An abject failure or a precious lesson?

bunch of flowers (5)I’ve recently read an interesting post, in which a member of my PLN, Marc Jones, bravely describes one of his failed lessons. His article then directed me to a post by Robert Lowe, called Where are all the Failures? The author argues that while you’re likely to come across numerous stories of success out there in the blogosphere, academic journals, and presentations, there are surprisingly few reports of failures.

My regular readers know that I’ve described several failures here on my blog and thanks to a group of like-minded reflective practitioners, I’ve gradually learned to deal with them in a rational way. Or, to sound less conceited, at any rate, I’ve learned to accept these failures as part of my professional life.

Earlier today, I came across a post by Brad Smith called Catharsis and Teaching. The author suggests that although a certain amount of complaining might be healthy in the teaching profession, there’s a point where people can do so excessively and without an intended resolution. Brad goes on to argue that we often try to excuse these tendencies by rationalizing them as catharsis.

According to Wikipedia, catharsis is the purification and purgation of emotions – especially pity and fear – through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration.

In today’s post, I’d like to share one of the cathartic moments I’ve experienced. The story has nothing to do with failed classroom management or something like that; it is a written account of how my emotions failed me completely and how this failure helped me learn something valuable about myself.

Two weeks towards the end of the academic year, my colleague and I suddenly discovered that we are not going to teach a particular class anymore next year. It’s not a big deal and it happens all the time – teachers come and leave, so we hand over our classes and inherit others. I should stress, though, that we had worked with this class (divided into two groups which my colleague and I taught concurrently) for five years. It’s a long time, you know. Also, although I can’t speak for my colleague, it was definitely one of my favorites. It was a group of 10 motivated sixteen-year-olds and in a way, they were the ideal types of learners. Whenever I wanted to experiment with a new approach, I would choose this group. When I felt underprepared, the lesson never turned into a failure; I just went dogme and it worked. I watched them grow and progress, and over time, I’d built a strong relationship with them as a group.

On June 23, after the very last lesson with this class, my colleague entered the office with tears in her eyes. I asked what had happened, but she only managed to grab a handkerchief to wipe her tears off before the bell rang and another lesson started. It suddenly dawned on me that although she was sad, she wasn’t crying out of sadness. Something extraordinary must have happened between her and her class, I thought. I suddenly felt like crying myself. I felt like crying because I realized that my group had showed no emotions whatsoever related to the fact that it was our last session.

The rational part of my brain was mocking me while the emotional part started torturing me. But the situation got even worse. The next day, my colleague’s part of the class marched into our office with a huge bunch of flowers. They came to thank her for everything she had done for them. I suddenly had something urgent to deal with. Actually, I couldn’t hold my tears back anymore and rushed into a friend’s office to pour out my heart. As I felt terribly aggrieved, I started complaining. I started complaining about how ungrateful some students are these days.

At this point, the rational part of my brain was roaring with laughter, saying that I was a complete idiot while the emotional part kept tormenting me. The rational part tried to have some sensible conversations with the emotional part, but to no avail. You know, they both live their own lives and are rarely friends with each other, probably because the emotional part tends to win all the time and the rational part has had enough.

On June 26, on the very last day of the academic year, at the time when I already knew that I was a hopeless teacher, unloved and unappreciated, I bumped into a group of 10 sixteen-year-olds in the corridor. One of them was holding a huge bunch of lilies. They were looking for me because they wanted to thank me for everything I had done for them. All of a sudden, I felt like crying again – over my stupidity this time (and a second later, out of sheer happiness). The rational part of my brain whispered contemptuously: See? It serves you right, dummy!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not someone who expects huge birthday presents or heaps of exaggerated emotion, but back then I got trapped; for a while, I became the victim of my expectations and wrong assumptions. This particular class was very dear to me and I automatically expected they felt the same way. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. One thing is certain, though; at some point, I couldn’t control my emotions even though I knew they were doing me a disservice. This, I think, is part of the lesson I have learned and I’m grateful for it.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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6 Responses to An abject failure or a precious lesson?

  1. Marc says:

    Lovely post, Hana. I’m glad that you got the flowers in the end! We do like a nice present, if only to allay the gnawing sense of doubt in the back of our minds that says, ‘You’re teaching them nothing and they know it and they hate being here and…’

    I’ve never thought you’ve sounded conceited, by the way. I wish I could date to open up as much.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thank you very much, Marc. Yes, the gnawing sense of doubt in the back of my mind got me into all the trouble. I know that I shouldn’t expect anything from my students, and I actually never did in the past until I built very strong bonds with some of the groups. I would be very sad if my own kids forgot about my birthday and I believe it’s the same with my students, no matter how pathetic it may sound.
      Thanks for you nice words and encouragement; it helped me a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. careymicaela says:

    This is a wonderful example of the human side of teaching. Thanks for sharing such a personal experience that I’m sure we can all relate to.
    Micaela

    Like

  3. annloseva says:

    I am glad I read this post, finally. This is something that happens with me with depressing and stable regularity – I mean the emotional part winning over. In life. I am ever so aware of the dangers of expectations and try hard to remind myself of that before I flip. The recent quote (from an application about the basics of Buddhism I downloaded))) I keep repeating to myself over and over again: “Abandon expectations, hopes and fears. Take the now simply as it is.” It is amazing how manipulative our mind, and then action, gets when the vision is blurred by expectations.
    I am sure all teachers and people of other professions (they, too, should read your blog!)) have experienced that.

    Thanks for sharing and sorry for my inconsistent answer off-topic.

    Like

    • Hana Tichá says:

      I’m happy you read this post, Anna. Emotions are tricky and yes, Buddhism helps a lot. 🙂

      When I think about it, I wouldn’t say that I’m someone who expects a lot. I don’t create meticulous plans so I’m not too disappointed when something goes wrong. However, the expectations I described in my post were not a result of a rational plan – they were totally unplanned and unwanted; they were a side effect of me putting too much energy into the profession. As I hadn’t planned any of what happened, I actually couldn’t come up with plan B, so I had no means to fight the subsequent emotional failure. I believe that when you experience something like this, all you can do is to taste the failure and try to learn from it, somehow.

      I’ve discovered that when the emotional part of my personality refuses to obey and just goes on sulking, the best thing is to just let it be and observe it as if it were something outside of me. It’s not easy, but it sometimes helps me to survive the most painful part of the experience.

      Thanks again for your perfectly consistent answer! 🙂

      Like

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