It’s paradoxical, but true: Sometimes failure is good for us. That was my experience several years ago. I had been teaching high school history for 22 years by then and still had no sympathy for students who didn’t work hard and did poorly as a result. They would often give up rather than try to succeed. Sometimes they would act up in class, further frustrating me.
I had met failure in my life myself, but I always persisted until I found a solution to my problem. I didn’t understand why my students couldn’t do the same. Then my marriage failed. No matter how hard I tried, nothing worked. As I told myself at the time, “It takes two people to get married, but only one to end it.”
As I thought about my failure, I came to realize that I vacillated between two extremes: either the failure of the relationship was my entire fault or none of it was my fault. Blaming the other person meant I would take no responsibility and thus learn nothing except to pass the buck. Blaming myself only made me depressed.
I came to understand that I could actually be in the middle of those two extremes. I could accept some of the responsibility for the failure and let my ex-spouse take some of the responsibility, too. I found that was bearable.
This experience gave me a deeper understanding of my students who did poorly in my class. I came to realize that they were just like me, but their threshold for failure was a lot lower than mine. I had met with success through persistence and hard work, but with the failure of my marriage, I came to realize how they felt. I learned empathy.
As I began to treat my D and F students differently based upon my changed attitude, I saw a positive response. They still acted up and often still did not do their homework, but they saw I was more patient and sympathetic, that I cared about them.
I started repeating silently to myself, “Students don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.” I focused on how I had been able to relate positively to my own children. I worked hard at treating my students in the same way.
It took several years, but by the time I was ready to retire, several students were stating openly to me to that I was their favorite teacher. I had never heard that in all my early years of teaching. It took almost nine years to get to that point.
I sometimes reflect on the lack of patience and empathy many if not most of the very successful of this world have toward the poor. Have the capable never learned the lesson of failure I learned so painfully? Have they never failed?
It helps us to try to see the world through the eyes of people who may not be as bright, or as capable, as we consider ourselves to be. Failure can give us the gift of understanding another’s weaknesses and of seeing the world from another’s perspective. Failure can make us both humble and empathetic.
Sometimes my biggest lessons have come from my most painful mistakes. Failure is sometimes good for us.