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Sting of failure tests my resilience

"But I worked so hard," I said to my boss. "Sometimes I got up at 3 in the morning to correct papers," I told her, all too aware that the pitch of my voice was increasing to a whine.

I couldn't believe that this was happening. My first year of teaching at a private school in Nicaragua had been difficult, but I'd gotten through it. And, despite my difficulties with classroom management, my students were learning. So now, after all the hard work I'd put in, after all I'd improved, I was receiving my end-of-year evaluation. My grade: a pathetic 63. For the students, 65 was the passing grade. By that standard I was a failure.

"We're not measuring the effort; we're measuring the result," my principal stated. I left her office trembling, my eyes filled with tears. I couldn't believe this was happening.

In the featured article of theJuly/August issue of the Atlantic, "How the Cult of Self-Esteem Is Ruining our Kids," Lori Gottlieb asserts that since the 1980s, North American children have been overly indulged -- praised for doing the most basic household chores and given trophies from their sports coaches just for trying hard. Children aren't criticized; they're shielded from the experience of failure so intensely that they never develop resilience, and this overly perfect childhood inevitably leaves them unprepared for the normal challenges of adulthood.

Normally I wouldn't think of myself as being part of that generation. I still remember the two years I spent on the middle school basketball team -- mainly on the bench -- and I certainly didn't receive a trophy just for trying. Then there was the disappointment I felt when, after auditioning for "The Sound of Music" during my first week of high school, I darted up to the cast list posted outside the principal's office and found my name indisputably absent.

Then there was my senior year of college when, in my first moment of true academic hubris, I decided to write my senior thesis on the "Changing Definitions of Reason Through Time." My professors didn't have the heart to tell me that an undergraduate thesis was not the right venue for such a project. In all of those cases, as much as I strove to reframe my failures as "learning experiences," I had to admit my defeat.

And yet, I could not help but feel indignant at the review my boss had given me -- upon completion of my first real job, no less! For 10 months, I had endured five separate groups of unruly teenagers -- and if I was overindulged, I'd like to hear what Gottlieb would have to say about them.

I had been persistent, brave and committed, and I'd truly loved my students. I'd lived according to the principles under which I'd been raised, the virtues that I'd worked to cultivate through all the years of my own education. How could all of that effort count as a failure?

"We're not measuring the effort; we're measuring the result," she had said. Her words were cold. Her words were cruel. Her words were very, very true.

I still believe very strongly that one's inner character and virtues are of utmost importance, especially in a profession such as teaching, where one sets oneself up as a leader and role model for students to follow. I ultimately had to admit that my principal was correct on certain issues. In the end, a teacher's character alone is not enough. The result is what really counts.

Jeannine M. Pitas, a native of Buffalo, recently completed her first year of teaching at a private school in Nicaragua.