The Success of Failure

A few years ago I decided that I wanted to give teaching a try. I always loved school when I was growing up. I was the student who reminded the teachers when they forgot to pickup the homework, the kid that volunteered to go to summer school, the little girl who broke down in tears at the prospect of having a substitute teacher, for fear of the entire class being rebellious.

When I was offered a teaching position at a Christian private school, I was quick to say yes. I could not wait to return to my first love: school. With visions of perfect students who were eager to please the teacher and ready to learn, I carefully picked out a plain black dress, teal coat and black flats. I perfected a powerpoint of the first chapter of the Biology book, complete with a couple of (in my opinion) funny “first day back” jokes and put on my best “welcome to my classroom” smile.

This was the memory that came to mind three and a half years later, when I found myself now teaching at an inner city public school, in front of a classroom of 32 seventh graders whose last mission in life was to learn pre-algebra. I started my teaching career thinking I was the next Ron Clark, who managed to run a classroom of failing elementary school students from the inner city in New York into the top achievers in their state. I was now wondering why they were still letting me teach. In spite of countless hours spent planning lessons, purchasing resources with my own money and watching youtube videos on how to manage a classroom; I was simply not being successful. I could not keep my student’s attention or keep my room quiet for more than one minute. It did not help that the teacher next door was a veteran classroom manager who could quiet a class down with a simple glare. Walking past her classroom was a like a walk in a peaceful library. Walking past mine was like being in a mosh pit at a rock concert.

Multiple times throughout the year, I contemplated quitting my job. Some days I simply did not have the motivation to get up and face the one hundred and twenty students who wanted nothing to do with finding the area of triangular prisms. To my surprise, my principal offered to renew my contract to teach the following year and I gratefully, but firmly, declined. My mind was made up; teaching had turned me into a failure and I was not about to take another year of that. For whatever reason, my principal encouraged me to return to the school in a different position, one that did not involve direct teaching, and I did. I came back the next year, hoping with all my heart I had not made a terrible decision.

Going back to the school had to be one of the best decisions I have made, both personally and professionally. In my current role, I still see the same students I saw last year, but my interaction with them is very different now. I now realize what I could not see last year. I was so blinded by my failure that I could not see that my failure had resulted in a few “side effects” that I dare to even call successes. This is the frustration of failure: it is hard to take notice of the wins, when you feel like you are constantly losing. As Christians, it is also hard to reconcile the fact that we are “more than conquerors” with the reality that we are simply not always going to win at the task at hand. Yes, we are victorious and yes, nothing is impossible for God. But sometimes God, in his infinite sovereignty, will not give us the win. I remember praying for wisdom and understanding and that God would show me how to win my students over so that they would love me and respect me and listen to me. Yet I would show up at work and be cursed at, ignored and even ridiculed.

It did not make sense then, but I see now what I could not see then; even in my failures God grants me success. God does not measure success the way that I measure success. It took a whole school year of daily failures, but here are three specific lessons I learned about how God grants us the most success right in the middle of our greatest failures:

1. It’s not always about what is happening in the moment, but what will happen in the future. 

No, not all my students passed their state boards. I did not come up with a witty rap for them that caused them all to fall in love with me. But this year both of the math teachers who teach the students I had last year have repeatedly expressed how much their students learned last year and what a solid foundation in pre-algebra they have. There I was thinking that nothing had stuck, but apparently they actually learned a lot more than I gave myself credit for. They were not outwardly expressing it, but inwardly they were learning. We may not see it outwardly, but we are impacting people even when we don’t realize it. When we work with people, we may not see immediate results, but that does not mean a harvest is not coming. Moses never saw the Israelites make it to the Promised Land, but eventually they did, or their descendants did to be more correct. Either way, it happened even though he did not see it.

2. It’s not always about what God wants to do through you, as much as what he wants to do to you.

Because my classroom was so challenging last year, I literally had to pray myself into getting up every morning. Then I had to talk to God the entire 25 minute drive to school to make sure he was with me as I stood in front of the students and taught that day. Then I had to repeatedly ask for wisdom throughout the day to handle stressful situations. I didn’t see it then, but that created a large dependency on God that I know sustained me and gave me grace with my supervisors. When David was anointed to be king he did not immediately take the throne. In fact, he spent a good amount of time, already having been anointed, fleeing for his life. It was during this time that he wrote some of the most beautiful Psalms as expressions that would live forever as anthems and templates for believers to look to for guidance.

3. Success is more about doing what God asks me to do than it is about seeing the results I want.

When Moses went before Pharaoh to ask him to release the Israelites, he did not get the result he was seeking. Not once, not twice, not three times but nine times Pharaoh refused to let the people go. And yet Moses kept going before him. He kept trucking along, doing what God asked of him. Though he did not get the result he was seeking (the release of his people), God was using Moses to build up His street credit so that all glory would be brought to the Lord. I did not leave the school because I knew that was the place God was calling me to be. So I made it my mission that even if I felt like I was a failure at my job, I wanted to be certain that I was a success at obeying God.

A parent who literally tried to get me fired last year sent me a text message this week stating how grateful she was for everything I do for her four kids. Three students who I constantly sent to the Vice-Principal last year for discipline were sent to me last week so I could disciple to them. A student who I was convinced absolutely hated me pulled me aside in the hallway to show me a certificate he received for passing his state exam. I still don’t have it all figured out (far from it) and I am certainly by no means the best employee at my job. But as it turns out, all of the failure I carried with me last year has given me a degree of success that I am more than convinced was given to me only because of God’s grace. After all, isn’t that the sweetest success of all?

By: Benita Holguin