The Vulnerability of Failing: IATEFL 2013 Failure Fest

IATEFL Failure Fest: how is failure a better teacher than success?

When I first heard that Ken Wilson was going to lead a session on failure at IATEFL Liverpool, I was intrigued, but mostly I was grateful. I imagined the Failure Fest as a space for reality checks, healing, and great learning for ELT professionals. Sophia Khan wrote about this beautifully in her debut blog post, Why We Should Celebrate Failure Fest,

what I like about Failure Fest is that it says: “I am human, just like you”. It focuses on our similarities rather than our differences. Finding a shared emotional experience creates a sense of solidarity, mutuality and possibility. Because we are alike – human – I can learn from your mistakes – and your achievements – as if they were my own. What is possible for you is also possible for me. No matter how qualified or experienced you are, we are more alike than different. Think about it: have you ever had a worry, feelings of self-doubt, anxiety about what the right thing to do is – then you find that someone has gone through, or is going through, the same thing as you? It is such a blessed, wonderful relief to know that you are not alone, even if you still don’t have all the answers.

And this sense of relief is what we all felt during the fest. The relief was expressed through having a bit of fun (Caroline Moore‘s punctual cow bell and Ken’s witty introductions), and through the presenters’ ability to show their vulnerability.

What struck me about each of these engaging storytellers (Ken Wilson, Bethany Cagnol, Chia Suan Chong, Andy Cowle, Herbert Puchta, Jeremy Harmer, Rakesh Bhanot, Valeria Franca, Willy Cardoso) was the fact that they were all able to laugh at their failures. However, among the laughter, each presenter also expressed a sense of discomfort that came along with the initial moment of failure — or as Kathryn Schulz described during her TED Talk, On Being Wrong, how it feels to realize that moment of failure. Jeremy Harmer embarrassingly admitted that the first thing he had ever taught a student was to describe his “big, red, bushy beard.” Chia Suan Chong talked about how she cried after the miscommunication with a German bus driver. Valeria Franca described the dread of seeing little Luciana come up to her after her revamped English lesson on clothing. Bethany Cagnol shared the devastation she felt after being fired for having fun with her students.

“embracing our fallibility”

For many of us, the laughter doesn’t usually come immediately after these moments. It may come years after and for some people it may never come. There is something safe about hiding in the belief that we shouldn’t make mistakes:

“We get sucked into perfection for one very simple reason: We believe perfection will protect us. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.” – Brené Brown

I think one of my biggest failures has been holding on to this idea of perfection. I used to work late hours planning the “perfect” lesson, and on a few occasions I even broke down crying after class, realizing I had answered a question “wrong”. “I’m a trainer dammit! I *should know these things!” Although I may not be in a space where I can laugh at this failure, I feel a great sense of lightness at being able to admit it. And I know I am able to express this thanks the Failure Fest and also thanks to what teachers have been writing about failure over the past few weeks (Kevin Stein, As many flavors of failure…; Chris Wilson, Failing at Modal verbs).

The Journey of Failure

An old post of mine, The Teacher as the Archetypal Student, came to my attention the night of the Failure Fest when a new reader left a comment. I hadn’t read this post in years (written on September 11, 2010). Although my post doesn’t directly express my concern about failing, this reader saw it clearly:

I think it is the responsibility of the teacher to show her students that it is okay to make mistakes. Students can learn more from a teacher who allows herself to be vulnerable in front of her students, rather than an obviously flawed person who pretends to be perfect. Students will respect a teacher who openly admits her faults or knowledge gaps. When a teacher does this, learning can become a journey that the teacher and student go on together.

And so I thank Ken Wilson and Caroline Moore for providing a space to the world of ELT to embark on this journey of seeing the light between the cracks of failure. I also have great gratitude for all the presenters for sharing their light.

Willy Cardoso left us a wonderful quote to keep us pondering along this journey of embracing failure:

It is this great struggle, to choose between having a lot of freedom and having a lot of stability that makes us people. (…) And when you believe you can achieve both, it’s probably the beginning of a failure story…which is inevitable. You have to choose one when you know you won’t have much of the other. (…) I’m not likely to go about cycling on busy roads ever again because I don’t want to run the risk of falling, although I know it would give me a great sense of freedom. So in this regard I choose stability over freedom. In love, on the other hand, I will always be willing to fall.

In teaching and in learning, what is this love you are willing to fall for?


