The Mercy of Teachers Who Embrace Failure

I often talk about the teachers who shaped both the writer and woman I am today. Not infrequently, I mention one teacher’s name with more regularity than any other. (Go to Door Number 5 to receive your prize if you smiled wryly and said, “Mr. Quist.”) When done right, teaching is a difficult job. There is no shortage of care and attention to detail required to produce top students, and there is no dearth in the demands from parents and principals to do so. Though I’ve never taught in a classroom setting, I imagine that this kind of pressure is the main contributor to teacher burn out. (Any teachers reading this post are free to correct this assessment in the comments section.)

The days are waning when it is the norm for teachers to remain in in their profession for 20-30 years, retiring on a teacher’s pension. A casual observation of classrooms in the US reveals that the average teacher is in their late 20s or early 30s. When I was in elementary and high school, it was not abnormal to have instructors well into their 40s or late 50s. In my corner of South Africa, I’m grateful that there exists a good ratio of more mature teachers with those early in their career. This gives opportunities for mentorship to younger teachers and helps them – I believe – gain perspective and realistic goals where students are concerned. Not every student is going to be a little Einstein, and that’s okay. A teacher with realistic expectations and perspective will be able to guide an unconventional student toward their strengths. That’s what happened with me when I applied to SOS Hermann Gmeiner International College (HGIC) in Tema, Ghana

Did I ever tell you guys how I bombed my O Levels? Oh, I bombed spectacularly. I was not a remarkable student by any measure of the word. I did sports, but poorly and only when forced. My ineptitude in math and science rendered me a C average student. I had good stage presence, but one didn’t graduate high school in Ghana on the merits of your dramatic abilities alone…or ever. The arts are not valued in Ghana, and haven’t been since the fall of the First Republic. We need doctors and lawyers! Who has a set designer ever helped? So anyway, given all those variables, it was my grey-eyed principal’s delight to sneer that she would not be allowing me to return to GIS to complete my A Levels.

I was aghast. Where would I go? I had a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving the rigors and horrors of any one of the government secondary schools along the country’s coast, and my parents were making any offers to send me back to the US to finish high school. And then someone told my dad about a new school that had opened up in Tema (“A school for orphans,” he put it.) and recommended that we check it out. I wondered if my dad had considered committing suicide just to gain me admission to high school. Fortunately, his demise was not a requirement to further my education. Just 2 rounds of exams and an interview. Somehow, I managed to get myself an interview. I know there’s no way my math grade earned me a place, so I must’ve written something compelling in the essay portion.

In the interview room, I was pleased to see a familiar face: Mr. Chriss Tay. He was formerly a history teacher at my previous high school. I never had the pleasure of sitting in one f his classes, but I’d heard great things about him and his kindness as a man and an instructor. That he was now on the interview board at HGIC meant one thing: We were both refugees from that aforementioned grey-eyed dictator, and therefore allies. I felt confidence surge through me as the panel discussed my O Level exam results and the fresh ones set before them. I was honest about my strengths and my weaknesses, bluffing my way through my answers, making it sound as though I was doing them a favor by applying to this school for orphans. (Please don’t judge me too harshly! I was a product of a society that has little regard for those deemed less fortunate.)

“So why don’t you go back to GIS?” asked Mrs. Nkrumah. (She was HGIC’s principal and was also part of the interview panel and process.) I remember Mrs. Nkrumah asking me this because she wore a set of imposing glasses through which my terrified façade stared back at me. She also had a peculiar accent, one polished with tenderness but built with sternness at its bedrock.

I was about to fumble through a response when I heard Mr. Tay – my ALLY – utter these words:


“No. No way. She cannot return to GIS with these grades. They just aren’t good enough.”


What the &$@#??? But yeah. He was right. And there it was laid bare. So I admitted to it. There was no BS’ing this group of adult now. I knew I was smart (I’d grown up hearing it my whole life) but this is where the rubber met the road. If I wanted to take my education to the next step, I was going to have to work hard for it. And then truth is, I had never been a hardworking student. I promised if they gave me a chance, I would.

Two years later I graduated with grades sufficient enough to earn the equivalence of the one year of college credits. But I received so much more than that. HGIC did not “teach” me skills needed for success. They guided the process of self-discovery and encouraged me to aim towards it. We all have an inner sense of justice, right and wrong, and a desire to perform to the best of our ability. The staff – everyone from the house mothers, to the gate guards – performed their duties with dignity and excellence. We were never berated or brow beaten into completing our studies or tasks. (One teacher being the exception.) The environment was infused with a spirit of healthy competition and cooperation, above all else. We were better students and friends because we genuinely cared for one another and understood that success for one is a win for all. More than 20 years later, that is still the case. I believe this is the case for every graduating class from HGIC. I hope it is.

Looking back, my year group was not a particularly brilliant bunch of kids (with the exception of three girls who went by the code names Hail Mary, Eunie Boop and Naafoa. They were machines!), but I believe the administration saw something in each of us that we did not see within ourselves; something that no final exam can adequately determine: our potential.

The only way to unearth potential is to invite and court failure in the way that the old adage advises. “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” HGIC provided a safe space to try again, and try better next time.

This is what I’m looking for in a high school experience for my daughter, who is so similar to a younger me in many ways. Holy Ghost fire, the girl is a terrible student. Just lazy in every way you can imagine! But she’s creative, perceptive and smart as a tack. We do not have a school with HGIC’s philosophy where we live. The choices for high schools on the Garden Route are few and far between, and as I listen to the administration of the few we’ve visited, it is clear that these schools want a ready made student – one who is going to bring value to school something, rather than one out of whom that can unearth value. This is why we’ve chosen to homeschool my eldest. (That and the $400/month/per child price tag attached.)

And so while every day we spend homeschooling comes with its frustrations and rewards, I try to sit back and remember Mr. Tay’s voice. Not for what he said, but for the intention behind it:

“No, these grades aren’t good enough to go back to where you came from, but we are here to guide you to your potential.”

Thank you, to all the teachers who never demanded perfection of me and who encouraged me to fail forward.