Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895

Failure is weird. Everyone experiences it, but when it happens, we feel embarrassed and alone. I have been writing this blog post in my head for years, but I haven’t posted it because I have been afraid. I decided after this weekend that it was the right time to share it.

I taught 8th grade language arts in the 2002-2003 school year. Our principal left in cloud of scandal, and we had a new principal. I was on maternity leave when she came in, but she didn’t have a good first impression of me, I’m sure, because I had a little bit of trouble adjusting to teaching that grade level. My test scores were great. Only one student on our middle school team of over 100 students failed the state’s writing test. By the measure that higher ups usually care about, I was a success. But before he left, my principal expressed concerns over the high rate of failure among my students and suggested my team leader was influencing me to be too exacting in my standards, and that perhaps I needed to lower them.

I left work one day and went into labor the next morning. I wasn’t due for a couple of weeks, and I hadn’t expected to be out the next day. I had some ungraded student work. While I was on maternity leave, I received a phone message from the assistant principal insisting that I needed to get the work graded, so I finally managed to do so, but I expected a little more sympathy, to be honest. I had a newborn at home.

The county let me know in no uncertain terms that my contract would be terminated if I didn’t return to work six weeks to the day after my leave ended. That day was the last day of post-planning, by the way. So I came back to discover my long-term sub had allowed the students to destroy some of my personal belongings and had done none of the things we were supposed to do to wrap up the year—filling out information in student files being the most onerous task. No one offered to help me. I had to take frequent breaks to nurse my son. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to leave school that day, but I finally was able to obtain the necessary signatures that said I had finished my work.

When I came back the next year, I was no longer teaching language arts but a journalism course instead. My new principal made it clear it was, in her eyes, a demotion. After her first visit to my classroom, she put me on a professional development plan for classroom management. I can’t even remember anymore all the tasks she had me complete. I know one of them was that I had to receive an observation with all satisfactory scores. She made sure that wouldn’t happen. She observed a perfect class but gave me a needs improvement because I had chosen to read a short article to my students instead of having a student volunteer read it. Suffice it to say that I was unable to meet the demands of my professional development plan and she elected not to renew my contract. The district must have wanted to make sure they were getting rid of a bad teacher for real because they made her observe me yet again. If I had been wise, I’d have tried to find out if I could have had a different administrator do the observation, but I’m not sure it would have made a difference.

I remember very clearly what my principal said. She felt I would never be a good teacher. She felt that I had been in the classroom too long at that point—six years—for anyone to expect I would improve. I am sure she felt that she was doing the right thing by removing a failure from the ranks of educators.

But then my current principal took a chance. I had been honest about the fact that my previous principal would not have good things to say about me, and I know my current principal did call the former one to find out what my issues were. She also talked to a former department chair of mine and another assistant principal who told a slightly different story. She thought about it and took a chance. To this day I’m not sure why she took a chance on me because a lot of people wouldn’t. I am grateful.

In my current setting I have been encouraged to grow. I have not, interestingly enough, had classroom management problems. You can’t insist it’s because I’m in a private school because I know private school teachers who cannot manage a classroom.

By any measure including my own, I was a failure as a teacher. But I learned that with the right support, it didn’t have to be that way. I could not only be a successful teacher but a really good teacher if I were given the assistance I needed from my administration.

I know a lot of folks like to blame others for their failures, but I really have to wonder what my former principal would think if she were able to see what I am up to now. In my case, I really think that I could have been a better middle school teacher if my administrators had given me the support to make it happen. Failure was probably one of the best things to happen to me because it put me on the path I’m walking now, but it stung. It hurt for a few years. I’d like to think I bounced back from it pretty well in the end, though. My former principal would have been completely gobsmacked if she had seen me walk across the room at the Secondary Section Luncheon on Saturday to receive a Secondary Section Teacher of Excellence Award from NCTE.

Creative Commons License photo credit: robynejay

31 thoughts on “Failure”

  1. Way to make it through such a trying time. As difficult as teaching is, I am not sure I would have been able to continue if someone had said the same things to me.

    Congrats on your NCTE award.

  2. Five years ago our district opened up a ninth grade academy that was far removed from the 10-12 campus. I volunteered to go because for most of my then 11 years of teaching, I had taught 9th grade. It was the worst year of my life. The principal really had it out for me. I realize now that he probably considered me a threat because I voiced my opinion (strongly). He was very insecure. Our district had begun to do "walk-throughs" of our classrooms. They would come in and informally observe for 10 minutes. I had just handed out progress reports to my honors class when he walked in. Students were crowded around my desk asking about missing assignments. Therefore, I did not see him when he took up a student's mp3 player. Even though he had only stayed for maybe ten minutes, he wrote up the visit as a 20 minute observation. He even fabricated the time so that he left AFTER the class ended. He gave me an NI (in classroom management, I think). I called PAGE about it and got help crafting a response that I attached to the observation. Needless to say, he re-did the observation, and he did NOT give me an NI the second time. That school year was so bad because of the fear and pressure that I lived under that I wanted to quit teaching. And I would have if my current principal hadn't let me return to the 10-12 campus. When I returned, it felt as though I were returning home. However, even though things are better now, I still sometimes do not feel confident at all. Thanks for posting this.

