Larry Efird: Don’t believe talk of failure

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 22, 2015

Someone once said, “Failure is the back door to success.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve failed at more than a few things over the years, and it often felt more like a bulldozer coming through the front door than something that sneaked in the back! I realize success doesn’t always come on the first try, but sometimes it doesn’t ever come in a tangible way. What’s a teacher supposed to do when nothing seems to be working?

I’ve met very few indifferent teachers in my life. Most of them have been dedicated and caring individuals who soldiered on amidst difficulty, and oftentimes, with little or no encouragement. Teachers measure their success in how well their students can think and interact with others. We also like to see that our kids feel secure in our classes and that they know we as their teachers believe in them. (Seeing them make good grades or doing their best work is simply icing on the cake.)

So, how do we interpret labels about our schools such as “low performing” or “below state average”? When you’re not a part of one, it’s easy to think, “Yeah. That’s a bad school, and obviously the teachers are not doing a good job there.” Who wants to be labeled “low performing” or “average”? No one. Especially teachers. Common sense would tell us we didn’t get into this profession so we could be stereotyped negatively — and work more than one job in the process.

When I taught a second-grade class in the ‘90s, one of my little girls asked if she could tell me a secret. I told her she could, and then she leaned over to my ear and said, “When I grow up, I want to be an actress. And if I can’t be an actress, I want to be a teacher. And if I can’t be a teacher, I want to work at Wal-Mart!” I wasn’t expecting the Wal-Mart aspiration, but I did want to tell her that she could teach school and work at Wal-Mart. Many people do.

There is also the dubious label of a “developing” teacher, which is really a euphemism for a “crummy” teacher. It’s the lowest mark we can receive on our year-end evaluations. Thankfully, if we have administrators who understand the teacher’s psyche, they know best how to communicate areas in which we have failed, and in which we need to make adjustments. We often do the same thing for our students when we see them struggling. If they care, and we care, there are no limits as to what we can accomplish together.

I’ve had failing students who continued to fail simply because they didn’t have any desire to do better and I could not motivate them to do so. I won’t say I take blood pressure medicine solely because of them, but my hair is grayer than it used to be! (The good thing is, however, that I haven’t pulled it all out — yet.)

I didn’t like math in high school because I had a harder time in those classes than I had in all the others. My teachers were good, but I had the proverbial “mental block,” which in reality meant I didn’t like it enough to try harder or to study more. Was that the teacher’s fault?

For an assiduous educator who is discouraged over being labeled “average” or his or her school labeled “low-performing,” one can only wonder who came up with those labels and who created the standards? Do they really understand what a teacher does each day? Do they work in a classroom?

Peter Marshall, a former chaplain of the United States Senate, said, “It is better to fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed than to succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.” Those are both wise and encouraging words for teachers. Whether we’re accused of failing by those who temporarily succeed in their efforts to undermine our profession and our children — and even when we do legitimately fail at times — at least we know our cause will “ultimately succeed.” That cause has been, and always will be, the welfare of our students.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.