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?

 

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A Final Learning Statement at Centro Espiral Mana, SIT TESOL

On Friday, the February 2013 SIT TESOL course at Centro Espiral Mana ended. When a course closes here, participants are asked to create a final learning statement, summarizing what they have learned over the four weeks. Some participants wrote songs, poems, or essays, some created visual representations, and others recorded narratives. Each of these creations highlighted the inspiring process that goes on at Centro. Tony Paredes — a teacher from Tarapato, Peru — created the comic strip below. I asked Tony if I could share his learning statement  because I thought it was a great example of how some experienced teachers feel after taking this course. As Tony shows us, it’s truly transformative.

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A Year in the Life of a Community

If you had told me a year ago that going to the KOTESOL International Conference was going to change my life, I never would have believed you. But seeing one presentation did just that.

Following the recommendation of @michaelegriffin – then only known as Michael Griffin – I attended Chuck Sandy‘s 10am Sunday presentation. He spoke of the value of creating communities: if you don’t have one, create one. At the end of the presentation, he talked about one such community of teachers he helped create called International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi).

The talk was inspiring in so many ways, but there was a 20 second soundbite that pushed me in a very important direction.

“Who’s on Twitter? Get yourself on Twitter!

Who’s on Facebook?

Facebook works. Twitter’s better.”

So I signed up.*

Now, a year later, part of my community is linked to iTDi. This past weekend at JALT2012, I had the great pleasure of meeting some of the iTDi faces that were up on Chuck’s powerpoint. Here are a three of these inspiring teachers:

Barbara Sakamoto, Yitzha Sarwono, & Marco Brazil

They are no longer pictures on a screen. Yitzha is my Instagram buddy, a constant source of light on Twitter, and now a friend I am fortunate enough to have had dinner with. Barbara, who inspires us via her own online community, Teaching Village, is someone I have exchanged thoughts and smiles with. Meeting Marco at JALT was an infusion of joy. I am very happy to now be connected to him. If I hadn’t seen Chuck’s presentation, I doubt I would have made my journey to JALT, which this video shows was very much worth it.

A year has passed since that fateful conference day, and now it’s our turn to present about a community we created on Twitter: KELTchat. I look forward to standing with Alex Grevett, Alex Walsh, Michael Griffin and Anne Hendler as we talk about how and why we came to be.

I am incredibly grateful for the communities I am a member of thanks to that inspiring October day.

Thank you Chuck. :)

*A little known fact: I had been on Twitter for two years, apparently dropping my blog posts into the abyss before I met Chuck. Until that day, I had no idea how powerful/magical Twitter really was.

Related posts:

#JALT2012 Journey: Meeting @kevchanwow

When @michaelegriffin and I met at the Incheon International Airport, we knew we were in for an adventure. The adventure began like this…

Mr. Stein’s Pick Up Service – Hatless

@kevchanwow, with “Michael and Josette” typed in 16 point font on his iPad, greets us at Arrivals. Hugs of #gratitude and #excitement. Thoughts in my mind, “Is this really happening?” We rush off to catch the train…

where long overdue face-to-face conversations ensue over refreshing beverages @kevchanwow was so generous to bring for us. We arrive at his lovely home, stars twinkling in the Nara sky. Delicious food is waiting on the kitchen table prepared by his gracious (and very funny) partner-in-life/radio star DJ. The glee continues.

A handout from @michaelegriffin – a noted moment

@kevchanwow would not be able to join us at the JALT International Conference since the lucky people in New Zealand got to see him present only a few days before at the CLESOL conference (read his pre-conference post, A Post Before I Go, and post-conference post, Wikis and Instant Noodles: my times at CLESOL). Perhaps to celebrate the JALT experience, @michaelegriffin shares a handout he prepared for his presentation, “Common pitfalls of observation feedback.” This #TESOLgeek moment is cherished….as are many more.

Goodnight from Nara the ancient capital of Japan…

But perhaps none more than this one:

Screen shot by @michaelegriffin

Thank you so much to the @kevchanwow clan for sharing your home with us. I am still in awe of your generosity and warmth. I look forward to the day that I can return your kindness.

