Those of you who’ve been with me from the start in March 2013 know that one of my first, long posts was about failure. Not about the benefits of failure, and not about the importance of letting students or children fail, although it was about both of those things too, of course. Mostly, it was about living within failure, in the presence of failure as a part of our personal reality: giving ourselves time, scope, space to have failed, to understand what failure really means, to embrace the sometimes ambivalent and sometimes terrifying feelings it can throw up, and then, only then, to move on. If you haven’t read the post but are interested in these issues, I’d be honoured if you’d make the time to check it out here: https://theactivistclassroom.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/on-failure/
A lot of stuff has happened to me in the 18 months since I wrote that post on failure. I’ve failed – or feel like I’ve failed – in a number of ways: failed myself, my colleagues, my partner. Changed my life and failed to follow it through. Failed to become the person I thought I might yet be. I’m trying hard all the time now not to fail my mom and dad, who need me in a way they’ve never needed me before. Through all of this I’ve tried to live the lessons of that early post on failure, but it’s damn hard not to want to just run away from the pain this kind of snowballed struggling tosses up. In fact, staying with the pain and trying to learn from it is incredibly difficult, draining work, and I’m often too tired to make myself do it.
Last week, though, I did make myself do it. Inspired by teaching scholar Stephen Brookfield on asking more questions of students, and of ourselves, about our mundane classroom experiences, I polled my Performance Studies cohort before our recent Study Break to find out what was working well, and what wasn’t working so well, in our regular lessons. The poll went live just before I headed to the airport for a much-needed visit to the UK, and I secretly hoped nobody would respond to it before Monday so that I could avoid feeling like crap over the weekend as I read about how much they hated everything we were doing. Even if that wasn’t what was going to be reported in the poll, and even though I knew as much, I was still anxious about hearing from them. Cue the teacher’s familiar sense of dread.
Here are the questions I posed in the poll:
Q1: At what moment in our class so far have you felt most engaged with what was happening?
Q2: At what moment in our class so far have you felt most distanced from what was happening?
Q3: What in-class exercise(s) have we done that you have found particularly helpful to your learning?
Q4: Which in-class exercise(s) have we done that you have found not helpful to your learning?
Q5: What can Kim do to help you get the most out of class in our last month together?
I got my wish: only one student responded before the end of study break. To my surprise, I was disappointed rather than relieved by this fact. I realized from that student’s responses that the questions I’d posed had done exactly what they were meant to do: take the emphasis off me as a teacher (notice that only the last question is directly about me or my role in the class) and place it on the specifics of our work together, and even on students’ own commitments to the class, as a way of measuring our achievements so far. As I’d hoped would happen but feared would not, I had indeed managed to lower my affective load by choosing the kinds of questions that emphasized group labour, group success, potential group failure. What have we done well, it implies; what can we do better? Now, knowing the questions could indeed embrace failure (as well as success) as a shared experience for us to work through together, rather than as a harsh and terrifying judgement of me alone, I wanted very much to hear from the others.
The majority of students in the class have now responded to the poll, and the results please me. I’ve learned that certain exercises I hoped were working but feared were not are indeed favourites. I’ve learned that our class visit to the Nuit Blanche festival in Toronto, and our shared debrief afterward, was an important learning experience for several. I’ve learned that one of the texts we are using isn’t as helpful as I’d hoped it would be. I’ve learned that some students aren’t keeping up with the reading, but that they sense that issue is theirs to solve. (Another benefit of such a poll: it gives students a chance to reflect objectively on their own failings in relation to our class, with no judgement attached.) Most important, I don’t feel like a failure as a teacher: I feel like a teacher who has some useful data now to help make the final weeks of class as effective for this group of learners as possible, and as valuable and uplifting as possible for me.
Asking questions of students – what’s going wrong? What’s up with all the absences? Why aren’t you engaging? – about ordinary classroom problems can so easily feel like courting evidence of our personal failings, a HUGE thing and so much easier just to avoid. But asking such questions can also be a useful way to lower the emotional temperature in the room (and in our heads!), and to remind ourselves that classroom failings are shared between teachers and learners, as should be the responsibility to live with them and move on from them to shared solutions. When I suggested in my post on Brookfield a few weeks back that asking these kinds of questions more often can be a great way to get past the teacherly urge to make all classroom drama about ourselves, I didn’t realize that another benefit of such questioning is to help us all to cope better with ordinary classroom failures. Stuff goes wrong all the time in class; rather than burying our heads in the sand, let’s talk it out with students in a way that normalizes the inevitable messing up. Let’s live with the reality of those small failures, analyze their sources and our shared responsibilities toward them, and figure the way forward as a team. It’s so much easier than living with the exhaustion and the dread that comes from trying to do all that alone – teachers are busy enough as is.