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Failure Fest #1: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth…

than are dreamt of in your philosophies."

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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 Foot in Mouth

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.

terminatortom young rock star

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.

Failure Fest #1: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth…

Comments (11)

  1. Thanks for sharing this story Tom (and for the kind mention). It’s great – er, in a way – that we are in a profession where thanks to student evaluations and short-term contracts, we never really do get a chance to rest on our laurels – most jobs aren’t like this. I also thought it was interesting how you tuned out all the good comments on those evaluations to focus on the bad. It’s good in terms of reflective practice but perhaps not always such a fair reflection of how things really are – but then I’ve never met a single teacher, even pre-service, who doesn’t do the exact same thing 🙂 Good on you for the new website and impetus you have drawn from this. Looking forward to more!

    • Hi Sophia,

      Yes, everyone dreads those evaluations – and we only notice the wrinkles and zits… but those are the things we wish would go away, aren’t they? To relate this to the themes we’re dealing with in our Methodology classes…. it’s like I had 17 years of success-oriented practice without any “error correction”… That said, I think it’s really important to reflect on what our strengths are, too — not so that we feel better about ourselves, but so that we can understand WHY they ae strengths that are appropriate for our classrooms. Great meeting you in this space.

    • Hi Theodora — absolutely! I did a lot of self-evals early on, but never got any warning signs! I thought what I was doing was tried and tested; could not ‘imagine’ (to go back to the bard) that there were philosophies in the world that would not dream of embracing mine… ah, the ARROGANCE (or maybe just naivete) 🙂

  2. I know this story well and am curious to know if the initial evaluation and subsequent changes you made, personal and professional, have changed the way you view your earlier successes. I’m glad we’ve almost got them evaluating each other as honestly as they evaluate us.

    • Hi Bill,

      Interesting question. Well, I still refer to them as “successes”, so I still view them that way, but I’ve come to see them as culturally and temporally situated. Sure — it’s the trendy “it all depends on context” line, but it’s absolutely true. All of my social interactions during that time occurred in very similar contexts which did not require much change/evolving on my part. Furthermore, my ‘rookie sensation’ beginnings precluded the need for self-awareness from the start. Quite the contrary, in fact — I remember that in a lot of design and planning situations, colleagues and supervisors became so sure that whatever came out of my head was going to be gangbusters that they positioned me as ‘the ideas’ guy — so much so that I began to refuse the task, largely because I wanted THEM to trust themselves to contribute ideas.

      Coming here — the need for self-awareness was acute, and immediate. I think it’s interesting that ‘evolution’ has been the theme at the workplace, too, and that we’ve become so comfortable with it, too. Technology has made it easier. Social networking facilitates individual evolution, and to the extent that materials can be so easily ‘evolved’ and developmental meetings can occur anywhere, institutional evolution is easier, too. Clearly, one can’t happen without the other.

  3. Tom, the whole point is that you ‘care’. That is why you will always be a great educator, we have to care, it’s fundamental!
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Yvonne,

      It’s a pleasure to meet you here. Thank you for coming by and commenting.

      Yours and Marisa’s “taken on faith” great educator comment made me think of this: We construct our identities online as great educators, and then do our best to live up to those constructs in the glare that reveals our imperfections: the incredibly high-stakes, every-second-counts improvised identity-negotiation with our students, more conveniently known as “class”. But yes, I do care, and I care enough to change myself as best I’m able. I’ve noticed over the last several years that nearly all of our faculty have to go through moments like I described here, if not as drastic. Those that adapt themselves survive and expand. Those that thought the students didn’t understand what good learning looked like…have gone elsewhere. In time, I hope they come to care enough to evolve – because when I last saw them, they reminded me a lot of me at the time of the failure I described here.

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