Flexibility, Failure, and Forging Ahead

The beginning of any new year makes me stop and assess where I’ve been, where I am, where I’m going, and why. It also makes me think about how we help create new paths for ourselves as educators and for the students we serve in the middle level.

Typically, we tell our students to avoid Fs and F words at all costs, but I contend that there are three F words and clauses that we can use to be more amazing middle grades teachers and learners: FlexibilityFailure, and Forge Ahead.

January is not only full of new hopes and resolutions, it is also full of snow days, delays and other wintry mixes. While we often embrace these days and hours off, they force us to be flexible. When I taught English/language arts, I always had grand plans in January to get my students ready for the state writing test in February, and inevitably, we would get hit with an unexpected snow or ice storm that cancelled school—sometimes for a week or more.

As middle grades teachers and students, being flexible is vital when change happens. Therefore, when my students returned to school, we talked about how important it is to be flexible. We discussed how teachers have to flex their lesson plans, homework assignments, projects, and unit tests to help students achieve.

We talked about how flexibility can also help them with their own goal-setting, learning aspirations, and New Year’s resolutions. And we looked at the insights of others.

Anthony Lawlor, the famed architect, said, “Flexibility, as displayed by water, is a sign of life.” He was right. When water reaches a boulder in a stream, it moves around it. It adjusts and bends. As teachers and students in the middle level, we should be flexible and flow on. If we aren’t flexible, we might not bend; we might just break the goals and resolutions we’ve made to ourselves as teachers and learners.

Passion may keep us inspired. Vision may help us project ahead. But flexibility will give us the strength to adjust and adapt when the unexpected happens in our classrooms.

Every day, we are presented with shining examples of success. Teachers of the Year. Most Valuable Players. Nobel Prize Winners. While we should look at these heralded individuals, we should also examine their full stories to see how failure helped them succeed.

Harrison Ford was told by the vice president of Columbia movies that he was never going to make it in the business. The Beatles were turned down by a recording company that said, “We don’t like their sound and guitar music is on the way out.” Michael Jordan was cut from the high school basketball team. Thomas Edison was told by a teacher he was “too stupid to learn anything.”

Everybody fails, even some of the most successful people in the world. If we help our students see failure as a necessary part of the learning process, they may be more inclined to answer difficult questions, attempt more challenging goals, and assert themselves in trying situations.

And as teachers, when we study the full narratives with all of their flaws, we may be more inclined to teach outside of the box, to try new strategies, to question our own pedagogy, and to push our fellow educators towards progressive paths. The key is not to let a failure break us down; rather, we must help our students and our profession embrace purposeful risk-taking and see the rewards instead of merely the risks.

Forge Ahead
The phrase “forge ahead” has its roots in the Latin expression, “carpe diem,” and I’ve always felt it to be helpful as I think about teaching, learning, and goal-setting.

When I was a middle grades English/language arts teacher, I had a student named Matt who turned to me very seriously one day and said, “You know what, Mr. Tomlin? There will never be another November 5, 2003.” At the time, I just thought he was trying to avoid doing my language arts work, but then I thought about it some more. He was right. What Matt said relates to the phrases “carpe diem” and “forge ahead.”

As teachers and students in the middle level, it’s critical that we remember that each day is its own day, and that we will never get the day back. While re-dos and re-takes are possible on assessments, we can’t call for a “do over” on a day to bring great teaching and learning to the middle level.

So when the days get long and winter gets us out of synch, we must look forward and forge ahead. When we write lessons with our teams and work with our students, we have to ask the hard questions. What’s the cost of a wasted day? What do we spend as teachers and students if we discard a day? Or what will we earn when we make the most of it?

The philosopher and writer, Jonathan Swift said, “May you live all the days of your life.” Seems like a simple quote, but it packs a punch. Teaching and learning should be built on living all of our days to their fullest—not just some of the days. Helping our students and ourselves to see each day as a gift is another way we can help teaching and learning in the middle level forge ahead.

Dru Tomlin is director of middle level services for the Association for Middle Level Education. dtomlin@amle.org @DruTomlin_AMLE


  1. This article is great for reminding educators of all levels that when thing happen beyond our control we need to be able to go with the flow sometimes. While becoming flexible we need to also value failure. Teachers need to teacher students that nobody is perfect and failure is a necessity in learning. Students will get upset with themselves if they miss an assignment or get a bad grade. Instead of punishing them for this, creating learning moments where they can acknowledge this failure and use it to better themselves. That is what teaching is all about.