Day 24: Failure is Only a Dirty Word in School

The only C I ever got on my report card was in sixth-grade woodshop. The effects of this “failure” (to take a page out of my daughter’s distorted lexicon) have been pervasive. To this day, trips to Home Depot are my Waterloo and DIY projects make me question my masculinity. I can usually manage to put together IKEA furniture with only a handful of missteps, but tackling home improvement projects that require me to measure and figure things out on my own terrify me. And I believe it all goes back to that damn woodshop class that convinced me that I was no good with my hands.

It is a similar story with music. When I was in fifth grade, we had a recorder concert. The recorder, the younger cousin of the flute, is supposed to be a training instrument that anyone can play. It turned out that I was not anyone. During a dress rehearsal the day before the recital, the music teacher took me aside and asked, “Can you just pretend to blow into the recorder tomorrow? You’re sort of ruining it for everyone else.” Bottom line, I never learned an instrument, can’t read music, and generally dread and avoid any discussion of rhythm, chords, or pitch.

When it comes to other classes, however, the encouragement of my teachers filled me with confidence. Mr. Engel, my ninth-grade English teacher and advisor, used to tell me I could write better than half of the faculty. How’s a comment like that not supposed to go to your head? I credit him with making me fall in love with literature, vocabulary, and the written word and to ultimately follow in his professional footsteps. But his inflated belief in me had a soft underbelly. Because he had applauded my talent, I felt I must always perform. When an essay was assigned, dark storm clouds rolled in because I knew an all-nighter the night before the deadline was in store for me. I had not yet come to believe that we should never suffer in advance, or, as the famous stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” The anxiety of the proverbial blank page nearly always dissipates once you actually put fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper in my analog world).

This aversion to failure led me to halve the benefit I could have gotten from my Harvard education because I fled from anything STEM-related. As a result, even now I am maddeningly incurious when it comes to science, irrationally fearing that my foundation is too shaky to understand complex ideas. You might imagine that the outsize influence of bad teaching and low grades would have pushed me away from a career in education. What if I repeated the sins of the teachers who stunted my growth? These fears indeed did plague me early in my career, but they evaporated when I found my academic Valhalla: The School for International Training (SIT) in Brattleboro, VT.

My choice to attend SIT is a case study in the haphazard way that our lives develop. During the 2003-2004 school year, I taught at an international school in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Hired as a high school history teacher, I was informed upon touching down in the country that I would instead be tasked with taming 25 fifth graders. As an elementary teacher, I had to teach all subjects. I assumed that teaching history and English would be a breeze. To my surprise, however, teaching math and science turned out to be my forte. Our English textbooks were designed for British 10-year-olds, and it just so happens that numbers translate far more easily to second (or third) language speakers than obscure vocabulary and stories about Boxing Day. I decided I needed to learn how to teach ESL, or actually its more PC cousin, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). This career seemed perfect for me. Wanderlust had hit me hard ever since my gap year, and here was a profession that would allow me to live and support myself just about anywhere in the world. I reached out to the only member of my network in this field, and he recommended SIT.

My year in the foothills of southern Vermont was magical. I had just gotten married, and the honeymoon glow brightened my mood. But, more than this, SIT was different. The faculty focused on experiential learning, and they modeled the same student-centered approach in their own teaching that they were encouraging us to adopt. I learned about the mystical Silent Way from Shakti Gattegno who explained that knowing the right answer is sometimes the greatest impediment to learning and that it is only when we come face-to-face with the unknown that we activate our brains, just as children do naturally. In my “Teaching Manifesto,” written after a year at SIT, I asserted that the teacher must not do for his students what they can do for themselves and that the greatest accomplishment a teacher can achieve is to cede the responsibility for learning from his shoulders to those of his students. I learned to use manipulatives like Cuisenaire Rods and comprehension cubes to simplify complex grammar points like stative verbs and modal auxiliaries. I came to believe that the key to great teaching is to make the abstract concrete and the concrete abstract.

But the biggest innovation and gift of SIT was that there were no grades, only thoughtful comments. I have always been pretty good at figuring out what a teacher was looking for and custom tailoring my work to earn an A. The absence of grades spurred in me an intrinsic motivation that made me compete only with myself, and I realized that I often had higher standards than my teachers. I happily threw myself into my work and even produced creative, artistic projects that I was proud of (take that 5th grade art teacher!). I often tell people that I got more out of one year at a graduate institute few have ever heard of than I did from four years at Harvard. This comment smacks of my trademark Henshaw hyperbole, but it contains lots of truth.

Failure is something that our schooling teaches us is a mortal sin. Yet the workplace and life in general seem to reward failure. Those who have been bruised by falling short have developed calluses that help them push on when things look bleak. As Sahil Bloom phrases it in his excellent article, the Grit Razor states that “if forced to choose between two people of equal merit, choose the one that has been punched in the face.” I know that one little essay is unlikely to change this systemic issue, but I truly believe that if more schools adopted the SIT philosophy, we would have a more resilient and happy population. Who knows, maybe I might even confidently go to Home Depot and build that “catio” I have long been dreaming about or complete the many honey-dos I have been outsourcing to our handyman.

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