    1. You actually reminded me of a detail I forgot to include! I mentioned that the county asked my principal to do one last observation to be sure, and she chose to come in a 7th grade class right after an assembly had ended. If I remember right, it was the one where they get the kids fired up to sell magazines for the school or something like it, so of course the kids were much more obnoxious than usual. She sneaked in with my class, and I actually didn't even see her for a minute until a student pointed her out. I wish I had known PAGE would help with that sort of thing. I surely would have called them.

      1. I specifically called them because of the outright lie that he wrote on the observation about the time he was there. I just couldn't believe that I was getting an NI because of an incident that I didn't even see take place. PAGE was a big help but so was a colleague of mine who was wonderful at crafting the great sentences for my response. He knew what he did was illegal, but when he did the second observation, he said he was doing it out of respect for my years of teaching and not because he had screwed up. I think we should all be sharing our stories so that others out there will know that they are not alone and that they can get help. I never again want to feel the way that he made me feel that year. I feel as though this is the job that I was born to do, but my career almost ended because of that one year.

        1. That was how I felt, too—that my career was nearly ended because someone had an agenda. I do honestly think she felt she was doing the right thing, but she wasn't very interested in helping me "improve" as much as she was interested in getting me out.

  3. We may all know the sting of correction within one of most vulnerable acts of service we can offer – being a teacher. I was saddened by the difficult time you experienced before you found a principal and a place to work where students were helped and you were encouraged. I think we all need such an environment in which to learn. Thanks for sharing your story. You encourage me.

    Ruth Loring

  4. So brave to post, and yet such a universal feeling! I've taught successfully for 15 years and still worry daily whether or not I'm 'good enough.' If somebody told me I was not, I don't think I could survive it with the grace and tenacity you displayed. Thank you so much. I know I'll think about it throughout the day.

  5. Dana, I cannot thank you enough for this post. I thought you were talking about my principal – today she took away my department headship – her parting shot after three years of her dislike for me. I just want you to know how valuable this post was for me, on this day.

  6. Boy, did I need to hear this today! Have been trying to write the "I totally failed" blog so I can survive the next 5 days until I can make it good next week, and then I read this. Being a good teacher is sometimes about being an imperfect person…thank you for reminding me that we are not in total control of our fate. I will chuckle all weekend about the principal that lost you, and the lucky kids that got you.

    1. Thanks! I feel like I am in a good place now, but if I am honest with myself, I am a much better high school teacher than I ever was a middle school teacher (though I wasn't as bad as that woman thought I was).

      1. Well of course I would hope you're a better teacher now than you were then! hahaha >;) Though I suppose you meant that you feel high school is a better "fit" for you than middle school was?

        1. Yes, although the first is also true. Honestly, having a principal who was a great English teacher herself has really pushed me. She has challenged me and helped me become the teacher I am.

  7. Ms George says:

    Dana, thank you.

    It takes courage to admit that we have not been 'our best'–whenever that may happen in our careers. You are an amazing teacher and one of the things I'm thankful for this year (and the past few years) is you and your generous spirit that helps all of us ELA teachers/bloggers grow and get to 'our best'.

    Congratulations on that well-deserved honor!

  8. It's so unfair that you had to go through such undeserving treatment. 🙁 I could always tell you were an excellent teacher. (I know I have learned a ton from your posts!) But I love how everything has worked out–many, many congratulations on your award! You definitely deserve it. And happy almost Thanksgiving!

  9. So appreciated this post…it was heartfelt and so what I needed right now. Amazing how our experiences later become the inspiration for others. Thank you!

    Congratuations on your award!

  10. You are a godsend. I'm a new teacher in a very, very difficult situation, and I really needed to hear what you had to say about failure. I've been feeling like a failure myself.

    Thank you so, so, so much!

  11. I loved hearing your story. Mine is slightly different. After 36 years of teaching junior high and high school English, 2 years of which my faculty voted me Teacher of the Year, my principal encouraged me to retire. He had had so many complaints from parents that my standards were too high and he was tired of the complaints. He told me that he knew that I was not doing the job that I had formerly accomplished. The next year he encouraged another teacher with high standards to retire before the Thanksgiving holidays when she was "blessed" with the same students. I have not taught for 3 semesters now and do not think I will ever be happy in the classroom again.

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