My Semester as a Failure

The closer I move towards exams, the more activities I find that require my immediate attention. This semester I’m overwhelmed by the urge to give away and throw out. I’m up until 2am, sorting through clothes that no longer serve me. It’s only when a friend asks me if I’m okay that I realise how random my behaviour seems. I feel terrible. I’m reminded of my years in youth work, where giving away stuff is sometimes a sign the person plans to end their life. It’s a way of saying goodbye. To the friend who checked in with me – I’m sorry for worrying you. I thank you for having the courage to ask.

But exams and random decluttering wasn’t all I had to deal with. There were also random interactions with people from my past. Some reconnections will never be broken again. Others were reminders of why I walked away. Some brought back memories of my time at school – rolled down socks, slinkies, that school bell and those mean girls — who we now know were secretly insecure and desperately unhappy. Making fun of others was the only way they knew to make themselves feel better.

As I begin another night of decluttering I unearth an A5-sized book from my final year at primary school. Our teacher made us write a diary. Minimum one sentence per entry. He’d take our diaries home to read, returning them the following day with comments in red marker. At the time I thought it was a waste of time. I thought it was all about grammar and punctuation but, in fact, it was a way for us to decompress from our 12-year-old lives. An opportunity for us to reflect on our day and a chance for him to offer a new perspective.

I finish decluttering for the day and have the choice to study or work. I choose work. I tutor in event management and my students need me. At least that’s what I tell myself. I’m compiling their results from the semester and am surprised by how well they did. When my mentor from another life offered me the role I automatically decided it wasn’t for me. Event Management was my old life. This was the age of Aquarius and there was lawyering to be done. But an impatient push from Laura gave me the courage to take it on.

The first week was horrible. The students were lovely but I barely had my own life in order so what made me think I had the right to educate others? I survived. Everyone walked out intact and some smiled so I must have done something right. The second week was an epic fail. Technology failed me. Traffic failed me. Life failed me. I failed me.

Except it was the best tutorial I’d ever done. Everytime I failed, I’d stop and point out why to the class.  I’d then ask the students what they thought I could do differently. And that’s when I realised that it was not my event management knowledge that was of value, it was my ability to fail publicly and be okay with it. It set the stage for my students – a stage where failure was okay – as long as you stopped, reflected and worked out what you’d do differently next time. We brainstormed ideas. Each option presented was deconstructed and for every right answer there was an equally wrong one. Proving, in life, there is no right or wrong way to go. Just choices that we make. Sometimes they work out. Sometimes they don’t.

I must admit that I felt frustrated at times. Each group was required to run an activity – a mini-event, as such. At the end I’d ask each group what worked and rather than answer the question, they’d tell me what didn’t. The urge to roll my eyes and sigh loudly like a petulant twelve-year-old almost overwhelmed me. I mean, it’s a basic question, just answer it. But it’s not. From a very young age we’re taught that failing is bad. When we do fail we cover our arses – by blaming ourselves, others, bad karma from a past life or the universe. It’s pretty hard to think positive when society’s go-to is negative.

You won’t be surprised to find the class contained students from all countries – we are a multicultural country, it’s what I love about Australia. The diversity allowed me to feel comfortable talking about my own travel experiences. In Japan I learnt that the tallest nail gets hit down first. In American, you’re expected to talk yourself up or you get lost amongst the masses. In Australia you have to take the piss out of yourself or you’re at risk of being beheaded by the tall poppy syndrome.

It’s now the end of the semester and I’m uploading each student’s results. I don’t have much time for the seven-point grading system – to me life is about connections. But marks do matter – in some circumstances. I’m impressed by the number of groups who got 7s, or High Distinctions. I wonder if I’ve been too easy on them. Then I ditch that self-doubt. It’s not that I’ve been too easy. I failed early on. Then admitted it. And that gave them permission to fail as well. And when their ideas failed, they simply acknowledged it and then morphed them into something even better. This acknowledgement of failure is what allowed them to succeed.

But here’s the most important learning for me. It wasn’t all coincidence. A very smart mentor made the suggestion early on to identify the go-getters and encourage them to go first. The incentive being, that there was a little leniency allowed for the group brave enough to go first. Advice from others is always appreciated – it means I can listen, decide what works for me, ditch what doesn’t and go forth. In the first week I observed. In the second, I created groups and by week three, we had the magic formula. Week after week the groups improved and by the end I was almost in tears by how inspiring their activities were. Some were 20-minute action-packed events that had students fighting to be the final four in the bunker as the Apocalypse arrived with a boom. Others involved story-telling in darkness that had students connecting as human beings, not based on their appearance but on what they had to say. In any event, the activities were as diverse and interesting as my students.

I’d return home to read their Activity Outlines, impressed by the amount of effort they’d put into planning their event. There were contingency plans for contingency plans, with backup contingency plans for their contingency plan. I’m not joking – they were that well organised. But they consistently fell down on identifying key stakeholders they could include, should they run their event in the real world. Stakeholders are vital. They might be sponsors who donate prizes or products. They could be the local council who provides the venue. Or volunteers who donate their time so you can get the event off the ground without the enormous costs attached to hiring staff. These people are more important than contingency plans, yet more time was spent preparing for potential failure, rather than focusing on the connections that could be made.

And, as I sit here and write this, while trying to plan a toga party so that Laura and I can celebrate finishing our first year of law and invite all our friends so we can thank them for their support, I realise I’m yet to identify a single stakeholder who can support us. I’m returned full circle, wondering what gives me the right to educate and critique others when I can’t even put into practice what I preach. I look down at my diary, written when I was 12, and one word jumps out at me.

Yet.

 

~I’d like to take the opportunity to thank my Grade 6 teacher, for even though I did not understand the purpose behind the diary, it has changed my life in more ways than I imagined. It’s a reminder of the importance of perspective. This journey has also made me realise that I don’t need to be an expert in something to be a teacher. I just need to fail, reflect, pick myself up and try again.

Although my event students and I are equally unable to identify and connect with key stakeholders, we all have one thing in common. The power of yet. To my mentor from the leisure world – thank you. It is through your support that I am where I am today. And that, is the power of an educator.~

 

 

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