As my first year at Candler begins I recognize that I am about to enter a world very different from that where I have been living.  For the past three years, I taught Algebra 1 in the Arkansas Delta through a program called Teach for America. TFA places folks like me in low-income schools where students are traditionally not performing on grade level. The program charges recent college graduates with the task of motivating and galvanizing students and other teachers at their particular placement school with the goal to chip away at the achievement gap that exists between low-income and high-income schools in our nation.  While the Delta may be far from Atlanta in many ways, what I’ve seen, learned, and experienced teaching in Helena will likely inform the my forthcoming study of theology.  I’ve found a couple.

#1 – Character

“Learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”

This comes from a New York Times article that discusses how Dave Levin, co- founder of a the KIPP charter school network, partnered with the headmaster of a top-tiered NYC private school in seeking to teach students character. School in the KIPP network typically operate in low-income communities, working towards similar goals as Teacher for America. For the past year, I taught at a KIPP school in Helena and became more intimately familiar with this attempt to teach character. To fully internalize the weight of what the research has shown, go to the link and read it (heads up – its long) However – two key findings that this article speaks to that have given me insight into the overlap to which I previously alluded.

The article argues for teaching students character, not because of the moral preference of those in administration, but for very practical reasons. Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, refers to the importance of such teaching citing, “The true importance did not come from the relationship to any system of ethics or moral laws but from the practical benefit: cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to ‘the good life,’ a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.”

“I have come that they may have life and have it to the more abundantly.” -John 10:10. For the past three years, I’ve attempted to at some point speak some semblance of meaningful, fulfilling, and life strengthening values into my student’s lives. KIPP calls it character, Jesus called it life abundantly.

Whether I’m seeking to communicate character/ life abundant with students in a classroom, parishioners in church, orphans, seekers, deadbeats, burned out sinners, halo wearing saints, or self-righteous pietists, the hope of finding traces of such character and life remains constant regardless of the setting.

Levin and his counterpart seek to teach a general set of acquired traits referred to as “character.” Moving from the general to a specific trait led me to overlap number two.

#2 – Failure.

Failure is that which we seek to avoid at all costs. It is that which consumes so much of our time, worry, dread, anxiety, and stress.

For the past three years, I have been taught that this word is as fowl as its alliterative counterpart. Through the best of intentions I have been indoctrinated in the belief that my student’s failure was my failure. Failure was not an option. When only 8% of students in low-income families are graduating from college, failure is not an option. 8% is not ok.

Here’s the problem.

KIPP students at Auburn University.“We thought, O.K., our first class was the fifth-highest-performing class in all of New York City,” (Dave) Levin said. “We got 90 percent into private and parochial schools. It’s all going to be solved. But it wasn’t.” Almost every member of the cohort did make it through high school, and more than 80 percent of them enrolled in college. But then the mountain grew steeper, and every few weeks, it seemed, Levin got word of another student who decided to drop out. According to a report that KIPP issued last spring, only 33 percent of students who graduated from a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college.”

As the article continues, it explores the notion that IQ and high test scores were not what was shown to be correlated with success in college. What did correlate, however, was grit – perseverance through failure. In true KIPP fashion, the network has taken to quantifying grit through a “Grit Scale” self-assessment that requires you to rate yourself on just 12 questions, from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” The “Grit Scale” has shown to be “remarkably predictive of success” according Penn Ph.D. graduate Angela Duckworth whose field test yielded the predictive data.

Grit moves us from failure to victory.

“Many of us are haunted by our failure to have done with our lives what we longed to accomplish. The disparity between our ideal self and our real self, the grim specter of past infidelities, the awareness that I am not living what I believe, the relentless pressure of conformity, and the nostalgia for lost innocence reinforces a nagging sense of existential guilt: I have failed. This is the cross we never expected, and the one we find hardest to bear.” -Brennan Manning

We’ve got to rethink our notion of failure and how we deal with it. In the world of education in which I was blessed to be a part, we’ve lost sight of how to teach kids that failure is inevitable and one of our greatest chances to learn and move forward. Instead, we fill students’ heads with facts and expect them to regurgitate them on tests that have been deemed important by a source that is not intimately connected to our students in our classrooms. Students cannot develop grit without experiencing failure.

In the church, we’ve lost sight of a God who is intimately connected with our shortcomings. We’ve forgotten the story of the prodigal son, whose unspeakably deep failure and missteps didn’t stop the father from running to meet his wayward son before the son could even speak one word of penitence. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and hands and kissed him tenderly.” -Luke 15:20 The son failed, came back broken, and was granted forgiveness before he even could ask. Failure has never been a deal breaker for the Father.

“The person with depth is the one who has failed, learned to live with it, and continued to move forward.” – Brennan Manning

Failure will come. If we are to keep growing, we must keep risking failure throughout our lives and learning to mature out of what the failure has taught us. We can’t keep running away from failure in education or in our relationship with our Creator.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” -Winston Churchill

May I remember these lessons as I embark on a new journey at Candler.  May we all seek the character that comes from pursuing an abundant life and learn to live in a way that embraces the idea that only through learning from failure may we be propelled into greatness.