PS. We ended our trip to Nara with a delightful tour of the deer park before Mrs. @kevchanwow kindly drove us to the train station. Amazing people. Amazing experience.

Note: I added two new categories thanks to this part of the JALT journey: gratitude and friendship. :)

The difference between love and a stick

Each semester, I get to know our course participants via dialogue journals. I’ve written about my apprehension in giving this assignment in past (The Bittersweetness of Dialogue Journals – Take 2), but this journal entry, written by Mr. Go Jong-hyun, is another wonderful reminder of why I keep doing it.

Mr. Go was kind enough to let me share his entry with all of you. This is especially meaningful considering the topic of my last post, The love stick that motivates (I highly recommend reading the heart-wrenching, yet enlightening, comments).

In response to the question, Who was your favorite teacher? Why was he or she your favorite teacher? How would you like to be like him/her?, Mr. Go writes:

I was asked those questions in the test to become an English teacher several times. Whenever I think about it, I cannot help remembering my old home room teacher whose name was Kyoung-hwa Kim in the middle school. I was second to last in the elementary. I even had to have the supplementary classes for the students of underachievement in the elementary school. I was beaten with sticks, even slapped in my face by some of my home room teachers because I couldn’t do my homework. No teachers complimented me because I was poor at studying. However, I took the head in cleaning up the classroom. When I was a first grader in the middle school, most students shirked their duty during the clean-up time, but I steadily cleaned up my area. One morning, Ms. Kim spoke high of me because I cleaned the classroom diligently in front of the all classmates. She also said I would excel in study. I was panicked for a while, but very happy to hear that. Her compliment changed me. Her positive reinforcement and trust in me got me not to let her down. I studied and tried to be the best student to rise to her compliment. Finally, my score improved very much, and I became a class leader. I can’t forget her, and am in debt forever to her. Kyoung-hwa Kim was and is my favorite teacher always because she was the best example of the teacher.

The compliment and belief of a teacher have wonderful and compelling power to change and motivate students. I teach where there are many naughty and low-level students comparing with the other academic high schools. However, I always try to look on the bright side of them, and believe them. I always made zealous effort to have trust in my students; they can be changed. I believe the power of optimism and trust. I will compliment my students on every efforts, unique talents and strong points as well as good scores like my great teacher, and then students will rise to my expectations.

Thank you so much Mr. Go.

The Creative Joy of Final Learning Statements

In three days, our training course will be over. In these final days, it’s time for participants to look back over their four months together and reflect on what’s been meaningful and what they’ve learned. To help them do this, I asked them to respond to a list of questions Mary Scholl (SIT teacher-trainer) created and kindly shared with me. Below are a few examples:

  • If you were to choose 10 words to describe your experience in the course, what would they be?
  • If your experience in the course were like weaving a beautiful cloth, what would be the threads that hold the cloth together?
  • How would you explain your experience in this course to a five year old?
  • What would your ideal motto be in the future?
  • If you had to sell this course, what would your slogan and ad campaign look like?
  • Go through all of your journal entries from the course. Choose the ones that are most meaningful to you. Why are they meaningful?
  • Make a metaphor for how the course has affected you. Be juicy and deep in your description.

With these questions, they created final learning statements that would then become the front cover of  their learning portfolios. They kept this portfolio throughout my writing course.  I encouraged the participants to be as creative as they wanted, and as you’ll see, they didn’t hold back. During our final learning statement gallery walk (gallery walk explanation coming soon), I was inspired at each turn. I hope you feel inspired too.

Please enjoy the artistic exhbilition of learning!

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Privacy tip: Notice the funky, random strips on some of the statements? To keep the anonymity of my participants, I used the smartphone app Labelbox to cover their names.

Smart Phones in School – inspired by an IATEFL post

This essay was written by Lee Yeongheon, a middle school English teacher who teaches in Ulsan, South Korea. She was inspired to write this after I asked her and other course participants questions for this post, Got Bandwidth? @IATEFL 2012. Yeongheon and I are excited to share this with you, and look forward to your comments and feedback.

Continue reading “Smart Phones in School – inspired by an IATEFL post”