It had been a tough day.
After the bell rang, I collapsed into my chair and reflected on the failures of the day. The list was long.
I had 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. 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 was not only letting my students down but also my mentees.
This got me thinking a lot about failure. We teach our students to learn from failure. We have pencil bags with brightly colored letters in cute fonts claiming “Mistakes are proof you are trying” and inspirational posters with flowing rivers and smooth round rocks reassuring us that “Failure is a stepping stone to success.” But the trouble is, it doesn’t feel that way. My fourth grade student 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.”
If we teach our students to embrace failure as a step toward growth, why are we not better at teaching it to ourselves as teachers? When I scroll through articles about teaching, most of them showcase successful strategies for student engagement, classroom management, and dynamo ways to amplify student voice. With each amazingly effective teacher sharing his or her awesome teaching prowess, I feel more and more depleted. All these teachers are crushing it in the classroom. How come after 17 years I’m still 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 shared with my mentees some of the strategies I use to get through tough days and learn from my mistakes.
When you experience failure the first step is to take some time to think deeply on what happened. Whether it be a botched conversation with a student, an unsavory moment with a parent, or a less than exemplary lesson, take time to think it over. 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. This may be where your relationship with failure ends. Not so fast; in order to grow you, you must commune with your failure a little while longer.
Make a plan
You’ve thought it over. Chances are you’re feeling a bit better and ready to put those bad feelings associated with failure behind you and move on to a better day. Slow down; it’s time to make a plan. Write a simple list of three ways you could avoid making the same mistake again. By thoughtfully documenting some ways you could avoid this failure, you are improving your chances of learning from the experience and not finding yourself in the same unpalatable situation again.
You have your well-thought-out list; it’s time to get some help. Share your list with someone you can rely on to hold you accountable to your plan. A trusted colleague, family member, or even an eager student can help you stick with your plan. You can’t just walk away from your solutions now because someone is going to be checking in on you.
Try it Out
It’s go time. Proactively seek out something you would like to improve. Use your reflection, list, and support person to help you avoid making the same mistake over and over.
When you have a bad day, be gentle with yourself. Try to remember the bright spots of the day. Be hopeful about the prospects of a better day tomorrow.
By sharing our struggles and sense of failure with our colleagues and students, we show what true leadership is. It is getting a lot of yes’s and a lot of no’s. It is having good days and bad days. It is embracing your failures as much as your successes. It is being human.
Let’s face it, each day teachers interact with students there are bound to be lots of errors, missteps, and flat out failures. And it feels bad. In order to stay in this profession 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.
Back to the long list of failures of the day, there were so many sub-par moments I had trouble knowing where to begin. As I went for my evening run, I mulled the day’s 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 the students. Upon returning home, 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.
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.
The next day, with a full stomach, the afternoon block went off without a hitch. I successfully shared some strategies that my student teachers could use in their own classrooms one day. Also, I hope I provided them with ways to deal with the hardships they will inevitably encounter as they embark on this amazingly important and rewarding profession. Or at least do more than feel miserable about them.
Lory Walker Peroff is a fourth grade teacher at Waikiki Elementary School and a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow alumna who believes writing is not only enjoyable but essential. She lives in Honolulu with her husband, two energetic and curious daughters, five chickens, two ducks, and one peahen.