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

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.