I remember my first F. It came my first semester in college, actually: Intermediate Latin with Magister Lisle–a Harvard School of Classics product who I am convinced spoke Latin better than Cicero ever did. I was in over my head, too stupid to drop, and had discovered the joys of dorm parties and unstructured time. The final project was to translate large sections of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I had difficulty making it through sentences like “He is a farmer.” It went poorly. In what had been a train wreck of a semester, I also earned a D in a 5-credit section of Intermediate Calculus.
My institution had a repeat/forgiveness process where you could retake up to two classes, though, and substitute the new grade for your old one. The catch: whatever the new grade was, that was the one that counted. I retook Calculus the following fall, and got my second F. That replaced the D. I decided I wouldn’t even bother with retaking Latin.
Those were not my only failures in college, just two of the most amusing ones. So it was with interest a while ago when I read Edward Burger’s essay “Teaching to Fail” in Inside Higher Ed. It’s an essay that has stuck with me and informed much of my teaching philosophy since. His argument is, essentially, that failure makes us smarter–and is indeed the sine qua non of scholarly work. My inner college freshman rejoiced. DUDE. I FAILED ENOUGH TO BE A FREAKING GENIUS THEN. But, alas, it’s more complex than that. Burger’s description of how knowledge works is one that resonates keenly with me:
every idea from every discipline is a human idea that comes from a natural, thoughtful, and (ideally) unending journey in which thinkers deeply understand the current state of knowledge, take a tiny step in a new direction, almost immediately hit a dead end, learn from that misstep, and, through iteration, inevitably move forward. That recipe for success is not just the secret formula for original scholarly discovery, but also for wise, everyday thinking for the entire population. Hence, it is important to explicitly highlight how essential those dead ends and mistakes are — that is, to teach students the power of failure and how to fail effectively.
There is an absolutely essential point here for teachers. Failure isn’t something to be stigmatized, but affirmed as a starting point. An important disclaimer: I define “failure” in this sense as having tried, but not come up with the “right” answer/technique/action/concept/whatever. It’s this coming up short that provides opportunity–“failing effectively,” to use Burger’s term. Sir Ken Robinson has observed in his book The Element that “[i]f you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” And a lot of us understand this with our students; we help them to learn from their failures in order to become more confident, creative, and successful. There’s a powerful commercial with Michael Jordan ruminating on his failures that evocatively underscores this point:
I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
But it’s also important to remember that all of the above applies to educators, too. Our failures have shaped who we are and how we teach, whether we admit it or not. For me, it’s the most important part of my experience–because I have failed at lots and lots and lots of different things in my life.
At the end of the initial semester in my first tenure-track position, I was told by my entire department that I would never be a good teacher, scholar, or colleague.
I failed to keep that job.
Moreover, there are times when:
I have failed to be a good son, a good parent, a good husband, or a good person.
I have failed to remain calm, collected, cool, or constructive.
I have failed at self-control, at self-awareness, at self-confidence, and at self-care.
I have failed in conferences, in interviews, in meetings, and in the classroom.
I have failed to get scholarships, fellowships, awards, and recognition that I have craved.
I have failed to deal with that well.
I have failed to show maturity, moxie, and sometimes even movement.
I have failed over and over again as a writer, a scholar, a teacher, and as a colleague.
I have failed to be sensitive, sober, sensible, or sympathetic when the circumstances have demanded it.
I have failed to pay my bills, to pay it forward, and to pay attention.
I have failed to be on task, on point, on the level, and on time.
I have failed to follow through.
I have failed to learn from my failures.
So when there’s a student in my office with a 55% on the exam wondering how she can possibly do better when she studied “as hard as I could,” I can empathize. And because I have failed, I can give honest and practical advice rather than motivation-poster bromides. When a class activity goes in the tank, I know how to move on to something more constructive, because I’ve been there before. When a meeting dissolves into aimless arguing and pontificating, I can hold my temper, because I’ve been that arguing pontificator before. When I have writer’s block, I no longer feel like throwing a brick through my monitor (well, most of the time), because I know failure isn’t permanent. When I have a shitty day on campus, I know it won’t be as shitty as the day in 2004 when I was told I would never amount to anything in academia and I should pack my stuff.
Learning and knowledge come from failure, but most importantly for us as teachers, so does compassion: compassion for ourselves, for our colleagues, and most importantly for our students. In all of the failures I’ve experienced (and they have been legion), there have been people around me that have helped me to stand back up, dust myself off, and begin to implement the lessons I learned. Many of those people were educators. I don’t think that’s coincidental.
The most powerful way we can educate our students is to be models of what we teach. This is particularly true when we try to inculcate certain habits of mind; for example, I model what it means to “think like a historian” for and with my students. But more importantly, we should model what it means to fail. Because failure should be the beginning, rather than the end, of learning. In using my own failures as the lodestone for my teaching, I am as vulnerable and human as my students. So when I model for them what my scholarship, reading, writing, and critical thinking can do, and show them what I’ve produced, I’m also implicitly telling them they can get to similar places. We should embrace our failures as integral to who we have become, and in doing so show our students that failure only becomes permanent if one allows it. The teacher I am today has his own take on Jordan’s testimony.
I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.
And that is why I can show my students how to succeed.