On the acceptance of failure

July 6, 2011

“But I worked so hard,” I said to my boss, whom I’ll call Mrs. Menendez. She stared at me firmly, her eyelids blinking from behind her thin, wire-rimmed glasses. “I worked twelve, fourteen hours a day…Sometimes I got up a three in the morning to correct papers,” I told her, all too aware that the pitch of my voice was increasing to a whine.

 I couldn’t believe that this was happening. It had been a difficult year, but I had gotten through it. It’s true that in the first semester I hadn’t been the most effective teacher. I’d like to think that most of the students in my tenth grade English literature class and twelfth grade communications class had learned the course material (at least, on those few occasions when I could get them to stop sending text messages to each other or throwing little pieces of paper at me) but certainly not all of them had learned. But the second semester was different. My students were actually reading. They were writing. They were learning. On certain days my classes were still a disaster, but on the whole I was in control. So now, after all the hard work I’d put in, after all I’d improved, I was receiving my end-of-year evaluation. My grade: a pathetic 63. For the students, 65 was the passing grade. If held to their standard, I was a failure.

 “We’re not measuring the effort; we’re measuring the result,” said Mrs. Menendez, continuing to stare at me squarely. I felt my own face flushing. According to her, all the work I’d done – all the time I’d spent preparing classes and planning activities and correcting assignments – all of it was for nothing. I left her office trembling, my eyes filled with water, and then went to teach the class I had the next period. Just to spite me, Mrs. Menendez (who had never so much as peeked into one of my classes other than the ten-minute official observation back in November) came walking by my classroom three times, a wry grin on her face. At the end of the day, there was nothing I could do but flee to the school chapel and cry.

 In the July/August 2011 issue of The Atlantic, the featured article is entitled “How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids,” by psychologist, mother and author Lori Gottlieb. According to Gottlieb, since the 1980’s, North American children have been overly indulged by doting parents who are often more concerned about their own needs to see themselves as good parents than they are about their children’s welfare. As a society we fear failure or even the slightest amount of unhappiness, so we make sure that children are praised for doing the most basic household chores and given trophies from their sports coaches just for trying hard. They aren’t given any criticism; they’re shielded from the experience of failure so intensely that they never develop resilience, and this overly perfect childhood inevitably leaves them unprepared for the normal challenges of adulthood.

 Normally I wouldn’t think of myself as being part of that generation (despite having been born in the early ’80’s).  After all, I experienced plenty of failure and downright humiliation as a kid. I still remember the two years I spent on the middle school basketball team (two years spent mainly on the bench, and while I tried very hard indeed, I did not succeed, and I certainly didn’t receive any trophy or medal just for trying). Then there was the disappointment I felt when, after auditioning for The Sound of Music during my first week of high school (and having no doubts that I’d get in – I’d performed in every elementary musical, after all) I darted up to the cast list posted outside the principal’s office and found my name indisputably absent. Then there was my senior year of college when, in my first moment of true academic hubris, I decided to write my senior thesis on the Changing Definitions of Reason Through Time. My professors didn’t have the heart to tell me that that an undergraduate thesis was not the right venue for such a project, nor that the eminent Canadian Charles Taylor had already done what I dreamed of doing – only his effort resulted in a thousand page volume entitled Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. In all of those cases, as much as I strove to re-frame my failures as a “growth period” or a “learning experience,” I had no choice but to admit my defeat.

 And yet, I could not help but feel indignant at the review my boss had given me – upon completion of my first real job, no less! For ten months I had endured five separate groups of unruly teenagers – and if I was overindulged, I’d like to hear what Gottlieb would have to say about them. In a school where teachers come and go through a revolving door, I’d made the commitment to stick through to the end, and I’d done it. I’d been persistent, brave, and committed, and I’d truly loved my students. I’d lived according to the values I’d been raised with and still cherished, the virtues that I’d worked to cultivate through all the years of my own education. How could all that effort count as a failure?”

 “We’re not measuring the effort; we’re measuring the result,” she’d said. Her words were cold. Her words were cruel. Her words were very, very true. I still believe very strongly that one’s inner character and virtues are of utmost importance, especially in a profession such as teaching, where one sets oneself up as a leader and role model for students to follow. For me, teaching is an ethical issue if there ever was one, and a utilitarian model which focuses only on results (as opposed to the process of gaining those results) is not sufficient. However, I ultimately had to admit that my principal was correct on certain issues. In the end, a teacher’s character alone is not enough. In the end, the result is what really counts.

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2 Responses to “On the acceptance of failure”

  1. pradlfan said

    I teach in a school with a chapel also, and your sense of humiliation and anger is the same one I have been left with, sometimes to stew over, for the summer. Thanks for putting it out there for others to connect with.
    One question for you or other readers – how does one find closure at the end of a year or meeting like that one? Where does faith enter in to the picture? (I think that is somewhere along the “process over product” dichotomy here)
    More to the point, what can we say or do to support similar teachers through the next step?

  2. Pradlfan, I am sorry to hear that you have been in this position too. I would say that the first thing to do (once the tears finally cease) is to be as honest with yourself as possible, to accept the reality of the situation for what it is. This should not mean beating yourself up (a trap I often fall into), but rather trying to make a genuine assessment of the situation – What went right? What went wrong? What, given the opportunity to do it all over again, would I do differently? I believe that the most important question a teacher must ask is, “Are the students learning?” This is a question I sometimes forget to ask…Instead, I ask myself if I am being a good teacher. The two questions are not identical. Of course, whether or not the students are learning can be difficult to assess, as learning is indeed a process rather than a product, and most commonly used methods of measuring student knowledge (grades and test scores) are drastically inadequate for determining the long-term effect that teachers do or don’t have on student progress. But I’ve learned that a teacher must come up with some means of determining (even on the most basic level) whether or not her/his students are learning…If it turns out they are not, then it’s necessary to change strategies. But I know how hard that can be amid the day-to-day chaos of planning, teaching, grading and dealing with recalcitrant parents!

    For me, the role of faith in this issue is very important (if you are a believer) because teaching is not just a job, but a vocation, a mission for a purpose higher than the individual self. I firmly believe that I was put into that job in that school for a reason because I really did learn so much, and I’m now aware that some (even if not all) of my students did too. And that alone makes the experience worthwhile.

    As for moving on to the next step…I think the first thing to do is to trust that there can and will be a next step. As Harry and Rosemary Wong point out in “The First Days of School” (a book mostly on classroom management), most teachers go through four stages: fantasy (an incorrect belief before teaching that it’s going to be easy); survival (which happens once they begin teaching and find they can’t control their classes); mastery (when they gain control of the situation and ensure that their students are learning) and impact (when they finally can make a difference in their students lives. According to the Wongs, many teachers remain in the “survival” stage for years…Not very comforting, perhaps, but it’s important to know that it is still possible to get beyond this stage. I can’t say I’ve gotten beyond it yet, but I’m working at it (however, for the moment I’m teaching adults, so thankfully student conduct is no longer an issue – whew)!

    I’m sorry if this post was too long-winded, but I’d be happy to hear more from you (or anyone else) on this particular issue.

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