Several years ago, I was contracted to teach an Excel class to a government agency. It was to be for 20 students at a lab at their location. 20 students is a lot for a hands-on computer class, as I have to be aware of many people’s needs. Their skill levels are rarely consistent, so I have to be advanced enough to not bore the higher skilled students, but patient enough to hand-hold the people with less experience.
Just as I was getting ready to start, a student came in who had several disabilities. Her visual disability made it difficult to read her computer screen except for at a high resolution, and nearly impossible to see the screen I was projecting to. Her motor disability made it difficult for her to type and use the mouse. Her speech disability made it difficult for me to understand what she was saying. What began as a challenging class for me to teach had become wholly overwhelming. I did the best I could to get through the class, but I left feeling frazzled and exhausted. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
For a while after the class, I blamed myself for not being able to accommodate her needs. If I had paid more attention in my “Teaching Special Learners” class, if I had more knowledge of how those disabilities could be worked with, if I had addressed it differently in the class; maybe then it would have gone smoothly. I’m ashamed to say that there was also part of me that resented that she had been put in my class. Fortunately, a conversation with a friend put a lot of those feelings of negativity to rest. In fact, her answer was a simple one: You were set up to fail.
Essentially, she pointed out that I was brought into a classroom that did not have the capabilities to accommodate all of the students in the class. The woman with the disabilities was employed at an organization that requires her to use Microsoft Excel. Presumably at her desk, she had a set up that allowed her to use her computer (trackball mouse, large monitor, specialized keyboard). Those same tools should have been available for her in the training lab.
The worst part is that I was not the only person set up to fail in this situation. The woman with the disabilities was majorly set up to fail by not being given any of those resources. The rest of the students in the class were set up to fail by placing them in a situation where they could not learn as efficiently as possible.
Just the other day, I accepted a gig playing New Orleans style brass band music. The band leader sent me a list of tunes and asked which I knew, and I responded I knew about 15 of the 30 listed. When I got there, the set list was filled with the ones I didn’t know, and I had to fake my way through it. It was exhausting, frustrating, and more than a little demoralizing.
In fact, we all get set up to fail all the time. When a public school teacher is given a class of 30 students with no aide; when a loved one grills you on whether you love them enough; when you aren’t given the resources to research and finish an important project; these are moments where you are put in an unfair position and expected to be successful.
So what can we do when we’re set up to fail?
1. Recognize the warning signs
As you become more experienced with a process, you gain an understanding of its flow. When something out of the ordinary happens, it’s a red flag that I need to pay special attention to. If someone were to ask me to set up a custom class for next week for 200 students, my ears perk up, and I know I need to find a way to break the class into small chunks. I have learned to ask for charts and music samples when I’m playing with a new ensemble for the first time, and not to rely on their assurances that I can wing it. When someone close to me starts using phrases that begin with “you always,” or “you never,” I know that a nonversation is about to happen. So much of this happens in retrospect, but as you start to analyze previous situations, the warning signs become clearer.
2. Be prepared
Experience also brings knowledge of what it takes to prepare to avoid this kind of set up in the future. In the computer lab I teach in, I have accessibility software installed on every machine and a trackball mouse ready, should someone with a disability be in one of my classes. If you are overwhelmed with a lack of resources for a project, learn the parts of the process that you can safely skimp on without significantly degrading the overall quality. In the relationship example above, I have a series of trigger words that my girlfriend and I have agreed to be aware of (“always,” “never,” “enough,” among others). Having the right set of tools/skills on hand helps to avoid being set up to fail in the future.
3. Forgive yourself
Let’s say it has just happened. Despite your best efforts at early detection and preparation, you’ve been set up to fail and the project is over. It’s so easy to spiral into blame and guilt for letting this happen to you. This is exactly what I did when I got finished the class with the disabled student. I was shaken by the experience, but I have since then learned to accept that these types of things happen sometimes. It’s ok that I didn’t know what I could have done to mitigate the situation; I’m a growing, learning, and evolving person. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad or an irresponsible person. As long as I can learn from the experience, my efforts were not in vain. Make sure to be kind to yourself when you find yourself in an untenable situation. Keep moving forward; the next time, you will be more ready.
We can’t completely eliminate being set up to fail from our lives. However, we can analyze it, prepare for it, and allow ourselves the luxury of making mistakes. Most importantly, we can recognize the things we do in our own lives that set others up to fail, and try to find another way: a way in which we’re given tasks that fit the skills we possess and taught the skills needed to fulfill the tasks we’re assigned.