The teacher has failed

Simran Luthra

I urge you to look at the title of this piece again. Do the words make you uncomfortable in any way? Pause and re-read the words.

I’m not sure about you, reader, but when typing these words and having them stare at me across the laptop screen, something, rather a lot, didn’t feel right. The words ‘teacher’ and ‘fail’ just shouldn’t go together. There is almost something borderline disturbing about these words being strung together.

Why is a teacher failing so distasteful a thought? Are teachers supposed to fail? What are the implications of a teacher failing?

When it comes to students, we have come a certain distance in understanding that failure is a part of learning. Teachers, in fact, are increasingly being entrusted with the responsibility of fostering a growth mindset among learners. Motivational quotes and posters make their way into school corridors and classrooms almost to offset the effects of competition and academic pressure in mainstream schools. They address learners and admit that failure is an inevitable part of the journey, or in more clichéd words ‘a stepping stone to success’. Glib as they might sound, there is at least an acknowledgement and normalization of failure for students.

This has become possible owing to the general focus on mental health and increased awareness of the negative impact of academic pressure on students over the second half of the last century. The discourse of teaching-learning over time is increasingly placing the onus of learning not just on students, but also on teachers as well, which perhaps was not the situation four or five decades ago. The words of Ignacio Estrada have become a popular mantra in teacher education, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

The truth is that teaching is highly (and I cannot emphasize this enough), highly complex work. Unfortunately in India it isn’t recognized as such. The widespread attitude that ‘Anyone can teach’ actually does extreme harm than much good. But that is a topic for another article. The teaching process involves, to name just a few steps that come to mind immediately:
• understanding one’s learners,
• defining the learning objectives and setting goals,
• presenting the subject matter (that one is an expert at),
• energizing learners and keeping up interest and motivation,
• employing effective assessment strategies,
• identifying gaps in learning,
• carrying out effective remediation.

Another extremely significant and real aspect of teaching that often gets overlooked is the emotional labour involved. Besides helping students achieve the prescribed and desired learning outcomes, teachers also have the unspoken task of mitigating the ill-effects of academic pressure and competition that students may very often experience independently or owing to their parents. At times it could even go beyond school-related concerns and be personal or familial challenges that a student is experiencing. However, even the act of motivating learners, helping them overcome failure by exploring different strategies, helping them develop a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset, aren’t simple, easy or straightforward tasks. They need resilience, persistence, clarity and genuine concern on the part of the teacher – all of which in turn require high levels of emotional energy of the teacher. Given the combination of the complexity of the task and the emotional labour involved, can failure be ruled out as a possibility?

While thinking about teacher failure and talking to various teachers, I realized that the phenomenon of teacher failure can be further broken down as failure on various fronts: a) pedagogical, b) emotional, and c) ethical. Consider the following descriptions:

a. The most obvious front for teachers to make mistakes on is of course the pedagogical. Catering to different kinds of learners, with different learning styles, with varying levels of prior knowledge, understanding, and motivation, along with the task of making the correct choice of pedagogical technique given the time constraints, available resources and materials dictates how successful or not a teacher will be.

b. A teacher is expected not only to understand the emotions of her students and function in accordance, but is also expected to regulate her own emotions. This is slippery terrain especially when one’s workspace is a noisy classroom, consisting of immature human beings with competing interests and varying degrees of investment in what the teacher is trying to achieve. Losing one’s temper, giving in to momentary outbursts are examples of emotional failure that many teachers feel extremely guilty about later and regard as a failure.

c. A teacher is also very often faced with ethical dilemmas. Again, dealing with myriad personalities, having to take decisions in favour of someone and against someone else, caring versus maintaining formality, assessing what qualifies as a domain in which they can or should venture or stay out of, confidentiality versus school rules, drawing boundaries – these are just a few examples of the variety of ethical dilemmas that a teacher may find herself facing. Whether or not teachers recognize these instances as ethical dilemmas, the opportunity for a misstep or an inaccurate judgment is always lurking around the corner, ready to make teachers feel like failures if there is even a minor lapse.

So when it comes to teachers, just how much understanding and empathy exists for them when they fail, is something that is worth exploring. With this end in view, I reached out to a few teacher friends who shared a little about the realities of failure and more importantly how it is handled, on their journeys.

As Feruzan Mehta, an ex-teacher and someone who has been the country-head for Seeds of Peace (This is a not-for profit organization and works for leadership development among the youth) and has done extensive teacher training, shared, when asked about teacher failure: “Teachers have human frailties, like everyone else. In fact, this may even be considered necessary, because it is important to constantly question yourself if you wish to learn and grow; both personally and professionally. Complacency and over-confidence are perhaps the biggest obstacles to self-development.” To say one can’t fail at something is at a simplistic level, unrealistic; but Feruzan takes it a step further when she says that failure is actually necessary for growth. A lack of failure for a teacher, in fact, can mean that there is little happening in terms of reflection or experimentation, both of which are again aspects which are essential to the complex work that is teaching.

Pooja Makhija, pre-primary coordinator at Oakridge International School, Hyderabad goes on to point out: “With the way the education system is changing, there is a growing need for teachers to become risk takers. Failure becomes an essential part of teaching as it helps the teacher to reflect, re-work, and make it happen. It’s not about failure anymore, it’s about trying new things and trying possible solutions to make it work.”

When asked if teachers have self-doubts, Trupti Abhyankar, an ex-Teach for India fellow who taught grades 5 and 6 promptly replied saying “All the time.” She went on to add: “As a new teacher, I have lost count of the times I looked at weekly test results or reflected on a particular student’s behaviour and thought I’d made no difference whatsoever. In a culture where assessment data and marks are still used to determine a student’s progress, the pressure of achieving these weighs heavily upon teachers. I taught for two years in a particularly challenging, low-income school and the first few months were full of self-doubt. The whole culture of setting classroom goals and pushing students (and yourself) to achieve them is great, but only until you don’t make that the only parameter to assess students’ progress.”

