to fail well

No one spends five years in college pursuing an education degree with the hopeful dream that some quick-approaching day, they will get the beautiful opportunity to teach their students, by example, how to fail well.

Nobody wants to be that person. Including myself.

And yet, here I am.

Five years into my teaching career, I can only call it grueling. It has been spent on hands-and-knees, clawing for an inch of progress, for the slightest hold on something resembling success. And then the Earth shudders to a stop for a second, throwing everything into unexpected disarray, and the process starts again, the crawling forward and gripping the ground beneath me and praying it holds.

This is not something I’m accustomed to, truth be told. Though sometimes it feels like a completely different life than the one I have now, there was a time when success came easy. Academic success, creative success, social success…there was a day when I was that frustrating person who didn’t have to try hard at much of anything in order to be good at it. 

But today is not that day.

I’ve spent the past two years wrestling with all the whys and hows. It’s not lack of desire and drive to be a great teacher. It’s not lack of knowledge or intelligence. It’s not lack of caring about my program or my students. It’s not lack of support from my colleagues, or my administration, or my district. I spend every day looking at the puzzle and knowing that all of the right pieces are there, but they just ain’t coming together. And for someone who’s spent almost three decades of her life building and maintaining a reputation as a perpetually successful kind of person who can do anything she invests herself in…that feels impossibly hard.

And so today, I’m sitting in my office, mentally preparing to take my top choir to competition in under eight hours. The same one we competed in last year, the one where I tasted failure in a real way for the very first time.

And we are in such a tenuous place, a place where this performance could go very well, and it could go absolutely terribly.

And I don’t know how it happened. At the end of last year, everyone including myself told me, “Next year will be so much better. You’ll have more experience, the whole process won’t be so new, the kids will be used to you and how you teach. It’ll be great. Next year will be easier, and better.”

Yeahhhhhhhh…about that.

There have been moments. Flashes of brilliance when it seemed like that might be true. Like progress might actually happen on the timeline I’d hoped for. Like this year might be my Cinderella story, the tale of the underdog rising. I really like that story.

But here I am, on competition day, knowing that it might go badly. Again. Knowing that failure absolutely IS an option today. It is a possibility, contrary to the popular belief of all the positive thinkers in my life.

And so I’m sitting here, and this thought occurs.

What if part of teaching your kids to succeed is teaching them how to fail well? To fail forward? To be something less than successful…and just keep clawing forward.

And I just keep tossing that around in my brain. Because I know it’s true. I know that there has been a sum total of NO ONE in the history of humanity who has a track record for succeeding 100% of the time at 100% of everything they do. I know that the learning curve on life is steep, and failure is not just an option–it’s an inevitability.

So I know that, in this process of teaching kids to be successful, we also have to teach them how to fail well. Because if we don’t teach them how to fail well, they’ll quit long before they ever taste success.

But again…no one wants to be the person to teach that by example. Oh, sure, we’re more than willing to be the person who stands outside the arena and yells helpful instructions and encouragements to our students when they’re flailing and scratching and clawing. But to be a person in the arena with them, trying and failing and trying again and failing again and trying again…that doesn’t seem like someone who should be in the education system, which is primarily built on a foundation of having your shit together, at least when there’s an audience.

No one wants to be that person. 

But our kids need us to be that person. Teaching has been as much an educational experience for me as it has been for any of my kids, I’m positive. And one of the things I’m learning is that I am a little bit of a disaster in this profession. I am not a natural born teacher. At all. I am fighting like hell for every inch I get.

And, humiliatingly enough, I have an audience of 145 people watching me every single day. They’ve watched me try a thousand different approaches to teaching the same thing. And they’ve watched those approaches fail. And sometimes they’ve watched those approaches work for two days, only to collapse on the third day. They’ve watched me reflect on rehearsals. They’ve reflected on rehearsals with me. We’ve worked through problems together, and proposed solutions. We’ve tried again. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

My students have seen me fail a thousand times in two years.

They’ve seen me fail, but they’ve never seen me quit.

And they won’t. Today is going to be what it is. Competition will go as it goes. It might be excellent. It might be the same as last year. It might be worse.

But regardless of how it goes, tomorrow my kids will walk into my class, and we will reflect. We will talk about our approaches to choir and to life. We’ll celebrate the tiniest victories. And we’ll brainstorm solutions to the things that could have been better.

And we will move forward. If we succeed, we will succeed forward. If we fail, we will fail forward. 

Whatever we do, succeed or fail, we will do it well.

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