Kim Underwood is currently an Instructional Fellow & Elementary Adjunct Instructor at Relay Graduate School of Education. She previously served as an Instructional Coach at KIPP SHINE Prep for five years. Through her years of education, she’s found that failure as a teacher is what ultimately led to her success. As a new year starts, she encourages new teachers to look past the failure and push through the challenges they face.
Twenty-four expectant faces peered up at me as I stopped reading mid-lesson. “Ms. Jackson!!” they groaned, “finish the story! We want to know what happens in the end!” The truth was, I didn’t know what happened at the end of this book. I’d been spending all of my time and energy planning my reading lesson--I had a fantastic hook, rigorous content, and scaffolded questions!--that I had neglected the most important detail, to read the book.
It was my first year of teaching kindergarten with Teach for America in Houston, and I had entered the classroom with zest and passion. I had high aspirations for my five-year olds. We set ambitious goals, and I was confident that they would taste success in kindergarten and want more. I had meticulously backwards planned the year after tangling with the Texas standards. I was ready. I was BEYOND ready – I was going to be the best kindergarten teacher my students had ever seen!
Fast forward to my reading lesson that was rapidly spiraling downhill. I don’t understand, I thought. Where did I go wrong?
To be honest, failure was a humbling experience for me. I was fortunate to attend a great public high school in Pennsylvania; matriculate to a small, private liberal arts college in Ohio; study abroad; and teach abroad in the Carribbean after I graduated. Up to this point, my life had been a series of successes that I had worked hard to achieve and had been fortunate to gain access to. My first year of teaching was shaping up to be a minefield of small (and large) failures, and I was lost in the aftermath.
As I reflected on my reading lesson later that night, I realized that I had a choice. Essentially, it boiled down to human instincts: fight or flight. I could let my failures in the classroom shape my self-perception and spiral into doubt and negative self-talk: I’m never going to get this. I should have prepared better for this lesson. I have no business teaching kids! Or, I could view my failures as an opportunity to grow and change: Alright, that lesson didn’t work. I’ll try it again tomorrow after I switch up a few things.
In the end, I realized that failure was ultimately my best friend in the classroom. Without failure, I would not have worked as hard to improve my lessons and deliver the best for my kids. Failure pushed me to be a better teacher for my students. If I could go back and talk to my first-year teacher self, I would have answered my mental question of Where did I go wrong? with a resounding I’ll figure this out and fix it tomorrow.
As I told my students that day, we’d just have to wait and see how this story would end.