Friday, 27 January 2017

Failure is Relative

It’s the last “Explore the Math Twitter Blog O’ Sphere” 2017 initiative post. (Previously I posted a media stats assignment, trouble with soft skills, and a DITLife roundup.) This time, there was the request to blog about a teaching mistake or failure. I have a number of non-specific things to say about that right off the top.

First, failure is relative. My very first set of posts on this blog talked about JulNoWriMo 2012, and how I wrote over 50,000 words, which was the intent. So I succeeded, right? Well, I did edits as I went, which is against the spirit of the thing, and ultimately found that the sort of writing required wasn’t my style - so I decided not to do it again. Have you ever tried teaching something in a new way, and decided it really wasn’t for you, and not something you could do again? So...

Can you succeed, and yet still feel like a failure?

Second, failure requires a baseline. If half a class is engaged in a lesson, is that lesson a failure? What if that’s better than every previous day with this class, when almost everyone was disengaged? One teacher’s baseline is also necessarily different from another’s - what if your great lesson completely bombs in my class? Is it a failure of me, of timing, of the lesson... or is it simply a learning experience that was necessary, leading to making adjustments? So...

Can your failure be seen as a success later on, or by another?

Third, survivorship bias. We tend to think we can succeed by studying what else succeeded, even though those other successes may have been completely random chance! Worse, as the “Explore” prompt pointed out, it can lead to being demoralized by the apparent “success” of everyone around you. Suggestion: Create your own little offline failure journal for learning purposes, and get the negativity out of your head. Then picture that others are doing the same - maybe they are! (Do be careful, of course, as bad feelings have some tendency to stick around longer than good ones.) So...

Is the failure in ourselves, or in social media and society itself?

Fourth, good grief, failure is not out of my comfort zone. Granted, I more often talk about my failure to get anyone to actually read my creative endeavours (personified math? hah!) but I’ve previously talked about seating plans that went badly, the time I felt like hurting myself during exam marking stress, and hell, go to Nov 3, 2014 for this “Why I Can’t Even” roundup that’s likely better than anything I’d write here (since at present I’m not even teaching). So...

Are we missing the failures out there because we’re not looking for them?

FINALLY, for those who want a new anecdote, I don’t think I’ve told this one before. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)


The only reason I didn’t leave teaching over ten years ago was because I didn’t have a backup plan. My first major teaching position (occasional/substitute work, not contract) was 1P, 2P and 3M courses. (“Applied” level courses.) It broke me; I couldn’t keep up with the material (always falling behind), or the disposition of students, or the creation of tests and marking.

I spoke to administration about it. An issue with decreasing the workload (giving up one class) would be that I’d still be in the school, prompting students to question why I’d “given up on them” (my phrasing there). It was decided that I’d make a clean break. I stuck with the courses to midterm report time, wrote reports, left the school and went back into the occasional system. I kept teaching because, well, I had no backup plan; what else was I supposed to do? Could it even be that I'd made the right decision for the students in this case?

Which brings me right back to - can you succeed and yet still feel like a failure?

Fun addition, I went back to that school two years later, to leave information on the bulletin board in the teacher’s lounge. A custodian recognized me, and asked me about my keys. I said I’d returned them to my department head. They possibly became a covert department set of keys.

To wrap this post up, failing at something means you TRIED something - it’s harder to fail at routine. Honestly, I don’t expand out beyond my teaching box enough to really consider I’ve failed enough. I also don’t search the MTBoS for lessons and the like, though part of that is also I have support where I teach, for those times I want to try and expand my worldview.

I hope this post has made you think a little.

I think that’s everything, let me know if something was unclear. Thanks for reading, consider coming back to my blog again, or checking out my other (failed?) writing projects:

-My personified math comic last posted “Bio-Technicality” on Monday. After over FIVE years of this site, I am lucky to get 10 views on an update (Monday’s post currently has 3).

-My time travel serial last posted “Cross Purposes” on Friday. After nearly THIRTY months of this site, I am lucky to get 10 views on an update (last week’s has 9).

-My “Not Teaching Year” weekly chronicle on this blog continues tomorrow. Blogger has messed up stats on this site, so whatever.


  1. "Have you ever tried teaching something in a new way, and decided it really wasn’t for you, and not something you could do again?" Yes, I've tried flipped classroom and standards based grading and decided that both were not for me. But I now have a set of recorded lectures that my students use for review and when they are absent (from flipped classroom) and lots of practice quizzes and some better insight about grading practices (from SBG). So maybe they were a bit of a failure (for me, anyway), but trying them improved my classroom practice.

    1. Thanks for the response! It's great to know that others are having somewhat similar experiences. That whole "for me" thing is huge (in my opinion); we're all individuals. That's an awesome repurposing of your efforts as well, practice and review, good thinking. All the best with your teaching and insights going forwards!