Sunio: Why I needed to fail you in class

“MA’AM, bakit bagsak ako?”

I get the same question every end of the trimester, a few days after I submit the grade sheets which I have toiled to record and compute. It was quite a hard work to juggle writing various syllabi, teach, and record grades back when I was still an instructor in a private college in Marawi City.

There were times when some students would not be able to make it to graduation because of a failed grade I gave them. Others would joke about me, saying “Ma’am Sunio has passed down judgement upon you!” (chuckles)

Ok, so that may be a little bit over-the-top, but you know what I mean. I get a lot of snide comments like this, mostly from students.

Lanao del Sur is one of the provinces that ranked lowest in literacy rates in the Philippines, closely placing with Maguindanao. It is sad that some college students are able to graduate in high school without acquiring some of the basic skills they need in higher education – even in real life. This makes it thrice as hard to teach students collegiate level lessons because their schema or background knowledge is still in a poor state when they entered college.

In one of the first meetings in a writing course I used to handle, I asked my class of 45 who among them have tried writing a formal letter, be it a promissory note, a formal letter, or a simple seatwork in elementary or high school. Only four to seven students raised their hands.

Even throughout that course, an average of about 10 to 20 students would not be able to understand my discussion; and two-thirds or more of them would fail. A few of them still did not know how to read or make simple bar graphs and pie charts. Some would fail because they did not continue to come to my class regularly, or even if they did, they still couldn’t pass the examinations or quizzes – and that subject wasn’t even a major course, so the demands were not too heavy.

One time, when I handled a Public Speaking course, others would opt to drop out because they are ‘too shy’, justifying that they have never stood up in front of a class before. Also, in an International Relations course, I had a hard time explaining to the students that some countries have four seasons (winter, spring, summer, and autumn. They do know about snow, though). It was hard to talk about cultures around the globe when some of them have never even stepped outside of the Lanao provinces, or even Mindanao before. Even describing what an igloo is and what Eskimos are were fairly difficult, had it not been for pictures.

A friend of mine who used to handle pre-university courses in Mindanao State University Marawi shared that she once held a seatwork where students were to enumerate what can be found inside an aquarium. One student wrote: Horse, Carabao, Chicken, and the likes.

It’s funny, but joking aside, it’s also quite alarming that these students were not exposed to simple things we have already taken for granted – not even in school.

And to whom do they blame this tragedy: The teachers.

It’s quite comical how students think that some of us find amusement in watching them fail, that we have unreasonable standards, or that we randomly paint our grade sheets with red. It’s as if we are just trying to show-off our intellectual pride.

If I must confess, I personally feel my self-esteem as an educator sinks whenever I see my students failing. I call it professional pity.

I often ask myself where I went wrong, whether I really am fit for this job, or was I actually not good enough. Does the problem lie in me, that’s why my students fail, despite my efforts?

Was I incapable?

My co-teachers would try to cheer me up, saying that it is a system, and I should see it at that approach. They said that my instruction on them is just a factor in their whole learning. Part of the reason why they did not pass could be their schema, their upbringing during their basic education years, the current state of their personal lives, and their interest and motivation.

It’s not also simply because they’re “bobo” or “moklo”, as how traditional thinkers would label Muslims or other “country bumpkins”. These students have fallen prey to the problem on illiteracy existing in the province. It is something that they have unconsciously inherited from the system.

There is a need for comprehensive change in the educational system in Lanao del Sur. This existing system could also be the responsible for the high poverty rates in the province. It’s high time the Department of Education and the government turn to see the vicious cycle in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and Lanao del Sur.

On my case, if I know that these students were just victims of this educational crisis, why not just let them pass?
Regardless of whether you had a bad or good background, education is meant to transform individuals. It is not too benevolent that it becomes easy to finish as long as you just sit there and listen. The changes in you that your new knowledge brought should manifest.

Most of all, passing and graduating means you have satisfactorily acquired the skills that the course aims to instill in you. These are skills you would need in the future, and graduating or passing is a mark that you can execute these skills in real life.

Unfortunately, others do not seem to see this value of education really well. They were only after extrinsic motivations, like a diploma on hand to brandish about – and this is sad, considering how we educators put much devotion in making our students learn in hopes that they will be transformed. One example of its extrinsic value to people is the threats send to teachers from students or families. These warning, in the forms of death threat or professional intimidation or incapacitation, are silently rampant among schools, not just in Lanao del Sur. “Grado or bala,” as others would phrase it.

Some also believe that they are the ones who pay the teacher. Some others also believe that they pay for the grades alone, not to learn. They forget that teachers are paid for their professional capabilities to teach and rate, not to just hand over passing mark. These are alarming attitudes towards education.

Dear students, the moment I let you pass merely because of pity – or fear – will entail a greater torment for you.

If I didn’t care about you, I would have let you pass anyway, regardless if you have learned something or not and let you stumble on your own in the near future. It was easier to opt to give up in our part; to be loved because of our generosity in giving grades. But we thought about you. You would be shamed if people found out that you can’t even execute some basic skills expected of a literate person, yet, you claim that you have graduated in college. It will mean that you cannot handle things in life that are bigger than college.

We had to fail you because you need to graduate and go out to the world, properly equipped with the knowledge you will need to be a productive professional. Like a warrior, we can’t send you to battle with a brittle armor and weapon.

I had to fail you because I need you to pick yourself up again and try harder. And your learnings are the only things we can give you as a legacy. Pitying you would actually become the end of you.
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