[Jan. 2017 Features] Failure proves the key to success: Teachers and students overcome their coursework challenges

[Jan. 2017 Features] Failure proves the key to success: Teachers and students overcome their coursework challenges

By Renee Weisz ’17


The familiar feeling of dread floods the classroom as tests are returned and students await their grades. Thoughts of failure pound in student brains: “If I fail this test, then I’ll fail this course, then my GPA will drop, then I won’t get into college…” But all may not be lost if one consults  teachers and students who have survived the struggle of difficult coursework and have lived to tell the tale.

For AP chemistry teacher Dominick Messina, chemistry was always a subject that came naturally. Yet, after years of breezing through science courses, Messina was thrown for a loop his junior year of college with physical chemistry.

“It was so abstract that I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. I’m an organic chemist. I’m a more pragmatic person,” Messina said. “I really struggled with that class. I got a C plus in it,” he confessed.

English teacher Sam Goldberg experienced a similar shockingly difficult course in his field of interest upon entering college. For him, classes that forced him to adjust to diverse viewpoints and understand more worldly philosophies were a challenge.

“It took me a really long time to be able to understand that I’m in that class to learn something, not to reinforce my own values and ideas,” Goldberg said, “and I think that it was a huge struggle, for two or three semesters, to commit to understanding that class.”

Yet both Messina and Goldberg agree that learning to navigate these courses, despite less-than-ideal end results, proved more enriching than easily earning the golden “A.” After taking the initiative to address their failure, both were able to find strategies that facilitated understanding.

“I think that in a whole classroom, I lost myself in the masses,” Goldberg said. “When I started to meet with my teacher more often and make it more individualized for myself, it was a conversation between two people, and I didn’t have other voices around me influencing my ideas.”

Chris Scherban ’17 also learned new strategies and resiliency through struggling in AP English Language.

“I met with [Ms. McGoldrick] until my grade improved, and I was on the right track, and I finally felt that I was in the class, and not drowning,” Sherban said. “I could have put a world of effort into that class, but without my teacher’s guidance, I would have failed. It was all about the effective studying and effective reading.”

As Messina experienced firsthand, recovery from failure can even be an asset. When interviewing for New York University dental school, Messina’s interviewer found his resiliency with physical chemistry to be an impressive feature on his resumé, and it helped rather than hurt his professional endeavors.

“If you’re a dentist, I can imagine that every procedure doesn’t go the right way all the time. I can imagine that maybe you’re pulling a tooth and a chip fragment gets stuck behind, and you have to know how to not panic,” Messina said. “There is a decent amount of ‘ok I messed up, let’s fix it, let’s not panic, let’s be resilient.’”

Goldberg’s school struggles also helped prompt his professional career.

“I think these experiences were the backbone and driving force for me becoming a teacher in general. No matter what, those are the types of skills that students need that will transcend the classroom,” Goldberg said. “Perseverance, resilience, self advocacy. To become a teacher and help students build those skills is the most difficult part, but also the most rewarding part of teaching.”