15 thoughts on “The Vulnerability of Failing: IATEFL 2013 Failure Fest

  1. I have trouble relating to perfectionism. At what point does anyone experience it to such a degree that it can become familiar? For me, mistakes, shame and having my skin crawl when I am in the bathroom because of embarrassment at something I just said is a way of life. I almost never feel like things I do are even good, let alone perfect.
    To me, this helps because I can relate to anyone learning something, and when I am in the classroom I am calm while I lose my place, things don’t work, I have to correct something I said yesterday that is wrong, or a student points out something that is incorrect. As a teacher of computer programming, I tell them that ego comes in for a beating over and over, because the computer does not care about you, and, like an umpire, it is always correct. You can’t win or look superior as a programmer, you can only look foolish or arrogant. When there are mistakes in the textbook, I point them out and say: look, it is hard to get even a simple example correct, let alone an entire program. I tell them that it is difficult to write a good exercise, or textbook. That is not self-serving, it is a bare fact.
    Where did this idea of perfectionism ever come in? I guess I grew up writing programs, so that weed never had a chance. This does not make me grim or humorless. I am 48 and I dance to Lady Gaga and know most of the words to Ke$ha’s songs, and I paint my toenails (but no one at work knows that so shhh!)


    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective Scott. Your students must take comfort in this as it may give them room to fall lightly when that moment comes. Resilience comes in all forms, and for you it seems to have come at an early stage, and as a result, it seems to have become an ability to follow the flow of life.

      Keep on dancing!


  2. Thank you for writing this post. There is something about experiencing failure that connects us all as teachers and as humans. The stories in the Failure Fest were funny because of the connection. Not because I was laughing at the speakers, but because I could totally see how that could happen, or in some cases has happened, and I remember the discomfort, embarrassment, shame. There’s something very human about it.
    As for me, I am willing to fall again and again for freedom.


    1. Thank you for this Anne. When I read your last line, “I am willing to fall again and again for freedom.” there was heavy head nodding here. It seems to me that freedom is incredibly worth all the falling or failing. When we know that falling brings this gift, it makes the fall softer in a way doesn’t it? Not easier, or less painful, but in a sense it creates a type of rubberness (word?) or “bounce-back” quality. I’m very curious to know what your vision of freedom was? Maybe over “coffee”? As always my dear, muchas gracias for the support.


  3. This is something that I find is especially important in TEFL classrooms. I wrote a paper about the connection of the fear of making mistakes to increased levels of passive learning behaviours which I presented in March:

    I hope to follow it up with a workshop this August. A central part of that workshop will be the importance of modelling acceptance of mistakes to our students by highlighting ours.


    1. Hello Abdul, thank you so much for sharing your work here: reducing the impact of fear on students learning. Very important work. One of my favorite conclusions that you make is this one: “Teachers need to actively promote the feeling that the classroom is a safe place and that all active learning behaviours are safe in most situations.” I wish you all the best in your August workshop. Where will it be? Please keep us posted!


      1. Thank you Josette. The more I look at my past work the more I see how I need to refine what I’m writing about with broader and deeper research, making better connections, etc. Then I remember, I’m only a classroom teacher, not an academic! I’m hoping to present at TEFLIN 2013 which will be held in Depok (just outside of Jakarta) at the National University. For Indonesia, this is the ELT conference of the year.


  4. Hi Josette, thank you for a beautiful post and a kind mention. I loved the failure fest stories too – some were very funny – but all were rooted in that “moment of discomfort” you bring out in this post. It may take us years, if ever, to laugh about some of things that happen, but standing up for this, taking responsibility, reflecting, learning is what gives it meaning over the long term. As Willy’s analogy explains, all our mistakes show willingness to fall, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. Thanks for a lovely reflective post.


    1. Thank YOU for the inspiration to write it. Your words are just so beautiful.

      I like the way you said that, “all our mistakes show willingness to fall.” It seems to go hand in hand with the idea that living shows a willingness to fall. :) As your piece explains, how can we learn anything without falling? We learn from the fall. Why are we so scared to say that? Maybe this is the beginning of the end of the shame of failing. What an exciting idea!

      So grateful to be part of this journey with you my dear! Happy blogging!


  5. This is beautiful! And thanks for adding Brené Brown into your post, I love her!
    I also believe that sharing the moments of painful growth (because that’s what a “good” failure is) makes as human, helps us connect to other people, makes us brave. I also think that people who have these failure stories to share are people who do what they do with all of their heart, they are open to everything that comes to them, because only then will they keep reflecting on their actions. And that’s also why these failure moments strike us so hard, because giving so much of ourselves makes us vulnerable too.

    My traps are curiosity, craving adventure and excitement :-)


    1. I also love Brene Brown! Read both her books. She is great speaker for our time.

      I connected to what you said about how these moments strike us hard. Giving with such heart is a vulnerable endeavour. It is also what helps us connect to each other. It’s a fine line isn’t it. I can remain safe, and hide my vulnerability, but if I do this, I also risk not connecting in the way I would like to connect. The paradox of living. :)

      When you said that your traps were curiosity, craving adventure and excitement, are you saying that you would be willing to fall (fail) for these things? If so, I think this is also what I would fall for. And love of course. :)


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