Failure Fest #1
Glad to see the #ELTchat blog challenge. Rising to the recently concluded IATEFL 2013 Failure Fest bait, this is the first of two studies in failure I’ll be sharing here. If you’ve missed Sophia Khan’s wondrous gauntlet-drop, or Kevin Stein’s nearly lyrical parry, go read those, then prepare yourself for disappointment and come back here
A few years ago I began my 17th year of teaching. Two or three months into it I didn’t think it was going too badly, but there were a couple of new courses and a ton of prep work so I wasn’t ranking it among my best years ever, either. But when I got the 1st Quarter student evaluations from our staff, I was stunned. More than stunned. I couldn’t go home for an hour or two after seeing them — just sat at my desk, disbelieving, devastated.
Apparently sometime between the end of my 16th year and the beginning of my 17th (like, in that 1 second timespan) I had transformed from an Ewok (go watch Return of the Jedi if you forgot what that is) into The Terminator.
I didn’t save the evals. The numbers weren’t bad, but the comments that included words like “scary, angry, rude, loud, aggressive, inconsiderate” and whatnot were too numerous to ignore. And yes, I did regularly get referred to as Terminator, and not always warmly. That thing about 50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong. In fairness to myself, there were plenty of comments saying “passionate, great teacher, amazing”, etc, but I didn’t notice those. In all my years I’d never seen a single written complaint about my teaching, I’d done nothing but go from strength to strength, gotten into teacher training in my 2nd year, administration in my 4th, and had actually opened a new school in Jakarta for an American university just 2 years before. I truly believed this was the one part of my life in which I could not fail.
A detail I left out
Of course, the key bit of the story I left out is that my 17th year was my first in Korea, and my first at an exclusively teacher education institute. It was also only my second stop, and my 3rd year in Asia. Other factors, but that’s most of it.
But that’s no excuse
The cause of my failure was my prior success. I had spent several years working with some pretty exceptional actors in experimental theater studying the never-ending negotiations of human interaction. I had taught English and trained teachers in three countries, and done a DELTA. My collaborations with local teachers had been written about, and an activity I’d introduced had been (happily) stolen for a pretty famous book. I had spent two years with the late, wonderful linguist Ron Scollon at Georgetown University mastering the multidisciplinary analysis of social interaction. I had blended these two things (Poor Theater/human interaction & sociolinguistics) together into a fairly successful top-tier conference paper.
I had sat with Ron and a visiting professor from China in 2000 as they laughed about the impossibility of importing CLT to China/Asia and how culturally insensitive the whole idea was… and thought little more of of it for several years.
I had turned down a doctoral fellowship at Georgetown to get back in the classroom, and there I was, 6 years later, doing something I felt I was born to do, with the same sense of self, philosophy, and so on that I’d always had… and I thought I might be fired. I might have fired myself based on those comments…
What I learned
I had learned that the absence of criticism means never needing to reflect rigorously on one’s practice — not that it breeds complacency, just that there’s no apparent need to consider how well one is or isn’t performing. This lesson taught me that sustaining success meant constantly reflecting with rigor. When those evaluations came in, I realized there wasn’t much to be done except figure out what I could change about what I did in the classroom to raise my scores, without sacrificing the integrity of my work. I emailed my boss to that effect that evening before going home, and began the task of understanding why I was failing.
Long story short – I named this website ‘Evolutions’ earlier this year. I turned the numbers around enough that semester to carry on, and once or twice in later years even got teaching awards, though most of the time I’m in the middle of a pack of exceptionally good teacher educators in that area, whom I’m proud to say I mentor and motivate. Student evaluations are far from the whole picture, nor can they always be taken seriously, but they could not be denied that time. When I embraced the need to change in myself, to evolve my practice to give room in my class for other philosophies, I was reminded of how everything was still changing, all the time… I did not realize I had forgotten — I could, miraculously, begin to acquire an understanding of the processes of my ever-changing, negotiated identities in my habitus, rather than just talk about it in graduate school. The doctoral work in classroom social interaction I turned down in 2000, I suppose I’ve been researching and working on since 2006, though there may never be a PhD to show for it.