Hi, I hope you’re doing well. I don’t know how to provide a good segue from “I hope you’re well” to “let’s talk about failure,” so I’m just going to jump right in. I think we need better ways of talking about failure. I seem to have been talking about that a lot recently. Some other time I’ll write about failure as it relates to resilience, but for now let’s talk about failure and learning.
When I started teaching in the US, I was a special ed teacher. I was spectacularly bad at it. (I tried to take up smoking to deal with the stress, but I never made it through a whole cigarette. I even failed at that.) This wasn’t completely my fault, for reasons I won’t go into now, but I knew I was bad at it because the teacher next door, Elizabeth, was spectacularly good at it, and I knew I was never going to pull off what she did. So I did a perfectly rationale thing: I quit. I taught honors geography instead, and I was spectacularly good at that; but I never forgot my special ed teaching experience, and I learned the very useful lesson that teaching is context dependent. Just because you’re good at teaching some kids does not make you a great teacher.
I got an AP position largely on the strength of my sped background (I also have a masters in special education, just to be fair) and went to work in a school that hosted a large number of special ed programs. I have several jaw-dropping stories from that time, but the most apposite to this story is the attempt that we (in theory, I and the sped teachers, but it was really only one of those teachers, Jim, and he really bore the brunt of the fall-out) made to include more students receiving special education services into regular classrooms. There was a great deal of segregation, and we came up with a plan to change that, and the principal approved it immediately—which was a total red flag, but I didn’t know enough then to call a halt, and I wouldn’t have known how to do that anyway. The plan, unsurprisingly, bombed with the regular ed teachers, and the principal threw Jim and me to the wolves. Perhaps the second worst day in my career was when she stormed into my office just as I was standing up to go somewhere and barked at me, “this inclusion plan is a disaster!” I don’t remember what else she said, but when she left a couple of minutes later, I did that classic movie thing where my legs wouldn’t hold me up and I put my back against the wall and slid to the floor.
Then I had two principal positions, and over the course of those I, with a lot of help (but not always from the people who should have been helping) figured out a lot, including how to serve students according to need and not according to label, which was much harder than you would think, and continues to be an issue in lots of settings. So when I got to be in charge of the instructional program for a district, I had a much clearer understanding of what support of students looks like, whether or not they qualify for special education services. And I knew how to talk about instruction and SRBI/RtI in a way that everyone in the organization would understand, and in a way I wanted them to understand (in other words, I didn’t want them to think that I was really just talking about sped, and therefore wasn’t talking to them.)
I think I accomplished a lot, and while I wish many parts of the experience had been easier, they were essential. The failure, in other words, wasn’t something I had to get over, it was absolutely central to what I was later able to do. There are lots of good TED talks about the benefits of failure, but my all-time favorite source on failure is the great J.K. Rowling giving a commencement speech at Harvard. We need a new mental model for failure that distinguishes inexcusable mistakes, negligence and incompetence from the adaptive acquisition of wisdom through experience.
I’d like to thank Michael Rafferty for his feedback on this Coaching Letter, and express my unending gratitude to Jim Silva and the other great teachers with whom I have worked and who taught me so much. This is a tough time of year for a lot of people, and while it sounds terrible to wish failure on anyone, may the failures you experience be productive ones, and may you learn to lean in to those failures and milk them for all they are worth. And please let me know if I can help with anything. Yours, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106