Accepting, Using Failure

I’m convinced now that I’ll never be a good enough teacher for the kids I work for. I’ll never be able to replace parents, whole communities, other schools, and families who have cheated them out of an upbringing.

Even when you succeed, in the urban core, at reaching students in one class, the next one is waiting there to sucker punch you. Thus, I’ve learned that planning ahead is both a necessity, and an almost certain guarantee of failure.

Teaching is about managing and accepting continual failure.

I think too many new teachers are obsessed with academic success, usually their own, and how they can pass along their understanding of it to students. We’re taught to keep grade books, teach the merits of compliance and subordination, and sort our student body out across a nice Gaussian distribution so we can look back and determine who learned.

In this lovely fantasy, only some kids get to experience failure. In the schools I’ve been in, failure is either ignored as unwanted pain or as a useless judgment. Those students at the top are in a strange, unhealthy vacuum of perfection devoid of responsibility and learning. The kids in the middle, me as a student, were mostly maligned by others for not being at the top of the graph. Those at the bottom, whether permanent residents or temporary slippers and sliders down under, have the most opportunity for understanding how to learn, but the least support for growth and social recognition.

I’m painting with broad brushstrokes, but I think the abstract idea of success and achievement in schools is a damaging one. By the time kids get to high school where I see them, they already have a pretty good idea of what school is about. In the urban core, where I teach, they’ve learned that they can wander around willy-nilly, wait to be socially promoted, or cause enough problems until they are kicked out, which absolves them of responsibility and cheats them of opportunity.

In suburbia, where I grew up, kids wait for their parents to call in favors for them, bellyache about grades–but never learning–and graduate with inflated GPAs that measure something closer to nepotism and income rather than ability. In more rural schools, like where I taught before, there’s a strange mix of the previous habits, but conformity and compliance seem to hold a special place in the school structure.

Why don’t we address failure more successfully? Students should not be afraid of failing classes, tests, quizzes; they should be excited to master new material and explore diverse concepts that apply to their interests. I’m definitely not the first to say it, and I don’t claim to say this more creatively, but we have a school system based on stamping out “bad” students and then not providing any solutions for them.

Students in low socioeconomic status groups may have the “same” chance at the American dream as you and I, but most don’t feel that way. Most students of divorced parents, drug-dealing family and friends, and unemployed caretakers are not taught they can do anything. Many students I have seen in my classroom are well practiced in the art of avoiding thought and self-evaluation. They’ve been told they are “bad” and “failures” for so long; they are unable to make any reliable judgment about the labels put on them.

Earlier this year I had a student come in late in the semester after great absence; she wanted to take the final, wanted to know what she’d missed. “A lot,” I explained, but I still want you to sit for the final (it was a reflective essay). What she ended up writing broke my heart:

“I have a son and another kid on the way…I want my children to have what I didn’t”

Seeing a high school student express that her chances at life are already so marred made me cringe. Those little glands under my jaw made a clicking noise and I wasn’t sure if I was going to cry or spit up like a baby. How could this happen? How could life be over at 17?

Often, what we’re really measuring in schools is who has had the most extrascholastic support, built the best relationships with teachers, and has the best predetermined survival abilities. These may be things kids need perfectly well, but a democratic school can’t afford to make assumptions about their presence. School shouldn’t be such a Darwinian endeavor intended to weed out kids who don’t deserve college, jobs, or “As”. Instead, our schools should be more Deweyan–focused on how to ensure each member of our society is provided with a useful and self-perpetuating learning experience in school.