As many flavors of failure…

I came over to Japan for my first English language teaching job on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program.  It was 14 years ago.  I was living way out in the countryside and always looked forward to our big prefectural trainings.  At that time, the program directors gathered up the assistant language teachers twice a year and plunked us all down in a hot-spring hotel for three days.  During those trainings, I first learned how to use the International Phonetic Alphabet as a tool for pronunciation work.  I learned about how to help students adjust to ambiguity in the language classroom (something I recently revisited thanks to the spring issue of The English Connection).  And oddly (or perhaps not oddly at all), I met John Fanselow for the first time.  He gave a lecture on partial information which has stayed more than partially with me for over a dozen years.

I also remember one more presentation from the first training I attended. It was only thirty minutes or so long.  It was given by a very unassuming high school teacher from Japan.  He wore a short-sleeved cream colored button-down shirt with a brown necktie.  He stood at the front of the room and started telling us about his bullet-train ride into the conference.  He hadn’t brought much cash with him, so he bought a cheap Japanese lunch-box before getting on the train.  He put his luggage and Japanese lunch-box on the rack above his seat, nodded to the business man sitting next to him, and then promptly took a nap.  When he woke up, he felt a little hungry, so he pulled down his lunch box.  He was pleased to find that, even though it was a cheap lunch-box, it was filled with all sorts of strips of beef, some fatty tuna, and quail eggs.  He was particularly happy about the quail eggs as they were his favorite.  About half way through eating his lunch-box, the businessman next to him also woke up from a nap, stood up, and took down his own lunch-box.  But as soon as the businessman opened the lunch-box up, he seemed to get very angry.  The presenter said, “I wasn’t sure why he was angry.  I guessed that maybe he was disappointed in his lunch-box.  It wasn’t as nice as mine.  It was the kind with sausages, not steak.  Fried fish, not sushi.  I felt very bad for him.”  Then the presenter started laughing.  A real solid laugh that, I think, made everyone else in the room want to laugh as well.  “In fact, I was feeling bad for him when he turned to me and said very quietly, ‘You are eating my lunch-box.’  That’s when I really started to feel sorry for him.  And a little bit sorry for myself, too.  I tried to give him his lunch-box back, but he said he didn’t want it.  Then I tried to give him money.  But I remembered I didn’t have any cash.  And he said he didn’t want any money.  So I finished eating the stranger’s lunch-box.  It was very embarrassing.  But it was a very delicious lunch-box.”

Then the presenter asked us, everyone in the room, to tell each other a story about some kind of mistake they had made in their life.  There were no rules.  We were just supposed to think of some mistake we’d made and share it with the people around us. Most of us had only been in Japan for a few months at that time, so we all had a lot of mistake stories to tell.  I remember I shared my story of using dish washing liquid as shampoo for a few weeks before a Japanese friend spotted what was going on and gently suggested I head to the drug store.  Everyone told stories.  And that unassuming Japanese high school teacher in his brown necktie walked around and listened to our stories and laughed with us.  Then, when we were almost out of time, he said, “this is how I start my first class of the day.  I have one or two students tell a mistake story.  It makes people laugh.  It also makes making mistakes seem very normal.  If you have time, try and have your students tell some mistake stories.”

* * *

Today, one of the first teachers I met on-line, started bogging.  Her name is Sophia Khan.  I could write a lot of words about the whole lot of things Sophia has done for me over the past year.  But instead I will just mention one.  Sophia helped me understand the different meanings of production when I suddenly got very confused about basic ELT terminology.  She did it in a way that left me feeling relieved and not even the slightest bit foolish.  Her first blog post is a musing on mistakes, a celebration of failure.  In it she writes:

“we know just from our instinct as teachers that it’s ok for students to make mistakes, that making mistakes is good because it means they are pushing their boundaries, and because realizing something has gone wrong can help fix things. So it’s ironic really that teachers don’t extend nearly so much compassion and understanding towards themselves, when they make mistakes in the classroom.”

When I first read this, I found myself thinking, “Because it’s different for teachers!”  For a moment, maybe a heart-beat longer than a moment, I honestly saw my mistakes untying my students from their ideal futures, leaving them unmoored and drifting off course. But it was only for a moment.  I have more faith in my students than that.  Just as I have slightly less faith in my influence as a teacher.  I guess it comes down to a matter of perspective.  When our students see a mistake looming up ahead of them–its vague outline of shame as large as their imagination can make it–it’s not surprising that they might veer away from it.  Veer away from speaking at all.  And when teachers see their own mistakes as pushing learners into a bleaker future, it’s probably difficult to see those mistakes as something less than a kind of fundamental transgression against what it means to be a teacher.  But both of these ways of framing a mistake is based on the Nth conditional, the conditional of fear.

