All or Nothing

In many Honors and AP classes, there is an expectation that, in order to succeed, a student must already possess a set level of skills. It’s sink or swim.


photo by Julia Poppa

Stepping into a rigorous course can be intimidating when you’re expected to be perfect all on your own.

Kristen Kinzler, Junior Class Editor

Last week, I had a very weird day at school. It left me with an emotion that felt like a combination of relief and shock and a little frustration. 

All of this was because, in the course of a single day, I was told three separate times that asking for help didn’t make me any less intelligent. I was offered assistance if I needed it. I was told that I could improve my problem-solving skills. And, perhaps most surprisingly, I was assured that needing some extra support didn’t mean I wasn’t worthy of being there. These were just announcements randomly given to the whole class. Maybe this sounds fairly normal to you, but I was taken aback.

I later realized why that day felt so unnatural: I had rarely been told those things before.

Instead, in many of the Honors and AP classes I’ve taken, there is a sense of isolation. It’s black and white. Sink or swim. You can either understand a concept, or you shouldn’t be in that class. You can either do well on a test, or you should drop down to a lower level. Simple as that.

I’ve obviously had teachers offer their assistance before, but, probably due to my own pride, it never felt without judgment. I always thought that if I needed help, I was already behind.

In many of the Honors and AP classes I’ve taken, there is a sense of isolation.”

This just felt like something I was trained to think because, if I didn’t understand an AP class, I could take an Honors. If I was struggling in an Honors course, there was always Academic.

Having those less rigorous classes as options provides a safety net. All too often, kids use it as a way out. And sometimes, teachers use it as an excuse.

It’s easy for a teacher to run their class their own way and assume that, if someone can’t keep up, it just means they shouldn’t be there. At least, it’s certainly easier than setting aside time to figure out what’s going wrong and designing an effective response. It allows teachers to set an academic expectation and ban all those who don’t reach it.

For both parties, it’s a lazy, bandage-over-bullet-holes kind of solution. 

I once had a teacher who, after the first test of the year, told everyone that if they got below a B, they should consider dropping the class. The message was clear. If you couldn’t succeed on the first test, you certainly wouldn’t be able to handle the rest. There was no hope. You could either do well in this course or drop down to another. 

I got a C on that test. And it sent me into a panic.

The idea that succeeding in the class was based upon pre-acquired skills or a set level of intelligence — a level that I apparently did not possess and couldn’t hope to reach — was extremely destructive. It made me re-examine every single way I had ever measured my own value in school.

After some thought, I stayed in that class, and I ended up succeeding. I also learned a lot about hard work. That wouldn’t have happened if I simply would’ve taken the hint and dropped out.

I can’t say I blame that teacher because I think the suggestion came from a good place. Certain classes just aren’t good fits for some students. That’s okay.

But I also think that, if it were an Academic class, and many students didn’t get a good score, the advice would not have been to quit. If necessary, there would have been more collaboration, more support, and more on how to do better the next time. There isn’t a safety net. There isn’t a class they can easily drop down into. The teacher of that course can’t rely on another teacher to take their leftovers. They have to figure it out. 

A proper learning environment, at any level, should reinforce the concept that students can learn and improve.”

Unfortunately, in Honors or AP courses, it’s much more common for an individual to accept that the class is beyond their capabilities. This is especially true at the beginning of the school year when students are trying to navigate the difficulty of their schedule.

Of course, some classes can be a wrong fit for a student, and teachers need to make certain ones challenging. So, dropping a class isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, dropping a class because you feel like you’re never going to be able to measure up is not right.  No one should be backed into a corner because they fear they’re not good enough. 

A proper learning environment, at any level, should reinforce the concept that students can learn and improve. It should allow students to fall and stand back up again. It should provide encouragement.

The idea that a student cannot work hard and succeed is toxic, and the thought that some education is impossible for a certain person to achieve is pretentious and morally wrong. 

There should be some room for error. Students shouldn’t feel like their teachers aren’t willing to believe in them. The only options should not be to succeed on the first try or to quit. It shouldn’t be all or nothing.

For much of my life, I’ve been lucky enough to have fantastic teachers who displayed kindness and patience. But even the best of teachers can get caught up in the perceived status of their classes. Besides, usually, that kind of environment is cultivated unintentionally. It’s a side-effect of the school climate.

It creates a system based on who you are walking into a class, not who you can become.”

If teachers would periodically take an extra minute to explicitly offer help or assure their students that they believe in them, it would drastically improve the issue. Little things like that can have a huge impact. 

Both teachers and students alike need to stop relying on lower-level courses as a backup plan. More than anything, we all must do our part to support each other. High school shouldn’t be a time when decisions are made only to avoid failure. I personally don’t want to design my life like that anymore.

While different levels of classes are a necessity for a productive and positive school, we cannot allow education to feel exclusive. Acting as if students do not have the ability to evolve and learn does so.

It creates a system based on who you are walking into a class, not who you can become. And that is truly a shame.