April 1, 2011
One of the hardest parts of being a new teacher is that you inevitably feel like a failure. It’s impossible not to, in those rare reflective moments when you are honest with yourself. Why? Because teaching is so incredibly complex, and the demands so overwhemingly urgent, that until you’ve gained the capacity to competently manage all the sundry daily tasks, you are struggling merely to keep your nose above the water.
Let me frame this from my personal perspective: I teach all subjects, every day. In order to teach something, you have to be capable of breaking down concepts to their fundamental components, most especially for students with exceptional learning needs and who are English language learners. Do you feel qualified to do that in every aspect of math, science, social studies, reading, and writing (and social skills, organizational skills, self-regulatory skills — if we acknowledge the “hidden curriculum”)? Yeah, neither do I. So while I might be good at teaching certain concepts, in some areas I just don’t have the capacity nor training yet to truly excel. I will, with time. But that will take focus, professional development, curriculum development and adaptation, and research.
So in the meantime, I often just feel like a failure. My students need so much from me, and I can’t always give them everything they require. This is a terrible feeling, and I believe it is one of the main causes of new teacher burnout (for ideas on retaining teachers, read Stephen Lazar’s excellent suggestions). I’ve known new teachers who have left the classroom because they could not deal with this overwhelming sense of failure. This is not because of a lack of dedication. Nor is it due to a lack of academic ability. I have a sense of failure because 1) I don’t have the experience yet to be a pedagogical and content master of all subject areas; 2) I don’t have the therapeutic experience yet to address all of my students’ social-emotional needs; and 3) I’m not Superman.
But something I’ve been thinking about is that it’s OK to be a failure —most especially in your first years of teaching. How could you not be? In a field that combines such a dynamic and vast range of skills — from time management, to organizational systems, to data analysis, to developmental psychology, to therapy, to leadership, and so on, ad nauseam (fill in any professional skill you can think of here) — there is no way you can be a master of all areas, even after a lifetime of dedicated service. It’s that complex.
Learning is fundamentally about persistence through failure. In “We Were Born to Learn,” Rita Smilkstein presents research that supports the premise that all children are naturally capable learners, needing only practice and effort in order to develop. I presented this brain research and information to my students at the beginning of the year, and they responded positively to the idea that they are capable, natural-born learners. Students with exceptional learning needs are acutely aware (thanks to the inevitable callousness of other students) that they are labeled as “special ed,” and it affects their self-perceptions greatly. They need their natural abilities and strengths to be affirmed. They need to be reminded that it is only through practice over time that we can become better — and smarter — at anything.
Smilkstein lists in her book fundamental learnings from neurological research, and the one that most stands out the most to me is that to practice anything is fundamentally about “making mistakes, correcting mistakes, learning from them, and trying over, again and again.” In other words, if we aren’t making mistakes, then we’re not learning anything.
Deborah Meier, in her book on trust in schools, puts it this way:
There is no way to avoid doing something dumb when you are inexperienced or lacking in knowledge, except by not trying at all, insisting you don’t care or aren’t interested, thinking the task itself is dumb (not you), or trying secretly so no one can catch your mistakes — or offer you useful feedback. Of course, these are the excuses we drive most kids into when they don’t trust us enough to make mistakes in our presence.
As a teacher, I have to have the humility to acknowledge that I am not always the master of content and knowledge in my own classroom. I am learning alongside my students. I make mistakes, and I have to be willing to point out that I have made a mistake, and what I have learned from it. Sometimes, I have to admit that I don’t know how to explain a concept better, or that I don’t know how to best deal with a situation. It also means that I have to be willing to listen to my students — really listen, not just focus on the objective of my lesson. Students are constantly telling me what they need to learn, but most often I don’t really hear it, because I’m just trying to get to the “right” answer so I can move on in my agenda for the day.
Learning takes time, and it takes a lot of effort — both on the part of teachers and of students. And we have to be willing to risk failure. The important part of learning is not that we fail, nor even that we fail over and over again. The important part is that we persist. And with time and the proper support, anyone can get better.