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Failure Is a Part of Teaching. Here's How to Grow From It

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It had been a tough day.

After the bell rang, I collapsed into my chair in the classroom and reflected on all the moments I felt I had failed. The list was long.

I failed to communicate effectively with a student, resulting in his mother telling me he thought I didn’t like him. I failed to input my progress report grades properly and had to rewrite them all. I failed at checking in with a student on his weekly goals because I was preoccupied with students who were fighting during recess. I failed to eat lunch during my lunch break because I was helping students with a poster for a creativity contest. Hungry and irritable, my afternoon lesson crashed and burned. Like I said, the list was long.

When I went home I attempted to take refuge in writing, to decompress and process the events of the week. I was even having trouble with that. Nothing had really gone my way this week. I had no good strategies to share, no successes to celebrate, just a long list of failures. I felt miserable.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. I have been teaching for almost two decades. I had just become a National Board-certified teacher. And I was mentoring two student-teachers who were supposed to be learning from my example. I felt that I was not only letting my students down, but also my mentees.

My experience that day got me thinking about how teachers don’t always approach failure the way that we encourage our students to.

We teach our students to learn from failure. We have pencil bags with brightly colored letters claiming that "mistakes are proof you are trying," and inspirational posters with flowing rivers and smooth rocks reassuring us that "failure is a stepping stone to success." But the trouble is, it doesn’t feel that way. One of my 4th grade students said it best: "Failure is both good and bad. It is good because you can learn from it. It is bad because it feels bad to fail."

As teachers, we can feel pressure to present only the picture-perfect moments in our practice. When I scroll through articles written by teachers, most of them showcase successful strategies for student engagement and classroom management, and dynamo ways to amplify student voice. With each seemingly amazingly effective teacher sharing his or her prowess, I feel more and more depleted. All these teachers seem like they are crushing it in the classroom. Why, after 17 years, do I still feel like I’m blundering through the day?

I realized I had stumbled upon the ultimate teachable moment. Instead of feeling embarrassed and trying to hide my failures from my mentees (like I so dearly yearned to do), I addressed them head on.

I wanted to dispel the myth of the “perfect” teacher. I wanted the new teachers to know that there will be good and bad days, even for the best of us. So I shared with my mentees some of the strategies I use to get through tough days on the job and learn from my mistakes.

• Reflect

When you experience failure, the first step is to take some time to think deeply about what happened. You may want to reflect by writing about it, sharing it with a colleague, or just turning it over in your mind on your commute home.

That night, as I went for my evening run, I mulled the days’ mishaps over in my mind. I felt sluggish. I realized in addition to feeling like a terrible teacher and mentor, I was still quite hungry from skipping lunch. I thought more about how I need to take care of myself in order to better care for my students.

• Make a Plan

You might be feeling a bit better and ready to put those bad feelings associated with failure behind you and move on to a better day. Not yet—it's time to make a plan. Write a simple list of three ways you could avoid making the same mistake again.

Upon returning home after my run, I jotted down some simple ideas to help decrease the chances of missing lunch again in the future. I had the plan: Pack a lunch the night before, bring some cash to purchase lunch, replenish my snack supply in the classroom.

• Find Support

Share your list with someone you can rely on to hold you accountable for your plan. A trusted colleague, family member, or even an eager student can help you stick with it. You can’t just walk away from your solutions now, because someone is going to be checking in on you.

A colleague and I have committed to a "walk and talk" session once a week after school. I look forward to our weekly sessions as a way to share about our week, check in about what's working and what's not, and support each other's growth.

• Try It Out, But Be Gentle With Yourself

When I arrived to school the following day, I invited my student teachers to take a vacation from the classroom and join me in the staff room for lunch. That day, with a full stomach, the afternoon block went off without a hitch.

But I know there will still be some days when things just don't go as planned. Teachers can be their worst critics. Don't let the heavy feeling of failure drown out the quiet triumphs we have daily. Challenge yourself to think of two bright spots everyday. Think of the shy student who raised her hand for the first time. Remember the beautiful haiku your student proudly shared. Make it a routine to write down these two bright spots a day, and allow these beautiful moments be a part of your daily reflection too.

• Be Real

By sharing our struggles and this attitude toward failure with our colleagues and students, we show what true leadership is. By talking honestly about what I learned and how I grew, I was able to provide my student-teachers with some strategies on how to deal with the hardships they will inevitably encounter.

Let’s face it: Every day that teachers interact with students, there are bound to be lots of errors, missteps, and flat out failures. And it feels bad. But this profession is also incredibly important, and can be so rewarding. In order to stay in the classroom for the long haul, teachers should be equipped early on with some strategies to deal with failure and the negative feelings that come along with it.

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