I think about failure a lot. What it means to people. How to support my students and create a classroom environment where it’s safe to fail. Making real mistakes (without intending to!) and modeling helpful responses, if I can.
Right now I’m thinking about failure and disappointment because I put significant effort this winter into an application for an amazing professional opportunity. I enlisted help from others in the form of support letters and editorial review of my writing. I contemplated how I practice the craft of teaching as well as my strengths as an educator in an attempt to paint myself as an individual that would fit their program. I’ve been crossing my fingers and hoping that I’ll win this lottery.
It turns out that I didn’t. My chances were tiny – a smaller percentage were accepted into this program than get admitted to Ivy League colleges. Wow! I knew that it was unlikely I would make the cut, and even more so once I learned how many educators applied. Am I disappointed? Yes. Is it the end of the world? No.
I immediately thought about all of the conversations that I had with my own children during adolescence as they wrestled with the outcomes of various sports tryouts and theater auditions. A denial doesn’t necessarily mean that you failed or that you’re not good enough, nor does an acceptance mean that you have it made or you’re perfect. When these types of decisions are made, there are so many factors involved. What does the group look like? What does the group need? What kind of community are we trying to create? What does a “good fit” look like? My conversations with them always looked to the future, to make connections between the hockey tryout or the musical audition with future job interviews. To let my kids know that they were building skills that they could draw upon, including how to deal with disappointment.
Ironically, I was just speaking with a parent of a past student at a social function. She was filling me in on what her daughter was doing, and how a recent school “rejection” turned out to be the catalyst to finding a better fitting school where she was now thriving. I shared with her how just six weeks before being hired at my current school, I had been crushed when turned down by a different one. I found this place as a direct result of not getting that other teaching position. And nine years later, I’m grateful they told me no because I love my school, the ways in which I’m supported to be innovative (and fail!), and the opportunities for me to create my own professional growth.
I’ve already started to think about how to put the work I’ve done toward something else. This application built upon the groundwork I laid last school year creating a professional portfolio; it’s all connected. While I can’t quite see where it might go next, I know that this work will help me in future applications and I won’t be afraid to keep trying for great opportunities. I take heart from a presentation application I made that was turned down for one organization, but then accepted by a different organization six months later. My colleague and I did a great job and are already talking about what we might want to offer to share at the next conference.
In my life outside the classroom, I play tennis. There is a quote from Billie Jean King that I absolutely love, “For me, losing a tennis match isn’t failure. It’s research.” I’ll absolutely share my “failure” with this application with my students this month as well as in the future. We’ll talk about how to improve and move on when things don’t go the way you want them to, how to learn from mistakes, how to recast failure as research. For now, I’ll write heartfelt thank you notes to my supporters and consider how to parlay the thinking that I did for this opportunity into my next steps for professional growth. Plus, now that this door has closed, I have more clarity on how to direct my limited time this summer to other, also valuable exploits.
It may be cliched to find the rainbow amid the storm, but I’d rather function with that mindset than get completely discouraged by life’s many setbacks.