First Person

Persistence Through Failure

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.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.