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 mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.