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

Front load your work. Be an expert. Own your contribution.

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go. ~ Dr Seuss

by @debsnet

sometimes the words slowly bleed onto the page

As a mid-career professional I often feel comfortable in my work in teaching and school leadership. I might come up against challenges, but I do so with a sense that I know what I’m doing and have a sense of how to make my way through them. ‘This is what I know how to do,’ I think to myself. And forward I go without a second thought.

There are times, however, when I cannot forge forward confidently. Becoming a parent, for instance, threw me into a new situation and a new role in which I had to start from scratch. I was a newbie who had to find my way into my parent-identity and a way of parenting which worked for me. The PhD is another something which throws people into a new deep end. I have written about my realisation that my discomfort zone is my place of growth, but that doesn’t make the experience of discomfort any more … comfortable!

I type this post from the throes of my current nemesis: the PhD Discussion chapter. I wrote last month about my feelings of paralysis before beginning this chapter, and how I eventually got started. And yet here I still am, four or so iterations later and still wrangling, dancing with, building and un-building my discussion.

Part of my struggle is around scholarly confidence, reflected in the notes from my last PhD supervision meeting which read a bit like this: ‘too much other people’, ‘less others, more you’, ‘put your ideas up front.’

It seems I am clinging to the literature. I still want to prove to my reader that I have read everything I can get my hands on and I know my stuff. That I’m not a masquerader or pretender. And it seems I do this by citing and paraphrasing and putting up front the work of Others.

You know Others. In the mind of the novice researcher they deserve capital letters of knowledge because they are experienced, frequently-published, well-renowned academics, not researchers-in-training or Doctors-in-waiting.

And yet in the Discussion and Conclusion of the PhD I know I must identify myself as an expert. A person worthy of a capital letter (like a ‘Ph’ or a ‘D’). I keep reminding myself that I am an expert in my own research and that I can stand on the front foot when I discuss my findings and what they mean in the world.

So my current notes-to-self for the Discussion chapter are:

– Stop trying to prove my worth through literature.

– More me. Less others.

– Front load my work.

More than just a process of writing, this is a process of becoming. Becoming a researcher. Becoming a researcher who knows she is a researcher, feels like a researcher and makes knowledge claims like a researcher. It’s taking me many molasses-slow drafts to find my expert voice and a way of writing which foregrounds my own research and my own academic voice, while still situating my research within the existing literature. But step by step I am getting closer.

And I’ve been reading Dr Seuss’s Oh the places you’ll go! to my children recently so I am armed with the mantra that with brains in my head and feet in my shoes, I can move mountains. One painstaking word at a time.

You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way! ~ Dr Seuss

You're off to great places, by @debsnet

the édu flâneuse atop an Icelandic glacier

 

Embrace your discomfort zone: bubbling in the crucible of growth

Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength. ~ Sigmund Freud

my scribblings: Comfort vs. Discomfort Zones

my scribblings: Comfort vs. Discomfort Zones

Scholarly literature and the blogosphere are saturated with thoughts around motivation, growth and what it means to learn, lead and be the best we each can be. Some of this is around what qualities, attitudes or behaviours we need in order to weather life’s difficulties while continuously growing our selves.

Skill sets & mindsets for discomfort and growth

Carol Dweck’s much-touted work on mindset argues that our self-conceptions frame our life paths. If we perceive ourselves as having fixed immovable traits, then we are less likely to be resilient and positive in the face of challenge. Those who perceive that their talents and abilities can be developed are more able to see setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth.

Art Costa and Bob Garmston’s Cognitive Coaching model would suggest that we need to help individuals to reflect upon their own goals and experiences, figuring out their own ways to get better while assuming that each individual has the capacity to do exactly that.

In their recent book Uplifting Leadership Andy Hargreaves, Alan Boyle and Alma Harris talk about a yin-yang balance between positive energised leadership and tenacious hard work. They talk about disciplined innovation and feet-on-the-ground (rather than pie-in-the-sky) creativity. “An uplifting mindset and skill set keeps your head up high while your feet stay firmly planted on the ground.” Hargreaves, Boyle and Harris articulate the need for leaders to have visions and dreams alongside the determination to struggle through hardship and adversity. They remind us that “without dreams, profound human and social change would scarcely be possible” but that we need inspiration that incites action, daring and doing. Leaders, then, are grounded visionaries whose diligent exertion drives imagination and change.

Environments of support and challenge: being held while being pushed

In her work on adult learning, Ellie Drago-Severson talks about organisations as ‘holding environments’, spaces in which adult learners feel ‘held’ and which provide both high support and high challenge. When I spoke with Ellie this year, she emphasised the need for schools to facilitate the development of self-authoring individuals, able to take charge of their own journeys of transformation.

Charlotte Danielson, too, talks about the need for support and challenge for teacher growth. Teachers need an environment of trust, she says, in which it is safe to take risks in the spirit of ongoing professional inquiry. As I explained previously in my reflections on hearing Charlotte speak at the Australian Council for Educational Leadership 2014 conference, the need for balance – between safety in which teachers feel supported and trusting, and enough discomfort to challenge practice and change thinking and behaviour – has been pivotal in my school’s work to provide a setting for the transformation of classroom teaching, professional conversation and collaborative culture.

Enter the discomfort zone, the birthplace of rainbow growth

So while we need to feel supported enough to take risks, we need to be daring enough to be vulnerable, uncomfortable and daring. Margie Warrell calls this the ‘Courage Zone’, the place beyond comfort (but before terror and paralysis) in which risk taking and growth happens.

In my own experiences I have found this discomfort zone to be a tipping point for my own growth. Often it is in the squirmiest spaces of discomfort that my breakdowns become my breakthroughs. As I illustrated (literally) in the drawing above, my discomfort zone is a place of dark messiness, but from which rainbow-like growth can emerge. The comfort zone might be all white fluffy clouds, affirmations and unicorn-blessed pixie dust, but it also tends to be a space of inertia.

My classroom is a place in which my experience and comfort level are best served by being challenged to try new things like a recent term without marks or grades. And while my online PLN and at-school professional friends provide me with support, it is getting out of the supportive echo chamber and into dissenting debate which pushes my thinking and incites my learning.

Some of the most uncomfortable moments of my growth this year have been in my PhD work which often involves wrestling with my thesis. Support and criticism from my supervisors help me to work tenaciously through difficult research and writing problems to find solutions and make progress. As an experienced educator but novice researcher, it is interesting negotiating a space in which my learning curve is dizzyingly exponential. The best thing about grappling with and through discomfort is the unrivalled feeling of satisfaction at solving, innovating or realising learning.

Who, where or what makes you feel ‘held’ and comfortable? How at ease are you in your discomfort zone? Is it a crucible of growth for you? What do you find when you stay there and thrash around for a while?

Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching …. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape. ~ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Mostar jumper: leap into discomfort

Mostar jumper: leap into discomfort