Professional Growth Through Abject Failure
Before a snooping investigative journalist blows the whistle on my deepest professional secret, I’ll go ahead and share it. I failed my first pre-service teaching exam in spectacular fashion. I failed that Practicum I, blue book, short-answer only exam so badly that I considered changing my major, altering a career path I had decided upon as a freshman in high school.
I scored a 44.
Out of 100.
On my first meaningful education exam.
As a sophomore at Rowan University In the fall of 1995, I waltzed into Dr. Blohm’s Practicum I course ready to demonstrate my brilliance. If nothing else, I would set myself apart from these other jokers with whom I’d be competing for jobs in a few short years. I would make cogent points about lesson design, I would model mini-lessons to the envy of my peers, and I would write thoughtful answers in response to the most pressing issues facing pre-service teachers.
So when I received back that menacing blue book, nary ⅓ of the pages filled with my surface level responses, with a slightly left leaning 44 scrawled in red pen in the upper left hand corner, I think I blacked out. Now, I don’t mean I literally experienced a psychotic episode during which I couldn’t be responsible for my behavior. But I couldn’t tell you anything about the rest of that class session.
When class ended, I just sort of roamed around campus. I didn’t have a destination in mind, I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t have a purpose. I was lost. If there were a soundtrack to my life, REM’s “Everybody Hurts” would have been playing.
As I mentioned, I knew I wanted to be a teacher shortly after my 14th birthday, so from that time forward, nothing got in my way. In fact, there’s power in such certainty because with the next seven or eight years mapped out, I didn’t experience the stress of not knowing what I wanted to do.
Until the 44.
When I finally arrived back at Chestnut Hall, I remember sitting on my bed and cycling through my options as I saw them.
- Drop out and become a street performer.
- Speak to my advisor about changing majors to “undeclared” until I drop out and become a street performer.
- Request a meeting with Dr. Blohm to figure out what had just happened, thank her, and then drop out to become a street performer.
I ended up choosing the latter, though what once was a waltz into her classroom morphed into a tail-between-the-legs shuffle into her office.
“It’s really quite simple,” she started. “Your answers aren’t wrong; they’re just not right enough.”
As we leafed through the blue book, she referred me to her comments, which read like the dialogue of a marital spat.
“I need more.”
My answers weren’t wrong, I repeated to myself, they just weren’t right enough. For whatever reason, I didn’t demonstrate the kind of depth I would eventually expect of my students.
At the end of the meeting, Dr. Blohm thanked me for coming in and admitted that students rarely seek her out after a score like this. Instead, she suggested, that first exam was all part of a “weeding out” process she had to go through at the beginning of each semester. When the semester ended, I wrote her a note thanking her for pushing me to want to be better and insisting that I would be back for more advice.
As it turned out, I most certainly did fail that first education exam with a 44, but I passed Dr. Blohm’s first test with a side order of humble pie.
Spectacular failure, which could be the name of my grunge revival band, is a necessary part of our growth as teachers and as leaders. We should expect it, embrace it, and refer to it as a signpost on our path.
Now, if I could only remove this silly “44” tattoo from my chest.