When I was teaching in the classroom I always told my students, “Mistakes are awesome! They’re how we learn!” But when it came to embracing my own mistakes as a teacher, those felt like a whole different beast. Those didn’t feel awesome. But they were how I learned.
If we truly hope to help our students succeed, making mistakes and persevering in front of them may be one of the most important skills we model and pass along. According to Angela Lee Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology who has done fascinating and extensive research on success, the most successful people have “grit.” Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for very long term goals.” This could easily be a definition of a successful teacher: When faced with challenges, effective teachers let their passion guide them as they persevere to find the right solutions.
My Personal Lesson on Perseverance
When I think about my first year of teaching, I always think about Kara*. Kara was an avid reader, a critical thinker, a brilliant problem solver, and a little girl with severe behavior challenges. On a near-daily basis, Kara threw tables and chairs. She hit kids sitting next to her without warning. Kara was the most challenging student I’ve ever had, but she was also the student I learned the most from.
As a first year teacher, I struggled to know how to support Kara while meeting the needs of the rest of my students. I did everything I could think of to help Kara succeed in my class. I tried a behavior chart. Not the solution. Kara tore it up on the third day and every day thereafter. I tried sending her out of the room at the first sign on misbehavior. Not it either. Kara started walking out of class on her own. I tried sending Kara to another teacher, having her act as a special helper, and dozens of other strategies. But none of these approaches were quite right.
Then I got closer. I decided Kara and I needed to work on our relationship, so I offered to have lunch with her as a reward for good behavior. After sharing this new idea with Kara, she had two amazing days. We had lovely lunches together and I was sure this would work. But a week into this new approach, Kara went back to her disruptive behavior. On days when she didn’t earn special lunches, she exploded.
The special lunch approach made me realize I needed to show Kara unconditional love; I needed her to know that I would spend special time with her no matter what. I wouldn’t leave her when she misbehaved and I wouldn’t give up on her. I decided to institute special lunches with Kara that weren’t dependent on her behavior. Through building a relationship built on love, I was able to slowly guide Kara towards positive behavior. I had finally arrived at a workable strategy after many failed attempts.
The Big Lesson
Successful teachers try and try again. We encourage students to persevere through challenges, knowing that struggle creates opportunities for growth. As 3rd grade teacher Jen Saul says, “You want students to wrestle with a problem and stay with it.” The same is true for teachers: We make mistakes and learn from them.
I believe that there’s no one right way to teach and that no one approach will work for all students, classes, and teachers. To meet the needs of diverse students, strong teachers build up tool kits of strategies to experiment with. When coaching new teachers, I often feel bad that I can’t guarantee the success of a certain strategy. But so much of teaching is trying, failing, reflecting, and improving.
At this point in the school year, you’re just getting to know your students. I’m sure you’re thinking about what you can do to help all your students be successful this year. Remember that the road to success is filled with failure — teachers’ and students’ — and that the key to success is persistence. Take chances, reflect, grow… and have a wonderful, learning-filled school year!
*The student’s name in this blog has been changed to protect their identity.