Without Change, Education is History Repeating

Phip Ross

Her father was dying of cancer spring semester. She took him to many chemo appointments. He died in March. Her brother killed himself at home over the recent winter break. She has failed a number of courses, passed a couple, the last year and a half.

She works part-time in a fast-food restaurant.

I do not know her well, but I know some stuff and share here with permission. Like she’s a person of color. She’s from a home with four generations living with her—15 total at any given time, all raised by grandmother whom they have always called mom.

She’s a first-generation college student on a scholarship. She needs a lot of help. When she got an email directing her to contact registration about a class last spring, she didn’t have the phone number or email or office location or instruction how to obtain it or where registration is.

Does this sound as if I’m building up to go all bananas and “air my grievances”?  I could be.

She took a class toward a credential this fall. In a message from her teacher, the subject line reads “Failed the course.”

As community college staff and faculty, I tend to believe we are a support system to students in our community beyond our classroom walls. We do know “the furniture” of a classroom and the larger institution are sometimes invisible to students and sometimes to ourselves. Barriers and messages are often implicit but damaging. Navigation is hard. The air difficult to breath.

Where I refer to the “furniture” of an institution, Kemmis and Smith (2008) use different terms to describe how particular settings like classrooms come with “bundled arrangements that pre-determine sayings, doings and relatings” that shape what people think and say and how they relate to one another by way of tradition

Admissions. Financial aid. Registration. Buying your own books. Syllabi or course information documents many pages long with rules and policies. It’s a labyrinth rooted in traditions we have been apprenticeship to.

Are students who receive messages like this, who are regularly lost in the furniture of an institution, going to advocate for themselves? Locate a grievance form and pursue an alternative path to question a college authority if she even believed she was being treated unfairly?

According to messages, she’d passed 3 of 4 benchmarks to pass the class but missed her final exam, which was given on the first Monday of finals week. Her class had been meeting on Tuesday/Thursday. She’d promptly emailed her instructor about her misunderstanding and asked about still taking the exam. She was notified that it was “against policy.”

I don’t know this student well, and I do not know the faculty in question. For me to write this should be questioned in terms of my professional discernment and filter. That’s fair. Let’s just say it’s me then. Might as well be. I am the teacher. Or you, dear reader? We make the institutions.

My college has an initiative aimed to boost emotional intelligence that came out of work I helped shape and participate in currently. The end game is to embed the values and practices that make the work we do people friendly, to put it simply. Work to care for ourselves, raise our awareness of who we are in relation to others, and build and maintain relationships. It’s good work. A lot I have to work on.

In a separate message from my college, the subject line read the word “Very Disappointed”, appearing below the “Failed the course” message.

She is on “academic probation.” Her scholarship is called “Learn to Dream.”

Not all students will succeed? No kidding. Creating a culture for greater success stories asks us to shed what some of us were discussing recently as a gatekeeper culture that we may be immune to detecting, questioning, and pressing to change.

I estimate that our student here (and other students like her) has heard a lifetime of messages that were not oriented to empowering her. Some messages were spoken, written on forms, others unspoken but plain. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I think we can change the message. It might mean changing ourselves and with it the institutions we can be proud to affiliate with.

It might mean we have to open our mouths and ask a question. Take frequent, hard looks in the mirror, try to understand and learn from those we serve. Reconsider every policy and practice that doesn’t put students first.

Maybe we can change the outcome.


Kemmis, S., & Smith, T. J. (2007). Enabling praxis: Challenges for education. S.l.: Sense Publications.

An English teacher at Southeast Community College, Phip Ross is a teacher, writer, activist, and musician. To contact Phip, please email pross@southeast.edu