On Failure: Part 1 of Many

I have a vivid memory of the first time I admitted that I was wrong in front of a class of students. 

March 9, 2012

I have a vivid memory of the first time I admitted that I was wrong in front of a class of students. I was a TA, staffing a grammar lab that was required for students in English 090, Developmental English. These were students well-acquainted with failure and being “wrong.” They’d been assigned to the class because of low ACT scores or failed proficiency exams or both. A significant percentage of them wouldn’t make it out of the course and into the regular college curriculum.

I was 24 years old and only passingly familiar with the ins and outs of grammar myself. I could write, but beyond the basics -- nouns, adjectives, adverbs, etc… -- I was frantically reading the text the night before class, cramming in things I’d learned and forgotten or never learned in the first place.

I’d been wrong in the classroom plenty of times up to that moment. This was second semester, and I’d spent the previous one periodically bluffing my way through the lessons. I’d fallen hard for the pleasures of teaching pretty quickly, but that made my general inexperience and incompetence even more painful. I bent the ears of my more experienced colleagues for tips and pointers at every possible turn. Some of the second and third year students, including my office mate, seemed like master teachers already and I soaked up what they had to share, but that wasn’t going to be enough.

Every so often, students would catch me out on points small and large and ask about these discrepancies, almost always in curious, non-challenging ways. They were perhaps academically unaccomplished, but they were unfailingly polite and eager. My default response in these cases was bluster, followed by a slow backing down of the student – words that gave off heat without light – explaining how they were mistaken, that I had not been wrong. Afterwards I would feel a combination of relief and guilt, relief that I hadn’t been found out, guilt over the confused look that remained on the students’ faces.

This attitude was rooted in a mistaken notion of authority, that authority above all requires strength and conviction. I thought I was modeling the behaviors of the teachers of my past, and maybe I was, but that didn’t mean it was the right thing to do.

Finally, in that grammar lab, I was caught dead-to-rights. I’d mixed up gerunds and participles, something I could still do today, and a student raised one hand while the other pointed at the textbook, and she said, “it says something different here.” I remember her as someone trying to be a good student, maybe for the first time, this being her second attempt at English 090. Like a lot of her classmates, she’d been betrayed by a secondary education system that never held them accountable and she entered college with little knowledge and without the skills and habits that lead to learning.

I’m sure I flushed under my collar, cinched above the tie I still wore back then in an additional attempt to project authority. I looked down at my own book, reading the passage, recognizing that she was right and I was wrong. In my mind the silence stretched towards a minute, but I’m sure it was only seconds. I didn’t see any other way out.

“You’re right,” I said. “I made a mistake.” Here was another silence as we all decided how important this was. I raised my head from the book and saw them looking at me just like before, as the person whose job it was to tell them what to do next, their guide, their teacher.

“I told you these things can be tricky,” I said. They laughed, a tension releaser, and all of the sudden, the tone of the room changed as did I. I asked the first question in class that I didn’t already have an answer to. Maybe the first honest question of my career.

“How are we going to tell these things apart?”

I was reminded of this episode while reading a recent post from Lee Skallerup Bessette at her College Ready Writing blog where she wrote about how discussing teaching “failures” is somehow controversial in the tenure-line ranks.

This made me a little bit sad, and a little bit mad at the same time. It also made me thankful that Lee had the courage and conviction to just drive straight into the controversy, rather than deciding it was better to project a veneer of authority.

It also made me realize that when it comes to teaching, the greatest gift we can give our students is failure, ours above all, which is something I’ll pick up next time.


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