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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Success Breeding Failure: When Working Hard Wasn’t Going To Be Enough

By Cole Farnum — July 19, 2011 4 min read
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Note: Cole Farnum, a teacher in New York City, is guest-posting this week.

Yesterday, I made the case that beginning teachers have an amazing potential to shape the development of their colleagues. Today, I want to begin by explaining what assets I felt I developed in my early years as a teacher and, later, the responsibility I now bear to hold on to them. Understandably, it’s easier to see what a beginner like myself doesn’t possess in a school: I’ve yet to experience student cohorts passing through K to 6, on to high school and then college. Three years in a surrounding community aren’t enough to see its evolution and nor are they sufficient to understand the dynamics of a school’s culture or why teachers communicate the way they do. However, I see this lack of first-hand experience, my general “new-ness,” not as a deficit but as an asset. Taking advantage of it was hard work, and continuing to do so, the hardest work ahead of me.

The first asset: As a beginning teacher, when a lesson failed for a few or many of my students, I was able to interpret the consequences of these failures constructively. Each and every day of my first year was one that I’d never experienced before, so I took this in stride by obsessing less about what was going wrong and more of what could be right. I continually thought to myself, “I’ve never planned or taught this before but this is my best effort; let’s try it out and learn.” Many times, my best efforts didn’t hit the mark, but I had an evening to think about why and a brand new day ahead to improve. My lack of experience turned out to be a true “greenfield” that encouraged me to build and continue to build better.

The second asset: During my first years I had natural opportunities to learn alongside my students because I, like them, was continually working to solve complex problems. Being less experienced, I more-frequently exhibited trial and error. While engaging in a learning process of my own I became adept at genuinely modeling and communicating the habits of life-long and self-directed learning. In my formative years I made plenty of planning and execution blunders, but I was able to turn them into opportunities by highlighting the process of owning, correcting, and learning from the mistakes we make. My approach to self-improvement became an exemplar for students to follow. As a result, our classroom environment thrived in times of achievement, progress, and even failure. Because I shared this environment with them, my inexperience brought me much closer to the students and families I served because I was on an educational journey of my own.

In hindsight, like all beginning teachers I’ve had the opportunity to connect with, I worked really hard my first year. I couldn’t say I’d figured it all out, but I understood what it might take to pursue a career in schools. And hard work brought success: all of my students achieved their state-set or individualized proficiency goals and, where the data is available, averaged over a year and a half of growth in mathematics as compared to their peers in higher income communities. To continue this success I just needed to keep working hard, right?

Actually, no: if I wanted to grow as a teacher, hard work wasn’t going to be enough. Even the most successful beginning teachers who act, reflect, and self-improve fail to maximize their potential if they do so alone. Unfortunately, I’m a teacher who’s spent the majority of my energy for and by myself. My instruction suffers because, when all is said and done, I’ve been the only one consistently evaluating the learning that is (or not) taking place in my classroom. I’ve already settled in my “style,” and any changes I make are small, technical adjustments rather than questioning whether or not this style actually makes the greatest impact. As an educator intending to remain in schools and continue growing, this was the largest wake-up call I’d ever experienced.

I’m awestruck by experienced teachers who’ve demonstrated continuous growth: their failures are impetuses for change, yes, but each year, month, week, day, and even period they teach, they also re-think, re-plan and re-execute the successful lessons. Essentially, they avoid automatically recycling what’s worked, something I’ve felt I’ve done as a result of my success because I’ve achieved more or less alone. As each hard-earned yet solitary year passed, I’m experiencing, the responsibility to continuously improve as an educator became heavier and heavier.

I can’t hope and, now, nor do I want to lift this challenge alone: as I modeled an exemplar to students, I’m in need of an exemplar as a teacher. How can I learn in a way that’s less dependent on self-authoring and independent actions and more illustrative of working through other adults (as opposed to merely working alongside them)? Tomorrow, I’ll explain how I’ve experienced working with adults as a beginning teacher, why it’s proven difficult, and why I have to excel at doing so if I’m committed to improving as an educator.

--Cole Farnum

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.