Admitting Failure

Summer 2015

By Sarah Cooper

It is hard for us to admit failures, even small ones, as teachers. It’s easier to do it in the first several years, when everything is supposed to be new and challenging.

But at some point between about five and 10 years in, we move from novices to experts. We tinker and refine, but we don’t always want to admit we’re having a slump: a bad day, bad month, or, heaven forbid, a bad year.

Especially in independent schools, we are expected, and expect ourselves, to be on all the time. Our own high standards demand it. Our parents and students do, too. When we talk with colleagues in the faculty room, we sometimes hear stories of frustrating classroom moments, but more often we share the glorious lesson that just happened, riding the wave of jubilation. We do not often talk about the self-doubt and regrouping that come with facing roomfuls of students every day.

As veteran teacher Jim Burke says in his essay “Teacher Orientation,” one of many fine pieces in Burned In: Fueling the Fire to Teach (2011), “Now that I’ve been teaching for 20 years, one would think I have graduated from the cycle, that I moved through it, learned the ­lessons, and achieved some Nirvana-like release from the cycle, settling into the comfortable orientation of mastery. I wish it were so, but it is not.”

A year ago last fall, it took me a while, as I was starting to teach eighth-grade U.S. history for the first time in a decade, to remember Burke’s warning that such “disorientation” can happen even to veteran teachers - or maybe especially to veteran teachers, if our expectations for ourselves are too high.

Before school started, I had lunch with my department head to chat about the curriculum. “What kinds of assessments do you think you will do?” she asked. At that point I hadn’t even thought about assessments. I had some ideas about creating a classroom culture conducive to the discussion of current events, and I knew I wanted to treat history thematically rather than chronologically. But as I considered planning actual lessons, my head was stuck in two places: fear and abstraction - neither of which was likely to resonate with middle-schoolers.

Why abstraction? Excited to grasp historical facts again after years in eighth-grade English, I had been reading elegantly written history books all summer, putting off the day when I needed to actually plan lessons. I decided to start the year with an excerpt about Lincoln’s early life from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, specifically the part in which she describes his hunger for learning: “Books became his academy, his college. The printed word united his mind with the great minds of generations past.”

On that first day, I read Goodwin’s prose aloud and spoke of the beauty of narrative and the power of personality. The students, eager and industrious as they always are, took notes and tried to make sense of why we were reading this document. History requires details and facts to create wonder. I was trying to leap directly to wonder, and it just didn’t work.

Why fear? This was my 15th year teaching and my third as a dean of faculty. It was also five years after I’d written a book on middle school history teaching, and I was pressuring myself to create the perfect course from the outset. No matter that colleagues have observed that the magic often comes in year three of a curriculum, when everything starts to dance. I was trying to leap directly to magic, and that didn’t work either.

I was also forgetting something key to my teaching style: Much as I may want to plan the entire year up front, I am a relatively impromptu teacher. It is hard for me to envision more than several weeks into the year until I see what kinds of individual or group work each class responds to best, or how different the personalities are among sections.

And in hindsight, had I tried to plan that eighth-grade history curriculum in advance, I wouldn’t have seen a civil rights strand emerge three times - in units on the U.S. Constitution, the Civil War, and the 1960s. I wouldn’t have known that my first period was quiet and reflective, that my last period would keep me guessing with geography and news arcana, and that my middle period (which I, in a weak moment, called “distracted” to their faces, after which I told them not to take offense because I loved them, which I did) would do anything to keep my attention, and succeed.

Between the pillars of fear and abstraction, with a dash of self-reproach thrown in, I felt half-frozen for the first several months. My English teacher mother used to say, “We teach who we are,” and I was a muddled, self-flagellating mess. As Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” My identity felt nearly invisible.

So when my department head said that she wanted to have a different faculty member present about something in his or her class at each department meeting, and a colleague suggested that maybe we should talk about failures rather than successes, I was ready to volunteer.

If we do not change, if we do not seek Burke’s “new orientation” over and over again, we are not modeling change or growth for our students. And to change and grow, we usually need to admit that we could use some help.

For our October meeting, I put together a description of my first month of class, complete with what didn’t work and why, and my goals for the future.

I knew that my colleagues, most of whom I had worked with for a decade, would be helpful, but I had no idea just how much.

They gave conceptual suggestions to consider the ideas of virtue versus corruption; to make the seemingly irreducible Founding Fathers more complex through a little bit of sympathy and curiosity; to ask whether a hero is someone who does one single courageous act in a lifetime, or someone who is a decent person every day.

They gave pedagogical suggestions to ask students what they wanted to know more about. They suggested a nightly reading assignment that combined just one page of text with a relevant primary source, and to require that every point in a debate be backed up with solid facts. One colleague observed, “It seems that you’re talking about synthesizing ideas, about being able to write,” and I thought, Of course, they need to write.

Two colleagues brought me back to “the exotic, different nature of history” that asks us to foster “wonder as a primary emotion” - to where I had tried to begin with Goodwin’s description of Lincoln but had fallen short a month and a half before. In many suggestions, there was an implication to take more time, to go beyond facts the students think they already know to a deeper understanding.

Had I not opened myself up to being vulnerable - as BrenĂ© Brown, professor and author of The Gifts of Imperfection, says, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change” - I never would have heard my colleagues’ earnest input. Their suggestions drove me to reorient the next year’s curriculum around complex ideas, such as the contradictions of federalism, the nature of rebellions, and the reasons we go to war - concepts that keep me as interested as the students.

When I felt I was supposed to have all the answers about teaching, I should have remembered that none of us ever does. But in the moment it was hard to see that.

As Burke goes on to observe in his “Teacher Orientation” essay, “...there is no way around such feelings, such experiences, only through them into some new orientation where we begin to discover and develop within ourselves the resiliency, wisdom, and courage needed to teach, lighting our way by the knowledge that being a master teacher is not a destination but a journey through a land that changes as we change, as kids change, as society changes, and as each new year begins.”

If we do not change, if we do not seek Burke’s “new orientation” over and over again, we are not modeling change or growth for our students. And to change and grow, we usually need to admit that we could use some help.

Novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” Last year asked; this year answered. I am grateful to my colleagues for listening.

Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper teaches eighth-grade U.S. history and is dean of studies at Flintridge Preparatory School (California). She is the author of Making History Mine (Stenhouse, 2009).