Failing in order to Excel


“When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.”- Eloise Ristad

Picture this: It’s Friday night. Your biological children have finally (finally!) gone to sleep. You curl up on the couch in your sweatpants, clutching a glass of wine and a mound of cookies, and prepare to binge-watch Netflix while grading a pile of quizzes you gave to your school children that week.

One of two things is going to happen. One, all of your students will perform beautifully on the assessment, you fly through them in an hour tops, and that glass of wine happily turns into a bottle while Walter White’s downfall comes to full fruition on your screen.

Or two, all of your students clearly stuffed their ears with wax and wore blindfolds all week while you apparently taught yourself how to (fill in content skill here), and that mound of cookies becomes two boxes while Walter White tempts you with some viable options for leaving the profession because you are clearly terrible at teaching. Either way, you wake up Saturday morning with a bloated stomach, a pounding headache, and the illusion that your students either absolutely “get it” or have miserably failed. No wonder Monday mornings come as such a shock.

I have found myself in the previous situation more times than I would like to admit. If I think my students get it and we move on, I am shocked and frustrated weeks down the road when I ask them to complete the same task in a different way and they look at me like I have three heads. If I think they don’t get it at all, and I spend the next two weeks banging them over the head with it, they resent me and I get really, really bored.

Recently, after beginning a unit on the power of storytelling created by myself, my teaching partner, and my colleagues in the Next Generation Instructional Design cohort, I slipped into sweatpants and curled up with the stack of pre-assessments we created on analyzing a text for narrative techniques using Alice Walker’s “The Flowers”. I felt pretty good about those assessments. After reviewing them, I came to the conclusion that most of my students understood what the narrative techniques were and were fairly proficient at explaining how an author might use them. I generally received answers like this:

  • Term: Details/description, Explanation: It describes the location and the feel of the area where she is walking. It also shows what she thinks and feels about the environment.
  • Term: Point of view, Explanation: Third person singular point of view of the protagonist, allowing the audience to know what she’s thinking but not from her own point of view.
  • Term: Foreshadowing, Explanation: This paragraph illustrates a bit of a foreboding feeling contrasted with the whimsical air of the previous ones.

For the most part, many of the answers from all of my students resembled the ones above. These answers seemed to prove that my students knew what the terms meant and had a working knowledge of how the techniques might function in a text. Granted, it was a pre-assessment, but I thought, “Hey, they get it! We can skip all of that early foundational stuff and get right to it.”

But I happened to be ahead of my collaborating partner at this point in the unit, so I decided to slow down just a bit and let the students get outside in the fresh air and do something creative. So on Monday morning, I asked them to work in groups and use their cellphones to create a “pop up video” film of the story we read. The assignment required them to use their body language, tone of voice, and annotations in the form of pop ups on the screen to illustrate the author’s use of narrative techniques in the story. We had a pleasant day outside. I wandered around from group to group as they took their films very seriously, filming near the brush and creek behind the school building to create the correct mood and scenery for the story. I felt awesome—my kids got it, and we got a nice day outside for them to create.

Until I started watching the videos. As I watched film after film I realized that they had absolutely no idea what the techniques were and why an author would use them. How could I have been so wrong? The paper assessment had told such a different story.

I felt so defeated. We would have to start from the beginning. I would have to drill them with academic vocabulary. We would need to read at least three more stories before we could even start the official unit, just to focus on basic literary analysis. I was not looking forward to it.

But then it occurred to me: They have been learning these terms since sixth grade at least, and they probably learned them year after year in exactly the same way–the basic, rote learning style that I was gearing up to launch. The way all of us teachers feel like we have to teach in order to make anything stick. But they clearly knew how to provide a term, give a generic explanation, and pass a quiz. They knew that because they had done it for most of their academic career, and they may not know the answer, but they do know how to “do school”.

But what they had probably never done, was recreate a story and “annotate” it in live action form. When I gave them control of telling the story in the way they had read it, I learned so much more about what they actually understood.

There is a pivotal scene near the end of the story when the main character steps on a skull and discovers a frayed noose lying beside it. This scene is essential to understanding the story, and many of the students told me that they didn’t even realize what had happened until they made the films. And although many of the annotations were completely wrong, with explanations that made little to no sense, it obviously wasn’t that they didn’t know the terms or couldn’t explain them. It was simply that few people had ever asked them to bring those terms to life.

When the complexity of the task changed, their understanding of the story and the narrative techniques needed to deepen.

And although I was frustrated when I first watched the videos, my frustration virtually disappeared when I started laughing at their silliness, or gaped in awe at the length with which these students went to create a beautiful film. If I had noticed these issues from the pre-assessment while sitting on my couch at home, I would have only seen one picture—my students’ failures. But because I gave them an opportunity to create, I noticed much more than the fact that they didn’t get it. I saw their strengths too.

I saw the power of letting students take control of how they learn, and of how they fail. And I felt like less of a failure for it.



