Mr. Parello Sensei

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 29 2013

Fail First, Then Get It Correct

I finished up my role as a collaboration teacher at my school today, and gave my final Japanese and French lessons to two different classes.  As a final presentation to the students, I showed them some of the calligraphy that I made while I was studying it in Japan.  I have a few works I especially like that I showed to the students, such as this one:

I asked them if they liked my work and they replied that they did.  I followed up with several others that received equally positive responses.  So far, I was a hit.

I then showed them each of the papers that I made that had been marked by my calligraphy teacher for containing errors.  For each piece of work that the teacher had given her mark of approval to, there were at least seven that had been marked as inadequate.  Most of the time, the number of times that I needed to redo a piece of calligraphy was closer to fourteen.

I reminded the students that for every successful work I showed them that they had liked, there were dozens of attempts that never made the cut, however from each attempt I learned what I needed to improve.  I told them that if they feared making mistakes they would never make any progress, but that if they embraced error as part of the learning process, they would continue to learn and grow for the rest of their lives.

It’s an easy message to deliver to a group of students, but it’s one that I have had to learn to follow in my own life.  Unfinished projects have always been a vice of mine, and the reason that I have left so many projects abandoned is that I’ve feared the consequences of failing at them once they begin to get difficult.  That changed with teaching.  My first year teaching was a failure on many levels, but instead of quitting the profession and leaving yet another unfinished project, I chose to learn from the failures and continue in the profession.  I’ve gradually been able to apply that ethic to more and more areas of my life, and I embrace failure and its teaching power much more readily than I did before.  The mountains of failed calligraphy attempts that I saved provided me with visual way of representing it for students.

Our culture tends to celebrate the naturally gifted and those who can accomplish great tasks without much effort.  When I was in school, it was always cool to say that you aced a test without studying rather than to say that you put in tons of effort.  Excessive effort was often suspect, and failure that followed such effort was never openly admitted. It took me years to shake the notion that my failures reflected negatively on me, rather than my failures being a vital part of learning.  The majority of students who I have met share this attitude, and breaking it can be very difficult.  The English language is full of platitudes such as, “If at first you don’t succeed…,” but the attitudes that fear all forms of failure are much stronger than the platitudes.

Of all the lessons that I can impart to students, finding a way to teach them to appreciate the role of failure in their learning may be the most important.

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