My 4th Grader Is Failing English, and He’s Going to Have to Figure It Out

This English teacher decided her son needed to step up on his own.

There are four people in our house. Three of us are doing work or school virtually: I’m a seventh grade English teacher at a school that’s entirely virtual for now, so I spend a large part of my day leading Kahoot! activities and reminding kids to mute themselves and not put profanity in the chat. My husband is often in meetings or, well, doing whatever else he does for work. I’ve never been completely sure. One child is learning to count to 20 and sometimes puts her shoes on correctly. Our other child, a fourth grader, attends school virtually—and is failing English.

Our house is a busy place. While we often have help from grandparents for our 3-year-old, this leaves my fourth grader to his own devices when it comes to virtual school. When the year started, we helped him write down all his Zoom codes, set up a desk, bought some spiral notebooks, and hoped for the best. With everybody working and overwhelmed, he didn’t really have a choice about being independent.

At first, our hands-off approach to virtual school was a resounding success.

I’ll admit it: When I stopped by my son’s room to drop off a load of laundry during his math class, I smirked at all the other parents who were visible in their child’s little Zoom box. “Leave them alone!” I thought. “They can do it!” Sure, I’d toss a few multiplication problems at him while we threw the Frisbee during our breaks. We’d maybe talk about the theme a little when we read at night. But that was it. Otherwise, he was on his own. His grades were good, and he seemed to be learning.

All was great until my husband checked his grades a week or two ago. And, well, it turns out things weren’t going as well as I’d thought. Oh, he was doing great in math and science, the subjects that come easily for him. But when we scrolled down to his language arts grade, things got dicey. Fictional narrative: 66. Unit one assessment: 50. Theme quiz: 48. He was failing English. Yikes.

Like any former straight-A student (When I was in fourth grade, I cried over a B on a spelling test.), my first inclination was to panic when confronted with failure. What should I do about my son’s abysmal grades? Clearly, he was a burgeoning illiterate, probably destined for a life in prison. Judging by his grades, he wouldn’t even be able to spell his homemade tattoos correctly! But I had to calmly assess my options for a few minutes. I’m a public school teacher; hiring someone to sit with him and help complete his work isn’t in the budget. (Nor do we have space in our house, as my husband can attest.)

Maybe I could spend more time working on schoolwork with him. As I pondered this, my daughter inexplicably bit me on the leg, the dog threw up in a corner, and six students texted to tell me I hadn’t fixed the sharing settings on the homework. That wasn’t going to be an option, either.

My kid’s failing English grades were his problem, and he was going to have to figure it out.

My kid doesn’t have any special needs that we know of. He’s a good reader who’s often lazy when it comes to writing. He wasn’t failing English because he didn’t understand the material; his grades were low because he wasn’t doing his best. I’m a teacher, and I know that some kids absolutely need more support, especially with the executive functioning skills required for online learning. I don’t know what we’d have done in a situation where my kid needed additional supports, but our approach would definitely have been different.

Anyway, the next time our breaks matched up, I asked my son if I could take a look at his last English test, the one where he’d made a 50. As I’d suspected, he’d skipped three of the ten questions. He knew the jig was up. “What now?” he asked. So we made a plan. Now, he shows a parent his language arts work before he turns it in. If it’s not his best work, we make him redo it. If he gets a failing English grade, we go over the assignment together to figure out how he could have done better. The catch is that we do this during the time he normally gets to spend playing on his tablet. Boom. Motivation to do it right the first time.

It does require a little more time and input from the adults in the house, but my son’s grades are still fully his responsibility.

I emailed his teacher to let her know our plan. She offered to let him retake the test he’d failed, but we declined. We’re trying to focus on learning, not grades. I had gone over the test with him, and we’d talked about the right answers; that was enough. We generally both have a break after his language arts class is over, so instead of playing outside, we’re spending ten minutes going over his assignments and making sure he knows how to do them.

I’m still not sitting in on his classes. I’m not asking his teacher for extra credit or makeup assignments, and I’m not hiring a tutor or putting him in remedial online English classes. He probably won’t end up with an A this semester. But hopefully he’ll end up with a few other skills. For instance, he’ll know that it’s easier to stay on top of his work than try to pull his grades up later. He’ll know how to communicate with his teacher about what he’s missing. And he’ll know that being lazy about school results in more work later.

Full disclosure: I have no idea if this approach will actually succeed. But making him responsible for his own schoolwork is our only real option, and I have high hopes that he can handle it.