This year I have made a handful of what I consider to be serious mistakes.  I pushed a student to do more than they could to prepare for a speech contest.  I compared a student to another learner in the room during a class.  I repeatedly told a student who was trying his best, but starting from a point far behind the other members of his class, that he was doing a great job.  But “doing a great job” had nothing to do with what he was truly worrying about.  In all of these cases, I felt shame.  In all of these cases, the first thing I did when I recognized my mistake as a mistake was go to the student and apologize.  I said what I thought I had done wrong and said how I would try and do better.  One student laughed and said she didn’t think it was a big deal.  One student continued to avoid me for a few more weeks.  And one student said he didn’t care, as long as I would give him some sample university entrance exams, immediately.

* * *

There are all kinds of mistakes.  There are as many flavors of failure as there are shades of success.  Taking time to laugh about our mistakes can be a great way to create a space in which mistakes don’t loom so large.  Likewise, celebrating our failures as a chance for growth also seems like an important way to help shift the Nth conditional of fear to a more concrete present of hope.  But just as we still debate about how to correct our students’ errors, there’s no one ideal way to manage our own slips as educators.  If you can laugh, laugh.  If you can treat yourself with compassion and reflect and learn, by all means, reflect and learn.  But if once in a while a failure leaves you feeling buried in sadness, if all you can get out of the experience, as least for a little while, is tears, then by all means, cry away.  And if you need an extra box of tissues, just give me a ring.  I usually have one handy.

(note: I have searched and searched for the name of the presenter who shared his ideas about mistake stories, but have had no luck so far in finding him.  If anyone who reads this post has some idea where this idea came from, or who the mystery teacher in the brown necktie might be, please let me know.)

7 thoughts on “As many flavors of failure…

  1. Hello to you, Wandering Educators,Forst off, thanks for the comment and also the amazing site you have there, filled with travel posts from world wide eductors. It's a great resource for a language class, and I'm going to be dipping into it this school year. And also thanks for the positive feedback. Glad you enjoyed the post.Kevin


  2. Aw what a beautiful post! I love the mistake story. And I also love the moral of your own story – laugh if you can, reflect if you can, but cry if you need to. If you try and sweep those really not-so-good things under the carpet they will be haunting you for years…The kind of "failures" you describe as a teacher are just so understandable but I know what you mean (my children are the 2 people in the world I least want to hurt or let down, and yet I seem to manage it…). Dealing with it head on, apologising, trying to make it better is the only and best thing you can do. The hard thing is when that doesn't work. But if you learn from it, at least that's something. Thanks for the post, the food for thought, and the mention 🙂


  3. What a great post. You're so right, and I love the idea from Mr Brownnecktie of starting a first class by talking about mistakes.When I was teaching low level students in Poland, I developed a little routine of telling them about the stupid things I'd said in Polish. There were a lot, but the one I can remember now was when I was waiting at a bus-stop one day and a woman with a little girl asked me the time. I got flummoxed and couldn't remember how to express it properly- I seem to remember that it's a different case ending for 'to' than it is for 'past' the hour. Anyway, someone else provided the answer and the little girl looked up at her mother and said, in Polish, 'That lady's much older than me and she STILL can't tell the time!'


  4. Hi Sophia,Thanks for the comment and the inspiration for the post. I used to be pretty miserable about apologizing, but lately I realize that there's almost always something I could have done differently in a particular situation or interacting with a particular student. Counter-factuals are kind of tough. Even if I had done something different, it might not have worked out so well. But I'm thinking that modeling this kind of reflective process and responsibility taking is a really important part of my job as a teacher. And students often as not react to it by taking responsibility for their own mistakes instead of casting around for something or someone to blame. Probably I have my daughter to thank for this change in the way I interact with my students. Like you, I also manage to be less than an ideal parent (to say the least). But my daughter has been (sometimes) patient with me as she lets me know what I need to work on next.Looking forward to your next post,Kevin


  5. Hi Rachel,What a great mistake story. I can just imagine the mix of sass and surprise of that little girl in Poland. I sometimes tell similar stories to my students. When my students come back from studying abroad (many of them do), they are full of these kinds of stories. But while they are in Japan, these memorable errors rarely happen. And when my students are faced with the chance of making a mistake, they usually avoid saying anything. Probably desensitizing students to making mistakes is one of the great, overlooked benefits of spending time in a foreign country. Which is great for everyone, because not only does it make for better language learning, it's great material for late night, post conference drinking stories as well.Kevin


  6. I have really enjoyed reading your post! It's really funny how we can laugh with embarrassing moments, although the feeling we have when me make the mistake is not so pleasant! It's a great ice-breaker, though. It's really strange if you think about it…when we present ourselves as people who actually make mistakes without trying to hide it, students/peers trust us more…


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