How Success and Failure Taught Me the Same Lesson

The past couple of weeks a few events happened simultaneously that led to the inspiration for today’s post.

    1. I talked with my friend, Zach Mercurio, author of The Invisible Leader, about purpose in education. If you missed my post “How Purpose and Singapore Can Increase Teacher Retention,” I talked about his research there as well. Being purpose-driven is one of my soapboxes because I really believe it’s a game-changer in leading toward success and fulfillment. He shared with me the David Yaeger research article, “Boring, but Important.”
    2. EdWeek published an article titled, Brain Science Backs Up Role of ‘Mindset’ in Motivating Students for Math.
    3. In my instagram feed, I came upon the meme below from Bored Teachers and the post below from Edcite.


The articles struck a chord with me in terms of how important belief is when it comes to learning. The Disney mantra that comes to mind is, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Zach’s work on purpose, Yaeger’s research, and the EdWeek article all continue to convey that. Yaeger’s research demonstrates that when kids believe in the work being about a purpose greater than themselves or believe that it is going to do good for the world, they learn more. The EdWeek article shows that kids with growth mindsets perform better in math because they believe they can learn the material.

I then asked myself, “What is the source of our beliefs?” Our beliefs are so often constructed or shaped from our experiences in life and from the experiences others choose to share from their lives. This is also why the media is such a significant factor in what people believe about the world. The Invisibilia podcast episode, Fearless, shares data from a small-town Vermont neighborhood where, in the past 40 years, crime has not increased at all; yet, because the media publicizes so many incidents of nationwide crime, it “distorts our experience of the world,” and parents now keep their kids closer to the house.

So, in a world where some of our beliefs are constructed based on the experiences of others, and in this final 9 week stretch of “trying to keep your cool” as the above meme suggests, I want to share two stories with you, one of success, one of failure and what I learned from each.

Daniel / Age 17 / 9th Grade

I taught Daniel (name changed for privacy) in my second year, when our English teacher resigned and my principal asked if I would switch from being an Algebra 1 inclusion teacher to a 9th grade English teacher. It was Daniel’s third round of 9th grade and his uncle (guardian) said, “Buddy, I’m not sure if school is for you. If you don’t pass your End-of-Course (EOC) exams this time, you need to drop out, get a job and help support the family.” Daniel was pretty stressed about this, because not only did he have the English EOC to pass, but he also had the Biology and Algebra 1 EOCs to pass, all of which he had failed at least twice previously.

So, Ms. Whitney Abbott (now Cartier), also early in her teaching career, and I asked our principal if we could come up and work on the weekends. Our principal gave the go-ahead as long as we had signed permission from all guardians, and thus began our Saturday routine: Whitney and I would pick up a $5 Little Caesar’s pizza, meet the kids at my modular building, and work on math, ELA, and biology. Looking back, I have no idea how we knew what or how to teach (especially biology), but we created flashcards and used the resources we had to help kids internalize the material as much as possible.

I’ll never forget the weekend after the EOCs were finished—my phone started ringing and ringing around 4 or 5 in the morning. I finally answered and it was Daniel screaming, “Ms. Thompson! I did it! I passed! I did it and I passed ALL THREE OF THEM!” The following Monday, students were only required to attend school if they needed to retake any EOCs, so for the first time in three years, he was not on that list! I parked, was walking to my classroom, and who did I see running down the hall? Daniel. He was giving his teachers hugs and high fives and he only went to school that day because he was so proud of himself, wanted to celebrate with his teachers, and show off that he had done it. He had made it happen.

Daniel taught me two life lessons: First, it’s when I really came to believe and hold close to my heart the Michael Jordan quote, “Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.” Daniel taught me so much. I can’t imagine the courage it takes to look at something that has beaten you down multiple times, to know it’s your last shot and to say, “I’m giving it everything I’ve got and I’m going to do this.” Wow. He truly made it happen. Second, I was also going through my own set of failures during that time because I was still such a NEW teacher. Even though I didn’t know what I was doing, because I conveyed belief in him and showed up – that was all he needed to make it happen. Simply by conveying the belief and showing up, it gave him the support he needed.

make it happen.jpg

Tammy / Age 15 / 6th Grade

Vulnerability time — as this experience is one of failure. This was more recent, just about 3 years ago. I taught a student named Tammy (name changed for privacy) who was selectively mute. From what I gathered from her family and her files, she had not spoken in a school setting since 3rd grade and no one really knew why. She was full of personality and absolutely hilarious. She was incredibly talented at communicating nonverbally, and often I would find myself saying, “Tammy told me…” because her messaging, at times, was just as clear as if she had spoken the words. However, in addition to selective mutism, she also avoided completing any work that she felt she didn’t know. She would often slip into one of the elementary classrooms and get some of their worksheets, or bring her own past worksheets to school, and work on these in class. Because it kept her from shutting down or acting out, I let her do this. I didn’t know what to do, and I let it paralyze me. I let myself lower the expectations. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. I failed her and she has since dropped out of school.

It’s interesting — in both situations, I didn’t really know what to do. Yet, in one I conveyed belief and showed up. In the other, I let uncertainty paralyze me from action. I had the same set of knowledge and skills; in fact, one could argue I had less with Daniel, and yet my action or inaction led to two vastly different end results.

I share these experiences in the hope that, as you wrap up these last few weeks of the school year, and perhaps find yourself in a daunting situation, don’t focus on what you don’t know how to do. Don’t let not knowing what to do paralyze you. Instead focus on CONVEYING BELIEF in and SHOWING UP for your students in the final 9 weeks. Be consistent through the finish line and the end result will not disappoint.

meghan thompsonMeghan Thompson joined Teach For America in 2008 and began her career in education as a 9th-12th Special Education Teacher in Charlotte, NC. In 2010, she was a member of the founding team at Henderson Collegiate (a school that has ranked in the top 3.5% of all NC public schools for the past 4 years). In 2014, she was a member of the founding team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and throughout her time at DPBR served as a middle school ELA teacher, middle school math teacher and the Middle School Campus Director.

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