The gift of failure

surf fail from redbull.com

couch surfing fail from redbull.com

This blog post is a bit of a sequel to last Friday’s blog about the influence my teachers have had on my educator self. It’s a continuation of the reflections about what kinds of life-wide experiences have shaped me professionally. Telling my own story is related to this paper in which I wrote that those things that affect our professional educator identities are collaborative and individual; occurring in life, school, and work; and requiring elements of support and challenge. Personal life experiences, as well as professional experiences, shape educators’ beliefs and practices.

I’ve alluded to some of my wobbly moments when I talked about embracing my discomfort zone, learning that I grow most in times of challenge. But I’m often not always up front about those times. I usually prefer to paint my own narrative with a rosy hue. I tend not to focus too much on failure, but rather on areas of celebration and of improvement. I don’t enjoy lingering too long on soul-crushing defeat, although I am comfortable learning from missteps. Below, however, I provide a glimpse into my long and ordinary history of failure and disappointment, and how that has shaped me.

My childhood of course consisted of experiences in which I was not successful.  The Mathematics classroom and the sporting field were arenas in which I learned what it felt like to be a failure. I distinctly remember a moment in primary school when I asked my mum to keep me home from school on Sports Carnival day so I could avoid having my lack of athleticism paraded for everyone to see. I was thinking of the events in which I would have to compete, against children at least a year older than me, and in which I would ultimately lose. I distinctly remember her answer, which has stuck with me: “You are good at school every day. You get to be the person who enjoys success in class and feels good about herself. Today is the day for other students to have success and feel good about themselves.” I’m pretty sure her response was along the lines of, “Today is the day you get to be crap at something; now go and be crap at it,” and the insinuation that this was somehow valuable for me. Of course my primary school self was mainly upset that I had to have a day of feeling sub-par and coming last, but even at that age it allowed me to feel grateful that I only had to feel that occasionally. What about the students who felt like failures every day in every lesson, for whom school was a place of constant embarrassment and not being good enough?

This experience shaped my teacher identity. I try to remember in my teaching (especially as my subject is a compulsory one), that many of my students may not be enthusiastic about the subject or good at the subject; they may come with preconceived negative emotions, reactions, and expectations. They may have been imprinted with years of feeling failure in English, feeling exposed when asked to read aloud or feeling alarmed and distressed by corrections on their written work. How, I ask myself, do I engage and ‘get’ those students for whom being in an English classroom is a challenge or makes them feel like a failure, an idiot or a fish out of water? How can I make the experience of my classroom a more positive one? How can I make them feel understood and confident?

Much later, I was shaped by my experiences of failure in my PhD. I have described before the pits of PhDespair. I remember the moment when one of my supervisors said to me about a draft chapter, “When I read your research proposal, I thought you were a really good writer (pause for effect) and then I read this.” My supervisors told me that I needed to make the argument of the chapter clearer. This advice bemused and frustrated me. As a teacher of English and Literature, and someone who has ghost-written, copy-written, and creative-written in various contexts, I felt like I was now the remedial student in class who could not comprehend what was expected of her, or what good (academic) writing looked like. At these meetings I would nod, and afterwards I would go home, still confused. (It felt a lot like when my dad would help me with my Maths homework; eventually I would nod and say I got it, but I remained confused about how to achieve success.) I repeatedly went between my notes from my meeting with my supervisors and my draft chapter, trying to find a way to action advice that I did not fully understand. What would it look like if I was a critical reader and a clear academic writer? Clearly not what it looked like at that point in time. The proverbial sweat and tears on those early pages was intense and immense. I struggled, grappled, tried, yearned to ‘do it right,’ to understand what doing it right looked like, and still felt as though I was poking around in the dark with a flaccid stick, blind and impotent.

This experience was uncomfortable, squirmy, and difficult.  And it was in that space in which I started to make incremental changes, small steps towards understanding, towards ‘doing good research’ and ‘doing good academic writing.’ It is that space in which I which I was growing, transforming and learning. 

Meanwhile, that same week I provided my English classes with exemplars of good answers and worked through what it looked like to have written a piece which clearly addressed the criteria. While providing models is a part of my normal teaching practice, it certainly came to the fore while I was searching for it for my own writing.

As time has gone on, I have found that place of struggle less dark and more invigorating, because I’ve grown to see it as a place of breakthrough, rather than a place of breakdown. Peer review continues to be a place of growth for me. As I said in this post, receiving reviews often feels like simultaneously receiving a high five and a punch in the face.

We all fail at some things, some times. Some of us fail more than others. We hear terms like ‘growth mindset’ (which has been almost decoupled from Dweck’s research in some  buzzword-happy arenas) and phrases like ‘FAIL = first attempt in learning’ and ‘fail fast, fail often.’ But failure is not a catchy slogan or a viral meme. It is a deeply felt experience that shapes us. 

The more I fail, the more I’m able to see failure as an opportunity, rather than a slight. Failure and disappointment are inescapable parts of being a human. From childhood we develop strategies to sit with the emotion (disappointment! despair! anger! anguish! incredulity! imposter syndrome!) before, hopefully, rationally moving past the emotional to a place where we can be logical and take positive action. We have choices in how we respond to success and failure. We can develop ways to approach those moments in our lives. Acknowledging failure as a part of our cycles of being, doing and feeling means that we can face it, sit with it, and see what gifts it might offer us.

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts. ~ Richard Bach

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7 thoughts on “The gift of failure

  1. Thanks for another candid and thought provoking post Deb.
    It made me recall my own experiences as a student, ones that undoubtedly shaped my teacher identity too. I was one of those invisible middle of the road kids except in a few narrow areas where I found my talents. I had some very average teachers and, thankfully, a few excellent ones. Sadly (probably especially for you) I was never encouraged to read as a child and eventually gave up because I couldn’t keep up. In Secondary school I remember a few engaging lessons about Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men but overall I hated English more than any other subject. I remember the cold sweats and increased heart rate I would get when we were asked to read aloud or read parts. I was very self conscious and wanted to crawl under the desk! I knew I needed my Higher English grade to get to Uni and was hugely relieved when I scraped it in 5th year when I was steeling myself to re-sit it in 6th year.
    I think I’d do a little better now 😊

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  2. Interesting share Deb. It made me think of the moments as a blogger when i have spent considerable time building an idea only to receive “nah, that is wrong” or “you just don’t get it”. These frustrating comments have led me to dig even deeper. I think in many respects they have been more useful in uncovering what might be wrong.

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  3. Damn. And I need to proof-read better – “Thanks so much for such a thought-provoking look at failure. As I read, I wondered how you could so accurately document what was the soundtrack to my academic life?! AWESOME!” 😦

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  4. Pingback: Feedback: It’s emotional | the édu flâneuse

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