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Dealing with Failure

posted: 6.26.07 by Barclay Barrios

I’ve just finished grading for my summer course (woo-hoo) but I find myself dealing with some emotional aftermath. The papers were fine but really just fine. I have to admit I felt a little disappointed–not in the students, but in me. I can’t help but feel I failed them in some way. I don’t think we talk a lot about the emotional dimensions of teaching but I am hoping I am not alone here. Still, I never just sit in an emotion; instead, I’m thinking about what happened and what I can do next time.

For one thing, I think there are aspects of the course I need to change. After all, I kept seeing the same shortfalls in the papers, and that tells me there’s something I thought they were getting which they just didn’t. I’ll take a different tack on teaching academic argument, I’ll do more sample work of successful papers, and I’ll make sure they submit statements of their argument to me for feedback. Next, I’m cutting myself some slack. It’s important for me to remind myself that while they didn’t nail X, Y, or Z they have A, B, and C so down pat that I didn’t even think to pay attention to those issues. So, while I might feel like a failure I also have to acknowledge what was successful about the class. They had good, focused topics. They did good, solid research. They paid attention to issues of citation. These were, after all, some of the primary goals of the class. Finally, I am also keeping in mind that we just squeezed a 14 week class into 6 weeks. For that, I need to cut both me and my students some slack.

In the end, the class was a success. But I am wondering if I am the only one who experiences a kind of emotional entanglement. If so, FAU does have a decent mental health benefit so maybe it’s time to address this odd pedaogical codependence.

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Categories: Assessment, Teaching Advice
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5 Responses to “Dealing with Failure”

  1. RWL Says:

    I definitely experience that kind of emotional aftermath. Even if a class or semester went remarkably well I struggle with what I could/should have done to make it stronger. Of course, that anxiety helps me highlight what I need to work on next time. I think that good teaching necessitates at least a little emotional involvement for precisely that reason: it’s pretty powerful motivation.

  2. Barclay Barrios Says:

    Precisely. Of course, this also makes me think that I might discuss emotional entanglement and its productive uses next time I work with new teachers…

  3. Derek Says:

    Every class can be improved upon, right? It’s just that some can be improved upon more than others. I taught a course in the spring that was one of the most exhausting, exasperating experience yet. But a couple of students performed brilliantly, writing through projects that I still think of as some of the best yet in any course I’ve taught. It’s difficult to end the term feeling like it was an unqualified success because it wasn’t. But feeling like it was a flat semester, I tried to focus on what happened with those few students who performed impressively as well as on those who did not.

  4. Jessica Kidd Says:

    If we don’t have that “emotional aftermath” are we becoming complacent? I always have feelings of doubt and failure at the end of each semester. I too have to look back and reassess what I need to spend more time on next semester and what I know the students understood. The emotional aftermath doesn’t last too long, but it does keep me on my toes.

  5. JP Says:

    I definitely have similar experiences after most semesters and agree with Jessica that instructors that do not, at least at times, experience anxiety about the successes and failures of their class immediately after their conclusions are likely those that have fallen into a rut or are relying on low standards for evaluating their courses. In other words, the real danger may not be so much the recurrent negative emotional impact (at least until, as Barclay alludes, we have to take advantage of our employee mental health benefits), but rather its absence – if everything worked out as well as we could have possibly imagined, then we likely had low expectations for the start and have little motivation to up the ante next time around. The important thing, for me, is to make sure that I expect a little bit more from each class I subsequently teach – that way, in a sense, I’m almost alway falling below my expectations or goals, but I’m at least trying to make each class a little better than the one before it. And when I fall *really* behind in these expectations, I can put that failure in perspective and focus on how I can improve next time around.