revenge, apathy, or hopelessness.


Teachers hate giving Fs- we are told that when a student earns an F that three people earned it: the student, the teacher, and the school. Giving an F is a real pain: phone calls and emails home, explanations to administration, seeing the anger or sadness in a student’s face, but sometimes you can’t just do the easy thing, you can’t just ignore or pass on the problem, sometimes you need to show the world that this student needs special attention and they need it NOW rather than later. Don’t pass this student on for someone else in you school or outside of school to deal with.

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