TESOL Thoughts

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

On Failure, Reflections, and Learning

“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” – John Dewey.

“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” – John Dewey.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world in which you never made mistakes and were still able to do everything you set yourself to do? I’m sure that nobody enjoys the feeling of disappointment that mistakes bring about; however, if you never experienced the pain of making mistakes, would you really be learning? While I am not saying that we have to make mistakes in order to learn, I would argue that some of the most valuable learning moments in our lives, as teachers or language learners, come from identifying what has gone wrong when we’ve followed a less than ideal course of action.

In my experience, as painful as it can be to realize I have not done something the way I anticipated I would, it is liberating to realize that every day brings a new chance to do things better and to not repeat the same mistakes. Call it processing or reflective teaching practices, this semester more than ever, I have taken to journaling after each and every class in order to process what went well, what could be better, and how I feel about those objectives I set for myself and my students each lesson. My teaching journal has also helped me deal with those emotional moments in which I may feel insecure or uncertain about something. Sometimes possible solutions to my issues come up as I write –always a welcome result of journaling.

As a teacher, life would be really hard if I don’t embrace my own mistakes or if I am not willing to even admit to them in the first place. Of course, this is easier said that done. Who can honestly say they like how they feel when they make a mistake? It is also much easier to always look for an external reason justifying why things didn’t go the way we expected. What I do know is that I internalize a better course of action much more easily when I’ve experienced the incorrect or least preferable way to go about something. If I blame someone else for my mistake I will miss an opportunity to better my teaching practices. Take, for example, giving clear instructions. When I began teaching, this was one of my weakest points. Nothing like 20+ people staring at you and doing something completely different from what you “instructed” them to do (or not doing anything at all) to make you realize that you need to you need to change your course of action. It does not feel good at all to make the mistake of giving instructions incorrectly, but because I know that giving clear instructions does not come naturally to me, I now focus on this each time I write a lesson plan. Most importantly though, I keep reminding myself to be patient with myself and not expect perfection. We all make mistakes and those mistakes teach us something about ourselves. What matters the most is how we deal with them.

I have always reminded my students to embrace the mistakes they make when learning a new language and take them as an indicator of growth –our mistakes allow us to identify the areas we need to focus on. This semester I have had to put my own advice into practice as I am not only teaching a new subject, but I am also learning a very foreign and challenging language to me: Turkish. As a student, I see how the languages I speak (including my attempt to learn Mandarin) permeate this new language I’m learning. I feel uncomfortable every time I can’t understand my teacher’s instructions or can’t remember a new word, but I can only hope that I will continue embracing my mistakes and continue reflecting and implementing changes with an open mind (and heart). I have a feeling my teaching journal will run out of pages very soon, and that is OK. When it comes to learning, as long as I don’t run out of patience and self-compassion, life will be all-good.

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