Trupti’s response points to how broad the scope of teaching-learning can possibly be. If students’ academic progress is not the only or primary parameter to go by, what else is there? Priyanka Das Sarkar, who teaches in an alternative school in Bengaluru shared: “I think the first thing is to understand what is termed as failure or achievement? Are your students getting good marks in the test achievement but are unable to express themselves and are also feeling low about themselves? For me, a student’s mental health is of utmost importance and if he or she is feeling good, marks can be achieved unless they have a learning difficulty.” What Priyanka is describing refers to the emotional labour aspect of a teacher’s work. Academics is most often regarded as the primary area that teachers are expected to work on, but is it the most important area? And realistically speaking, is it the only area that teachers remain limited to?

Now reader, a lot of these things you may already know or better still, most likely have experienced. What then is the purpose of me attempting this (hopefully) comprehensive description of teacher failure? It is to present a case for the teacher to fail; because how can a teacher not fail?

The corollary to the idea of a teacher not failing, is the myth of the perfect teacher. A most dangerous myth, one that Feruzan responded beautifully to:

“The traditional view is that the teacher must be infallible; they must know it all and get it right, every time. This is an unrealistic and unfair expectation. But many teachers fall into this impossible mindset, with the result that when they fail (which is inevitable at some point), they react either by being in denial, or seek to gloss over the error, or quickly try and cover up their mistake.

“Another response is to be hugely self-critical. Teachers need to accept their own humanity and imperfections. As mentors, they are expected to be caring, compassionate and forgiving, which they often are. But since they are in this trap that they need to be above it all, they are often extra hard on themselves when they fail. Berating or beating one’s self up can be extremely debilitating and stands in the way of progress. Teachers must learn to be kind to themselves too.”

Feruzan describes two possible ways of dealing with failure: denial or dejection. These must be transformed into acceptance and self-compassion. The posters and quotes displayed on the walls of schools, meant to motivate the students and educate them on the growth mindset, are as much applicable to the teachers as to the students.

Another pitfall of the myth of the perfect teacher is that it tends to be a monolithic discourse or a single story. As Trupti points out, “So much emphasis is placed on factors like scores, discipline, and the idea that a silent classroom is a good classroom. We’re big fans of standardizing everything – we want all students, all teachers to teach the same way, achieve the same growth, and all classrooms to function the same way. This may not be the scenario in alternative schools, but the schools that a majority of our students attend all fit the description above, in one way or another. School principals will pull up teachers for not getting better results, but how many of them would be open to the idea of allowing their teachers to experiment with student seating in their classes, or changing the way English is taught?”

So the onus of accepting and celebrating teacher failure is not just that of the individual teacher. It is that of the culture of the school and its entire ecosystem that includes the school management, parents and students. A key differentiator perhaps is the school culture that is set up by the leadership. Priyanka for instance shared about her school where “…they are open to discussing the issues with teachers. We have circle times with the students if they have any problem with the teacher, we have an annual feedback mechanism where everyone gives feedback to another. Initially it was difficult, but with time we understand it is for our and the community’s benefit. In our school, failure is not looked down upon but seen as a way of learning and even senior teachers share their failures. This creates a culture of openness which helps everyone: the teachers, students and support staff. We have an annual retreat where we introspect upon our patterns and realize things about ourselves and others, which I feel helps in being comfortable with failure.”

Such a scenario is ideal, but rare. What is encouraging is that it exists. If education is a human endeavour aimed at preparing human beings for life, how can it possibly preclude failure, which is such an essential part of life itself? If teaching has to be honest and authentic, it would necessarily have to begin with the adult human being – the teacher – accepting and being comfortable with failure. There will be as many kinds of teachers as there are people; and that is where the beauty of the human element in teaching comes in. Every teacher is unique.

One thing is amply clear: if one is to explore one’s individuality as a teacher, one has to take risks, which might mean going against the traditional notions of what a perfect teacher looks like. In the process, failing is inevitable. How we look at failure then becomes key to whether or not there is to be innovation, both at the personal and professional level. Feruzan shared her insights on this:

“The teacher must necessarily first work on his/her own personal evolution and transformation. This involves introspection and accepting that perhaps a shift in one’s attitude is required in understanding what constitutes success/achievement and failure. Recognizing one’s strengths and building on them is important. Recognizing one’s weaknesses, accepting these and seeking ways to overcome them, equally so.

We can thus look at failures individually and collectively, both within ourselves and in the community and the world in which we live and see what can be done to right the situation. Putting right what is wrong, is thus converting failure to success in the widest sense. Respect and care for yourself, respect and care for others and thereby take care of the whole world.”

What is needed then is a mindset shift in which the empathy and understanding of the process of learning which is applicable to students, is extended to teachers as well. ‘The teacher has failed’ isn’t a sad, unforeseen ending. Instead, it is a strong start to a fresh departure from older ways of doing things. It is the beginning of knowing oneself better and learning things anew. We fail only when we try. Let us instead then, fear the words ‘The teacher has not failed’.

The author is based in Pune and is currently pursuing her PhD. in Education from TISS, Mumbai. She has completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University and Masters in Education (Elementary) from TISS, Mumbai, and taught Hindi at Stanford University, California while on a Fulbright fellowship. She is passionate about language, social studies education, human rights, gender and teacher education in particular. She can be reached at [email protected].

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