In Response to a Teacher’s Resignation

schoolIf you haven’t been under a rock in the last week and a half, you have probably read this letter from a teacher in Florida who quit her job and shared her letter of resignation publicly. If you’re not familiar, paraphrases Wendy Bradshaw’s letter in which “she described in detail how her disappointment with her state’s public school system’s current curriculum has overpowered her love for teaching.”

Thousands of Americans, many of them teachers, have shared, commented, and favorited Wendy Bradshaw’s letter in respect and admiration for her courage.  I, however, find the public excitement for this letter a bit disturbing.

Like many other teachers, I see how detrimental an obsession with tests, results, data, and increasing standardization can be for kids.  Bradshaw writes how she is tired of watching young children cry from the pressure, of watching them misbehave as a means of coping.  As a high school and former middle school teacher, I see this pressure creating and exacerbating anxiety, depression, anger, resentment, and apathy in my students.  And I’ve seen my share of overburdened students cry too.

In a ten year career, watching what this standardization has done to my students, my colleagues, and the system itself has made me so angry and so deeply sad that I have found myself in many heated exchanges over it.  If you want to see my hands start flying, my voice raise an octave, and my Kentucky accent get just a little thicker, bring up standardized testing in schools. I’ve written plenty of my own resignation letters in my head myself.

And like Bradshaw, I am also a mother.  She writes, “I remember cradling [my daughter] in the hospital bed on our first night together and thinking, ‘In five years you will be in kindergarten and will go to school with me.’ That thought should have brought me joy, but instead it brought dread.” I know exactly how she feels.  I fear that my daughters’ natural curiosity, playfulness, and creative spirit will be squashed the minute they step into a public school. I carry that worry every single day.

But here is where I fundamentally disagree with Wendy Bradshaw:  She implies that the system is hopeless, that it’s better to walk away, that anyone who chooses to stay is a victim of the system.  I think this attitude is anything but courageous.

Bradshaw writes, “[the system] bars teachers from differentiating instruction meaningfully, which threatens disciplinary action if they decide their students need a five minute break from a difficult concept, or to extend a lesson which is exceptionally engaging.”  I don’t know anything about teaching in Florida schools or Bradshaw’s specific experience, and I know from my own experience how bad it can be to teach in a school with a toxic culture, but in Kentucky, these actions–extending engaging lessons, being patient with forming conceptual understanding– are considered best practice.

Any teacher who claims the system bars her from differentiating instruction, knowing her students well enough to know when they need to rest briefly after rigorous work, or prevents her from extending an engaging lesson, is only allowing the system to make her a victim.

Teachers are not victims of the system; teachers are the catalysts for change within the system.

I’ve felt the pressure of standardization for a decade, and I’ve fought back with project based learning, hands-on learning opportunities, and discussions about meaningful ideas that my students care about.  I’ve been questioned about these practices, and I’ve presented reflective, research-based responses to any jury I’ve had to face.  And most skeptics shut right up when you show you know your stuff.

I’m not saying fighting this fight has been easy.  Teaching is the hardest job in the world.  I’ve wanted to quit many times.  I have taught in school environments that sucked the life out of me, making me feel so defeated and worthless that it was hard to pull myself out of bed in the morning.  But I got back up, and I went to work, just like millions of other teachers in America do every day.

I don’t know what Bradshaw’s exact experience was like, but just like every other teacher’s has been, I’m sure it was tough.  I’m sure she did feel like a victim sometimes.  I’m sure it did seem hopeless sometimes.  I’ve been there. reduced Bradshaw’s letter to her disappointment with the system overpowering her love of teaching.  If this is in fact the case for her, it is time for her to go.  There is no room in our system for teachers who do not love to teach, no matter how talented they may be.

I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t also share frustration and disappointment in the system; I remember having these fired-up discussions even while in my teacher induction program.  We all get frustrated with the system.  We know it is flawed.  But we refuse to lose hope in why we teach.

Here is the beauty and beast that is public education:  It belongs to everyone and everyone is responsible for it.  This means that some will manipulate it for their own agendas.  It means it will always be under the microscope.  It means that people will try to systematize it, no matter how clear it is that there is no one size fits all solution for developing the minds and hearts of our future citizens.

It also means that although Wendy Bradshaw may think she is walking away from it, she can’t.  Even if she home schools her daughter or sends her to private schools, one day her daughter will interact and work with other people who have been educated in public schools.  And so much of our daily life is directly impacted by societal issues–the traffic jam due to ineffective infrastructure, the insurance claim that can’t be processed due to inefficiency, the colleague whose work ethic is questionable but gets a raise anyway, or the fear felt when walking to a car alone in the dark.

The bottom line is even if you think it’s not your problem anymore, the majority of people in our culture are educated in public schools, so the public school system essentially determines the quality of life for us all.  You can either choose to lay claim to the responsibility we have for our schools, or you can pretend to wash your hands of it.

I don’t fault Bradshaw for quitting her job.  It is difficult to be a good teacher and it is really difficult to be a good mother, but we should not cheer on the attitude that walking away is the same as standing up.  Standing up calls for hope and courage, which are both necessary for real change.