Remembering Career Failures

Looking back from my ninth decade, my career as an educator has been marked by many successes. But I cannot forget the failures I encountered.

I began teaching high school in 1955, a goal I had pursued as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. I taught 14 years on and off in various school districts until the early-1970s. During those years I participated in an innovative, district-based teacher training program that prepared returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in urban schools. I also created culturally diverse curriculum materials and co-authored a series of U.S. history textbooks both of which were published in those years.

Left teaching in 1972 to get a doctorate at Stanford in history of education and in 1974 achieved my dream of becoming a district superintendent. I served seven years. I returned to Stanford as a professor in 1981 and for 20 years taught, advised doctoral students, returned to high school teaching three times, and did research and writing until I retired in 2001. Since then, I began a blog in 2009, taught seminars until 2013, and have written extensively about the history of school reform while continuing to do research in public schools. I have published many articles and books about U.S. classrooms, schools, and districts always with a historical perspective whether it be teaching, using technology, or a current reform.

OK, this is beginning to sound like a draft for an obituary. It is not.

What I want to write about is not my successes but my failures. While on the surface my long career as an educator appears as an unvarnished success albeit a modest one, it was a zig-zag path with cul-de-sacs and, truth be told, a road pockmarked with failure.

Why note failures?

Because successes in life, however defined, are built on failures that often go unnoted. The common pattern in talking or writing about a career is to deny or cover up disappointments and failures. Carefully prepared resumes are silent on mishaps. The point is that everyone’s career is marked by failures but in our competitive, highly individualistic culture, talking about failure is like talking about body odor. Not done. Failure means you are a loser in a society that praises winners.

So here I want to recount my career failures to make clear that chasing success in one’s life is anchored in confronting repeated failures. I am not the first to reveal such a list. Others have as well (see here and here).

Failures as a teacher:

*In 1955, I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh as a history teacher. I applied for a post in the Pittsburgh school system where I had lived and gone to elementary and secondary schools. I was rejected because I had no experience and was told to teach in the suburbs for a few years and then re-apply. I did teach elsewhere but never re-applied to the Pittsburgh schools.

*Even though I was considered a high-performing teacher by my superiors at Glenville High School (Cleveland, OH), Cardozo High School and Roosevelt High School (Washington, D.C), between 1956-1972 I had a small number of students in various classes that I could not reach or teach well. It was obvious to me and to those students that I failed in connecting with them.

Failures as administrator:

*In 1968 while teaching at Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., I was offered a post in the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights to be in charge of a research group on race and education. It was a time in the city and nation when racial antagonisms ran high in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. After six months, I realized that I could not reduce the racial friction evident in the department that I administered. I had failed to make a dent in lowering tensions and achieving the stated goals of the unit. I resigned.

*In 1972, I applied for an elementary school principalship in Washington, D.C. where I had taught and administered programs for nearly a decade. I was turned down for that post.

*After receiving my doctorate in history of education and getting certified as an administrator, I applied for 51 (not a typo) superintendencies across the country. My wife and I and our two daughters were willing to go anywhere a district offered me the school chief position. I was turned down by 50 districts—the one that hurt the most was a district to which I had not even applied—until Arlington (VA)—the 51st application– offered me the post in 1974.

*In 1985-1990, as a professor, I applied for six urban and state superintendencies and while making the final cut to a short-list of three candidates, each board of education chose someone else.

*in the mid-1990s, I was a finalist for deanship at Stanford’s School of Education. Didn’t get post.

Failures in getting published: 

While occasional articles I wrote and a book were published in the 1960s,  over subsequent decades, publishers and editors regularly turned down submissions I made. At one point for a manuscript I had written on Southern migrants moving northward before and after World War I, the rejections letters overwhelmed me and I shoved the manuscript into a bottom drawer. Eventually, I threw it out.

When I began writing op-ed pieces on school reform in the 1990s, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times regularly turned down my work. The New York Times has never accepted an op-ed I wrote while the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times accepted one of every ten I submitted.

When I get requests for my resume or curriculum vitae, none of the above failures are listed.

Why is it important to talk about career failures?

