Q: I was Andrew’s math teacher in 9th grade, and now he’s in my 11th-grade precalculus class. I’m thrilled to be teaching him a second time. He’s a phenomenal kid. He’s polite, sweet, mature, hard-working, and motivated, and we get along great. We both love the New York Yankees and talk about baseball all the time.
Andrew was a straight-A student in 9th grade. This year started out much the same; he got an A first semester. But then his mother died suddenly in an accident. In an instant, the lights went out. It’s a terrible situation, and he’s not coping well. At all. He can’t focus, can’t apply new concepts, forgets his work at home, and doesn’t come in for extra help. I’m writing you now because I just graded a major exam. He failed, and I’m so upset. Junior year is a big year, and I hate to fail him just before he applies to college. Especially because I know he’s always been a great student. He’s just a kid who’s in a lot of pain. If his mother hadn’t died, I’m 100% sure he’d have aced this test. An “F” simply doesn’t reflect his ability. Would it be ethical for me to change his grade to reflect how I believe he’d have done if his mother hadn’t died? I can’t imagine another scenario where I’d even be tempted to do this, but failing him feels wrong and is making me incredibly anxious.
A: I understand your instinct, but changing his grade would be unethical. That doesn’t mean your hands are tied, though, or that you can’t help him at all. This is a child who knows and trusts you. You’ve taught him before and have a real relationship. He’s clearly depressed, and for good reason. Odds are he’s tanking in other classes, too. But the bigger issue is that he’s suffered a major loss and needs emotional and practical support. Here are some things you can do:
- Meet with Andrew to tell him you’re worried about him. Ask him how you can help him. This is the time to step up the personal relationship. You could schedule a weekly lunch together and make a point of checking in with him in the hallways. It doesn’t matter whether you talk about the Yankees, math, or his mother — just follow his lead. Let him know that you plan to call home, and tell him that you’re going to strategize with his other teachers. He needs to know he’s not alone — that someone cares and has his back.
- Call his surviving parent and share your observations and concerns. Establish a plan for regular home-school communication.
- Enlist the help of the school counselor to convene a meeting with all of Andrew’s teachers, his parent, and an administrator. Figure out ways to maximize his chances for success. He’s grieving and might benefit from temporary accommodations, such as a reduced workload or extra time to complete homework. The other teachers probably don’t know Andrew as well as you do, so share his story. Even if they think they understand how deeply this loss is affecting him, you can provide additional context.
- Ask the school counselor to meet with him if she isn’t doing so already. The administrator can do the same. Andrew needs to connect with other nurturing adults in the school. The counselor can contact home too, and generally act as a liaison between the family and the school. He might not be ready to see a therapist or join a grief group immediately, but his parent should know about resources.
- Nudge Andrew to take advantage of any opportunities to retake quizzes or earn extra credit. Set up specific times to help him, then give him plenty of reminders. Check his planner every day. Logistics don’t take priority when your brain is in a fog.
- Offer to write Andrew’s college recommendation letter. You’re in a position to explain the extenuating circumstances and share your belief that his grades don’t reflect his ability or work ethic. His academic struggles could be adding to his distress, so the letter offer could ease his anxiety — and yours.
Unfortunately, you can’t prevent Andrew from tanking, you can’t change his grade, and you can’t hasten the grief process. But you can do your best to help him through a devastating time.
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