I’m a huge believer in failure. My first five years of teaching were trial by fire and failure. The nicest thing one of my early principals (he was not a fan of mine on any level) said to me was “At least you don’t make the same mistake twice.” For all that I didn’t love his methodology, I wouldn’t be the teacher I am without having tried and failed repeatedly. My learning curve during that time was almost a line straight up. I knew what I wanted to accomplish, but I had a hard time balancing the application of my ideas, the snarly side of my temper, and teenage attitudes—it didn’t help that I got massive anxiety any time anyone besides a student came into my room. The moment in May of 2006 where I said “Fuck it. I’m just going to do what I do,” was a huge turning point. Since then I’ve focused a lot on refining what I do and how I do it.
This shift in my worldview has helped me truly accept the fact that my teaching style doesn’t mesh with every student and my personality grates on some people’s nerves in an epic way. It’s also helped me accept the need for stupid questions. If I can get information I need, then I don’t care about someone scoffing at my question as long as they answer it. People should never be shamed for seeking knowledge. However, teachers have to teach their students that not all knowledge is equal or useful. These days information is easy to access, but much of it is unreliable or heavily curated. Misinformation is all around us, including places that were traditionally bastions of fact (looking at the news media here).
The ability to fail and learn, the willingness to ask stupid questions—well, these are qualities I hope to instill in my students. Yes, they need to be able to communicate effectively in the wider world by mastering the basic rules of English, courtesy, and personal responsibility. Yes, they need to learn how to find multiple solutions to problems by sifting through information, evaluating information, and applying what they come up with to the life they lead. In order to do those things, they have to try and fail, they have to learn from failure, they have to be willing to do the grunt work.
In my quest to instill these ideas and skills, I have to meet my students where they are at. Some students need detailed outlines. Some students need access to class materials online because their lives don’t allow them to attend every class. Some students are ready for deeper discussions. My job is to do my best to teach them something new, help them improve their current skill sets, teach them to be discerning thinkers, and show them how important a strong work ethic is.