Hello Failure My Old Friend

Last week, the Weird Teacher (an educator and blogger I bumped into on Twitter) started a blog called Well THAT Didn’t Work, where teachers can share their “stumbles, trials, and utter catastrophes.” I also saw a tweet earlier this week (that I cannot find now and I regret not retweeting) that said something to this effect: When you share only your successes and not your failures, you are serving yourself and not the greater good.

Plus, on Monday night, our district’s Twitter chat was about fear: fear of failure; fear of trying new things; and for at least one person, fear of zombies. (That one person was me. Zombies are terrifying.)

I’m also reflecting on Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and rereading bits of Roxanna Elden’s See Me After Class, debating whether or not to lend it to a new teacher. The bit where she unintentionally ruins Halloween for her class is something I find painfully relatable.

It feels like the universe is pointing me to reflect on my failures as a teacher.

My many, many failures.fail-1714367_640

Some are small or even funny. Like when I accidentally said “orgasm” instead of “organism” to a seventh grade science class while teaching at a Catholic school. Many people reach out to compliment me on the way my students and I do our school’s morning announcements. It’s pleasing to me, but gosh, I wish I could just get all the other teachers in our building to engage with them! Others are small but terrible, and I carry them with me like a wound. Like the time I scolded a child for kicking a cardboard divider to get my attention, then remembered much later that said child has a deaf parent, and creating big movement to catch an adult’s eye is normal to them. Others are small and stupid. Especially in terms of tech issues, I often feel like I’m carrying the Idiot Ballcarrying the Idiot Ball. I reach our tech department about problems that, deep down in my brain, I know the answer to; or problems that I could solve if I could just focus or notice the one thing I’m missing. I feel much sympathy for my students and colleagues in those moments for sure!

Some of my failures aren’t really so much failures as they are doing what you can with what you have in the time you have. A few weeks ago I was really excited to try color-coding all the keyboards in my classroom. Those stickers eventually fell off, and I replaced them with neon washi tape, which either fell off or got peeled off, I’m not sure. Either way, very few stickers are where they should be at this point. Luckily, they served the purpose they needed to, and most students have at least practiced enough to know where the letters in their usernames are. My time is now better spent on other things, but I do miss the rainbow-looking keyboards! And for the few students who still struggle, I put stickers on their keyboards just while they’re with me, or make sure they’re using a keyboard where most of the stickers stuck around. So it’s not as seamless as it was at first, but we’re doing what we can.

Other failures are bigger and build up over time. One of my biggest struggles in my career has been classroom management. Not only is that the type of thing you’re not amply prepared for by college classes, it’s the type of thing that adapts and changes according to the students you have. I have failed by being overly fluid and by being overly rigid, sometimes in the same room on the same day with the same kids! Classroom management, to me, is like learning to ride a bike. It’s really hard at first, and I figured it out much later than my peers. But even people who are really good sometimes still stumble, or even crash.

I’ve forgotten things, lost things, lost my temper, lost track of time, misspoke, misjudged, used poor judgment, bitten off more than I could chew, over-committed, panicked, dropped the ball, burned out, and hid from other people in the grocery store.

And now? Now I’m in a stage of my career where I invite failure.

For example, I’ve taught many of my third graders how to use the chat function in a shared Google Doc to backchannel. This… this could go terribly, terribly wrong. And for some students, it really doesn’t work. Some get distracted by it so they don’t actually get their work done. Others spam it. Others use it inappropriately, either through ignorance of norms (like TYPING AT ALL THEIR CLASSMATES LIKE THIS) or ignorance of how the technology works (one would-be agent of chaos used the chat to ask their classmates whether they like butts, without realizing their full name was attached to their message). And how do I handle this? I acknowledge that failure it part of the learning process. And I acknowledge that out loud, to the students. I don’t add punishment on top of their embarrassment. And I allow some degree of self-policing (if someone posts twenty emojis in one go, at least three other students will tell them to knock it off before I even notice).

But if I fear failure, then I fear progress, because moving forward always carries the risk of stumbling. I do not mean the title of this post entirely sarcastically: failure is familiar to risk-takers. Hopefully we’re not failing all day, every day, in spectacular fashions, but teachers need to accept that failure is going to happen. We don’t need to be comfortable with it, but we can’t keep it entirely at bay either.

And the real reason why: because failure is an intrinsic, important part of the learning process for students. And if we model being right all the time, then students may develop unreasonable expectations of adults and of themselves. Failure is a part of living. We don’t need to like it, but we need to learn to live with it.

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