The Peculiar Grace of Failure: A year of teaching, a lifetime lesson learned

I have always been a reasonably successful person: a long marriage, beautiful children, published clips on demand, no criminal record, no bankruptcies. Ive been a hard worker at every job Ive had. Ive been O.K.until this past year, which I have spent as an English teacher in a public high school. That was not O.K. I was ineffective, unsuccessful and miserable. I have been writing bits of this essay for months, on scraps of paper and in my head. Writing time surrendered to teaching and, to my horror, failing. The writer George Bernard Shaw once said, He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches, which is the most egregiously false maxim ever perpetuated. It is misguided to consider teaching as a fallback career, a back-up plan, which is what I did.

My husband is a gifted educator. He has been a teacher of just about every elementary grade, a site administrator, an educational technology director and a consultant. He has devoted his career to education. He earned his doctorate with the plan to teach at the university level, and an opportunity soon arose. The only problem was that the new position, while on a tenure track, meant a 30 percent cut in pay. This was serious money to a man with four daughters and a wife working as a sporadically paid writer.

But the professorship was his dream, a chance to educate new teachers, so we decided that I could make up the difference in income by working full time. I had been a substitute teacher, and had taught classes at church. So I often figured that if it became necessary, I could always teach.

I could always teach. Dont we all figure that, Mr. Shaw? We assume that if our real lives dont work out, we can always settle for the security of a job for which there will always be a demand, as long as people insist on procreating. I could teach, having watched my husband do it for years.

Through the friend of a friend, I heard of an opening in a small, out-of-the-way district. Classes were going to start in a week, and the administrators were desperate for an English teacher. They hired me as soon as the interview was finished, with the stipulation that I enroll in an intern program at the very university where my husband was now a professor, in order to earn my clear credential under Californias stringent requirements.

This must be where God wants me, I figured, as I signed the contract against my better judgment. In retrospect, I realize that I panicked, took the first job I was offered and blamed it on God, in a far cry from true discernment. God may very well have wanted me somewhere else, because God surely wanted me to use the brain he gave me. In a years time, I have learned some difficult lessons, like the importance of searching ones intellect to make a sound decision. The next most obvious lesson is that not everyone can teach, or at least teach well. In order to teach well, one must commit to far more than a six-hour-a-day job. Teaching is a life commitment. Of the scores of teachers we have all had, most of us really remember only those three or four who reached us and somehow touched us, who taught us, whom we credit with forming our lives in significant ways. Teaching, I have finally understood, even though I have always known it in my heart, is an all-consuming undertaking, a passion, a gift, a holy calling. This should not be taken lightly, nor, I came to realize, can it be faked.

I thought that liking kids and liking to write would be enough to make me a good English teacher. Rubbish. Liking teenagers and understanding how their brains learn, how best to reach them and how to engage them in a subject are completely different activities. Face-to-face with five different groups of assorted teenage faces, some expectant, some bored, some impassive, I had to face my own inadequacy. I found that I did not have the soul of a teacher, because rather than being consumed with my students education and well-being, I watched the clock until each period was over.

Things went very wrong. From classroom management to grading to making grammar palatable, I was clueless. In Room Six, the inmates were running the asylum. A kid came to class drunk, and I didnt even recognize the signs; I believed he had a migraine. I lost two kids during a fire drill. Several pointed out that I did not seem to know much about teaching. Kids who refused to do any work faced me down.

The experience took its toll. I lost weight. I became a chronic complainer. I rarely prayed. I developed insomnia, the nocturnal despair of which I had never experienced. When I did manage to sleep, I had nightmares about poor lesson plans and tests not arriving in time. I had strange dreams. In a word, I was a mess.

I was taking two college courses in addition to teaching full time and trying to keep my writing career alive. My teaching advisor, whose job was to observe me and then spell out everything I was terrible at, as if it werent painfully evident, asked me about the rest of my life. I began to tell him: I had four daughters; wrote two columns, one weekly, one monthly; I taught confirmation classes at my church; volunteered at the state prison.... Stop, stop! he said, covering his ears. Youre making me tired just listening to this! He told me that if I expected to complete the credential program I would have to give it all upwell, except for the daughters.

I was unconvinced. I had no wish to give up any of these parts of me. I slogged on through the first quarter, publishing what were essentially rough drafts of columns, teaching, grading, going to classes, neglecting my family. One evening, during the beginning teaching seminar, my advisor said to another student, offhandedly, No one goes into teaching for the money. If thats why you teach, you should not be a teacher.

Everyone laughed. But I froze, stunned. He was right! Here I was, teaching for the money. I was doing the teaching profession a huge disservice by passing myself off as a teacher. I was a fraud. I was in the wrong place. And I knew it.

It was downhill from there. I failed both of my college classes and dropped out, an embarrassment to my poor husband, who could not imagine that anyone, especially his wife, would not love being a teacher. My district determined that I would finish out my years contract by taking a leave of absence from the intern program.

I knew then I was never going back.

Getting an F, let alone two, was painful. But it was also strangely liberating. In failing, my initial horror gave way to a creeping sense of peace. For the first time ever, though cloaked in failure, I did not internalize anothers disapproval. I was somehow, wickedly, calm. I was learning how to wear failure, but with style.

Anyone who has ever tried to do something for which he or she is not suited has my understanding and sympathy. Before I tried to be a teacher, I would have been judgmental and impatient with such a person. But failing has shown me that trying is not always enough, and that it is difficult to recognize our shortcomingsand then accept them gracefully.

My teaching year of failure oddly strengthened me; it was a long, profound lesson in humility and led to my recognition that those who can teach must do so with passion and purpose. Those of us who fail merely ask God to pick us up, dust us off and send us on our grateful, humble way.

9 years 7 months ago
Thank you for sharing your failure as a teacher. My experience has been mixed. As a certified public teacher I felt morally obliged to quit. The situation was not life affirming for me or my students. As a catechist with young people and for several years on the RCIA team I have had a positive experiece and the ego pleaser of a few genuine compliments. Perhaps your fine article may entice others to reflect on the not so happy moments on their journey.

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