 This is the point where such accounts as mine throw in a few inspirational quotes about the importance of failing. Such as:

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. Basketball star Michael Jordan

 Success consists of going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.
Winston Churchill

 You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” Maya Angelou

But there is far more that is important to confronting career failures than citing maxims. Defeats were doors that closed in my face. Yet other doors opened.

There are many ways to respond to failure. For me, however, closed doors did two things. In some instances, I doubled down and persisted—50 rejections in applying for superintendent posts—in other instances, it nudged me to open doors that I had not considered–going from the failed attempt to manage a governmental research group riven by racial animosities to administering the Office of Staff Development in the Washington, D.C. schools or getting rejected for a principalship and deciding to pursue a doctorate.

Persistence and ambition are, of course, married to one another. Yes, I have been a go-getter in the early decades of my work as an educator. The cliché of “a fire in the belly” captures in large part what drove me through open doors. But it was doggedness in the face of errors and defeats, harnessed to that ambition, that help explain, at least to myself, the corkscrew path I have taken these past nine decades.

Now, that fire has been banked yet embers still glow. Looking back at my career and the mix of success and failure make clear to me how complex the interaction between wins and losses is. In remembering how failures tinged with success and successes tinted with failures have resulted in unplanned twists and turns, I remember, and smile, at an old saying:





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19 responses to “Remembering Career Failures

  1. I can do nothing but say thanks for this one. So thank you.

  2. David F

    Thanks for this Larry….dare I say that you were gritty?

  3. Reuben Rubio

    I appreciate sharing your experiences and thoughts, thank you so much. I generally read and lurk on this blog rather than respond in writing, but I just want you to know that I have followed your scholarship since the 90s and I always glean wisdom and depth of thought from what you write.


  4. Laura H. Chapman

    Your accounts certainly activated in memory some of my failures as well. Thank you for this post and many others.

  5. Thank you for this, Larry. As you can imagine it is incredibly timely for me. I will forward it to my kids whose failures seem minimal to me but possibly monumental to them.

  6. Andrew Perry

    Hi Larry – I am a long time reader and brand new commenter. I do think that most folks assume successful people have just cruised along without any bumps in the road, and that it is a good thing to discover that not only did they have bumps, but also potholes and sinkholes and often good and important lessons came from those mishaps. However, I would label what you have described as disappointments or being foiled or thwarted. “Failures” are events such as losing your job (not being granted tenure); having lawsuits filed against you for frivolous charges when you have written a poor evaluation for a poor teacher; losing your temper and yelling at or grabbing a student; or a million other stupid things I have managed to do in my career. I like to think that each one has made me a better principal, if for no other reason than when a good teacher tells me about a mistake they have made or a failure, I can be empathetic rather than reactive.
    Andy Perry

    • larrycuban

      I like the distinction that you make, Andrew and believe it to be a fair one. I also believe that your examples and mine fall within the usual boundaries of what most people consider “failures.” I looked up Merriam-Webster’s definition and found that it includes both of what you and I have labeled “failure.” See here:
      Thanks for the comment.

  7. Sylvia Taub

    While I try to read all of your blog entries, this one rang particularly true for me.
    i went from classroom teacher to reading specialist to administrator, retiring after 36 years as a principal. I encountered many of the roadblocks that you mentioned but perseverance did pay off and I got my dream job. My entire career was with Arlington Public Schools. I remember your years there and how sorry we were to see you leave. You were missed. Thank you for your successful years as a district superintendent and for your blog.

    • larrycuban

      How kind of you to write, Sylvia. Arlington, it seems,was a fine experience for both of us. Thank you for writing.

  8. Wow. I always feel my failures so strongly, but in fact I don’t think I take enough risks. I don’t reach out enough to try because I’m afraid of failure. And then I see you, who seem to have just easily triumphed in three careers, talk about all the people who turned you down over the years. I don’t know if this will inspire me to reach out and try more–but I hope it does.

  9. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and some failures that stand out to you at this moment. In my work mentoring beginning teachers and administrators, and in particular women, I am struck by how risk adverse many talented people can be, even when they have a “fire in the belly”. Also, how unwilling those of us in leadership positions are to admit our own failures along the way. However you define failure (as noted above) I do think that the essence is that things did not go as planned or hoped. In these moments our strength and determination is tested and often forged. Your post is a reminder to me to honestly consider my own failures and to also keep taking risks to further my work.

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