the right to fail

I mentioned a few months ago that I’d had some major A-ha moments around not taking responsibility for someone else’s experience in my personal life. This was a journey that I believe was first triggered and required work when I was a teacher. It took awhile to sink in.

I remember very clearly the day that I was sitting in my office after a class after having a particularly frustrating conversation with a student who had been a source of near-constant disruptions and behavioral problems all semester. The student was incredibly intelligent, but hell-bent on acting out some kind of authority issue with me in class. Worse, the student was failing. We’d read articles in preparation for an argumentative paper on whether it was self-defense or murder if a woman who was being abused by her husband killed her abuser. This student had written a paper with the thesis that the Constitution gives us all the right to “self-expression” and thus, someone who murders their partner is just exercising their right to “self-expression.” During a peer review, I’d pointed out this logical fallacy (while giving the student due credit for their willingness to at least try and think outside the box and come up with an original thesis).

I’d told the student in no uncertain terms that basing a paper on this kind of thesis was no paper I’d pass because its very premise was flawed. I wanted to give the student time to revise their work. Later, the student turned in the same paper they’d turned in during peer review, with no changes, and when the student failed this paper, this combined with a number of other things missing meant they¬† failed the class.

The student came to my office and complained. I got completely sucked into this. I think I had some idea back then that if I just tried hard enough, I’d be the next Freedom Writers chick or something. The student was laying it on thick, saying things like, “Maybe I’m not meant for college.” I spent nearly an hour trying to convince the student that s/he was an intelligent person who needed to do XYZ in the future if they were to pass classes. S/he left my office in total victim mode, grumbling something about how teachers were out to get people.

Once the student had left, I held my head in my hands. It was the end of the semester, I was exhausted and wasted and completely wrung out, as I always was at the end of a semester of teaching. A veteran teacher who shared an office with me had heard the whole thing. I was near tears, I was so tired and frustrated. I asked her what she’d thought of the conversation. How could I have convinced this student? How could I have motivated more? How could I have inspired more?

“I think s/he was manipulating you,” she said, “And I think that students have a right to fail.”

A what? A right to…fail? This hit me like cold water. Wasn’t my job to make students pass, not fail?

“No,” she said. “Your job is to teach your subject. You can’t ‘make’ someone pass. You lay out the guidelines in the clearest possible way, you give regular feedback so that people can course-correct, you share what else needs to happen to master a particular skill. But it’s not your job to ‘make’ students pass.”

She said all of this calmly and simply, in a soft voice devoid of angry energy. This was coming from someone who was beloved by her students, someone whose desk was covered with cards from thankful students at the end of each semester.

“You can’t be responsible for their choices,” she said. “Did you tell this student to change the premise of their paper?”

“Yes,” I said. “Once when s/he talked to me after class, and again at peer review.”

“So they knew. S/he was manipulating you. S/he knows what they need to do to pass. You outlined things clearly. You took time to talk to this student after class and at peer review. You just spent an hour talking to this student, convincing her/him to keep trying. And s/he leaves the conversation and says that ‘teachers don’t care’ and you take on that responsibility? That’s not your responsibility to take on. S/he has a right to fail. Let them choose.”

I let her words sink in. This was a teacher I respected, who I’d invited to observe me teaching during my first year. I had voluntarily asked for this because I wanted to be assessed and given feedback. She’d given me great feedback–both of a critical/constructive nature, as well as praise. She was not one to simply pump somebody up if they were having a bad day.

“Kate, you are a good teacher,” she said, as though the matter were now to be closed. “Let them make their choices.” Then she turned back to her work.

I was thinking of this today as I was musing about failure, and how long it has taken to embrace supposed “failures” and see the gold in them, to allow myself to make the choices I’m going to make, to trust the process. I was having this moment of fear and not enoughness, how I “should” be doing more, and then I was thinking about this student and all that their process taught me. I learned that I needed to just show up with love and acceptance for whatever a student’s process looked like.

Sometimes our processes will include failing English classes, or losing jobs, or botching relationships. Is any of it really failure, if we stay connected to a willingness to have some love and acceptance of the process? I think not.

I was thinking today that this is a handy thing to take with me, too–BEing my journey, showing up with love and acceptance for whatever my process looks like, even now.


* on not taking it personally

* Don’t dull your flame

six months of courage

Oh, dear. Once I finally finished everything I realized that there are a few transitions in this that clip off a word. I hope you’ll forgive me…

One thing that I do with The Courageous Living Guide is offer the opportunity to take a moment for assessment. I think that this is, rather than being an exercise in self-hate (“Oh, man, now I need to assess myself and see all the ways that I’m STILL not doing what I should be doing…”) it can be an exercise in commitment & accountability and in acknowledgement.

This video felt a little tender to make–I am being courageous and leaning into that tender spot of admitting to fear (“terrifying” is the word I use most!)–but it is honest. Thank you for bearing witness.

(Note: This video was created in June of 2010, six months after making the switch from part-time to full-time coaching work).

deciding to write the courageous living program

Something in me whispered: “It’s time to write that book.”

What book? I’m thinking. Which one? Because if there is anything that a writer has a lot of laying around, it’s those books that have been started but never finished. (“Creative abortions,” my grad school cohort darkly termed such things).

And then I realized what book it was.

The Courageous Living Program.

Of course.

There have been any number of moments of panic that I’ve had since I started flying solo. Unfortunately, being someone who rocks out at holding space for others does not mean being immune to such pitfalls as looking around in total fear and going, “What the hell am I DO-ing?” And after each of these moments, what I keep coming back to is that what I’m DO-ing is I’m being courageous. What I’m DO-ing is I’m having my own private Courageous Year, right here right now, and the cool thing about that is when I sink down into just living my truth, and that’s all it’s about, a switch gets flipped–the switch from DOing to BEing.

And that BEing is pretty blissful.

Which is why spending three hours in the library today, working on a book called The Courageous Living Program, which would be based on the Courageous Year, left me with that same wobbly-legged ecstatic natural high can you believe it life is so beautiful feeling. Also why a quick dig through a box of writing stuff in my closet quickly revealed the early drafts of this that began working on back in 2008, drafts that I had almost completely forgotten about the existence of, drafts that I had bound and sent to various corners of the United States to get feedback from test readers.

My inner little girl is doing the happy dance right now, because my goodness but it’s real–I’m writing a book. And this is something she has always wanted to do, and has done before, but then they get finished and filed away.

This one will get to see the light of day, because I’m going to turn it into a digital e-book. I’m going to include all of the videos and interviews and general courageous goodness and encouragement and the You Matter and the woo woo stuff that’s so fun and the practical tools, and then, because I don’t believe a book on its own can change anything and also because talking to people one-on-one is the best part anyway, I’m going to combine it with coaching.

My inner little kid is doing a total happy dance right now because yeah, we’re totally going to combine things she loves and rock out and play with it. Also, she’s pretty happy right now because, uh, we actually already started working on this book. And it’s FUN.

Courageous Question: What gleeful, joyful desire lurks beneath your waves? What would have your inner little kid doing the happy dance?


* Water the Plant