For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been making confessions on Twitter. I confess: I’ve never seen “The Godfather”. I confess: I’ve never read “The Catcher in the Rye”. I confess: I’ve never been to the Oklahoma State Fair. It’s been fun and spawned some delightful conversation with friends.
I have another confession to make.
Across all of my years in school, spanning from kindergarten through 12th grade, 164 credit hours in my Bachelor of Music Education degree, and 32 hours in my Master of Music Education degree, I have never received a final grade lower than “A”. For nearly 25 years of schooling, I maintained a perfect 4.0 average. Notice I didn’t say I earned those A’s. I’m perfectly aware that some of them were gifts. Others were hard fought and well-deserved.
I used to wear this like a badge of honor, parading my exemplary academic status in interviews for scholarships, and later jobs. I liked school and I was good at it. I liked it so much that I had perfect attendance from 4th-7th grades. For four years, I did not miss one day of school. Not one. For 700 days.
Now, I’m beginning to wonder if my straight A’s were more curse than compliment.
I’m not saying this to toot my own horn, or to fish for compliments or reassurances. I’m questioning whether this rather frivolous accolade has actually been a detriment to me. Because the truth is, I haven’t learned yet the art of failing.
Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to imply that a grade less than “A” is “failing”. I simply mean to convey that for me, anything but straight A’s felt like failure because it fell short of my little facade of perfection.
As teachers, we are used to the cliché, “failure is a part of learning.” We encourage our students to see failures as a jumping off point for improvement. We strive to make our classrooms safe places to explore, to attempt, to fail, to assess, to regroup, and then to start the whole process over again. We assure our kids that failure is not the end game—it’s just part of the journey and an important part, at that.
So why do I find it so difficult to accept and live by my own philosophy?
This year is my 8th year of teaching. It’s my first year back in the classroom after a two-year hiatus because…babies. I’m in a new district, and teaching new grade levels. The community is unfamiliar to me. It’s a smaller, more rural school district. I’m the third teacher in as many years in my position. Anybody who knows music, knows a turnover rate that high is a set-back if not a death sentence for most programs. Music is such a personal discipline, the students’ connection and loyalty to their director is paramount to success in program-building.
None of those things were concerns for me. In previous jobs, I have rehabilitated one program, and started another one completely from scratch. This position had an established tradition of excellence, and competent teachers in previous years. They were in need of some stability and little bit of overhaul, but otherwise, this was going to be a piece of cake.
I suppose I deserve the piece of humble pie I’ve been force-fed this year. My ego needed the check. In short, it seems like nothing has gone to plan.
Concerts have been postponed and rescheduled, or in some cases canceled. I promised the students a joint concert with another high school in the city. They backed out. I planned a trip to the city anyway to sing at the Capitol. We had to back out so we could attend district contest, which was rescheduled to the same date due to inclement weather. I told the students I’d put together a show choir. It never came together—I couldn’t carve out the time for rehearsal. I tried to put on workshops for students to learn honor choir audition selections. Only a handful showed up. Contest scores were disappointing. Student progress was slow. Work ethic was poor. Morale was down. Students dropped my class.
I tried desperately to figure out how to reach my middle school students, a new age group for me. Expecting them to respond to the same teaching style I used with high school students resulted in frustration for all of us. The class was too laid back, and we accomplished very little. I over-corrected by establishing very rigid behavioral expectations. Nobody had fun, including myself and the result was a mass exodus from my classes at the semester. When I finally found a rehearsal routine that seemed to work for everybody, I struggled to teach the content in ways that are appropriate for their age and ability. Despite researching, reading articles, reaching out to colleagues for pointers, and watching rehearsal videos on youtube, my students seemed to make little progress throughout the year with fundamentals…let alone with any intermediate or advanced concepts. It’s been 173 days, and I still can’t get them to remember to spit out their gum before class.
In times like these, I begin to question myself. I feel called to education; that hasn’t changed. But I begin to wonder if I should explore a different path within the profession. Maybe a different certification? I used to be a decent writer. Maybe I could teach language arts? I’ve always been a big fan of children’s literature. Maybe a master’s in library science? I’m hoping one day I may have the chance to work with and on behalf of teachers, specifically overseeing fine arts instruction district-wide. Maybe it’s time to look into a degree in educational leadership or administration?
But I know deep down in my heart of hearts, that while these are perfectly acceptable paths that may come to fruition, I must examine my motives. Are those really places to which I’m being called, or am I unwilling to accept and learn from failure?
When I was a kid, I used to love The Peanuts. I had just about every Charlie Brown television special on tape, and I watched them repeatedly. Charlie Brown never managed to win the baseball game. He never could kick that football before Lucy pulled it away. He didn’t win the spelling bee. He couldn’t ever work up the courage to ask out the little red-head girl. And yet…I couldn’t stop watching.
A reforming perfectionist can learn a lot about failure from Charlie Brown. Here’s a guy who fails at pretty much everything. He’s the only kid who manages to get rocks instead of candy while trick-or-treating. He’s out-done on most occasions by his pet dog. And yet, he never gives up. And…neither do his friends. He’s surrounded faithfully by the rest of the Peanuts gang, whose friendship and loyalty doesn’t’ seem at all to hinge upon Charlie Brown becoming a success. And what’s more, his continuous failures didn’t keep him from becoming endeared to millions of people for almost half a century.
We all know that hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, I know a few B’s or even a C would not have killed me. On the contrary, they almost certainly would have been helpful, if for no other reason than to remind me that the sun does, indeed, come up, and there’s no need to live in constant fear of falling short of perfection. Not only is perfection not always possible, it’s not always ideal. Without falling short, we miss opportunity for growth. Without imperfection, we never learn to ask for and accept help, which in turn could rob us of rewarding and fulfilling relationships with colleagues and friends.
And, GOOD GRIEF, CHARLIE BROWN, that would be a crying shame.