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Proud to Fail

October 21, 2013

In my office hangs one of my all-time favorite quotes from one of my all-time favorite historical figures- Winston Churchill.  The quote reads: “Success is the ability to move from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”  I chose this quote for a specific reason: I fail a lot.  During my tenure as principal, and before that as a teacher, I can’t begin to imagine the number of lessons, meetings, conversations or presentations that I have walked away from thinking that I could have done better.  I remember some of my first meetings as principal, and I recall spending hours afterwards re-hashing the meeting and thinking how I could have presented the information more clearly, or how I could have done more to engage the group to get them to own the solution to the problem.  I think of times when I could have delegated leadership, rather than taking everything on my own.  I think of times when I could have provided better feedback to a teacher, or could have articulated my opinions more clearly.

The fear of failure can cripple individuals and organizations.  The tendency to always do what is “safe” and “traditional” can lead to the greatest failure of all- the failure to grow and adapt to changing conditions and circumstances.  Moreover, in the context of schools, a culture that does not embrace failure runs the risk of settling for low expectations, passive engagement and rote instruction.  School leaders must establish and maintain learning environments that value new ideas and expect improvements and changes to come from different sources.  Teachers must embrace risk in the sense of challenging themselves to pursue and execute new instructional strategies to engage students and push their thinking.  They must not be content with doing things the way they have always been done, or with remaining in their comfort zones.  Sometimes the best learning experience is when a new approach is attempted, but falls short.  Experiences such as these teach us where our shortcomings exist, and how we can improve on them in the future.

Students must also embrace failure.  At the high school level, I have repeatedly seen a tendency of students to obsess over “the grade”, while losing sight of the fact that their education should be about their personal journey of self-fulfillment and reflection.  I have heard students carry on about how they will never use the information they are learning in “real life”.  Adults can agree, however, that “real life” frequently presents us with personal and professional challenges that must be overcome in order to meet our goals.  The lesson school teaches us, beyond the content of algebra, or US history, or world literature, is the degree to which we are able to persevere through struggle and hardship, and emerge as better, more complete individuals.  This realization does not occur if we always “play it safe” and never experience setbacks and failures.

I am sometimes disheartened when I suspect parents are disrupting this process for students.  I believe that, as adults, we must push our students to fight through struggle, to persevere through difficult times.  To pick ourselves up and try again when we fail, rather than making excuses for why we fail.  We must remember that life does not promise anything to anyone.  Success must be earned, and in my opinion, success is earned one failure at a time.  I’ll leave you with a few questions to ponder.  Have a great week everyone!


For educational leaders:

1) Do all the new ideas come from me?

2) Do students, parents, teachers, staff members feel empowered to bring forward new ideas?

3) Is there a culture of self-reflection and personal inquiry present in your school/district?

For teachers:

1) Do I reflect on my practice on a daily basis?

2) Do I consistently attempt new ways to reach all learners?

3) Am I open-minded to feedback about my practice?

For students:

1) Do I embrace challenging work, or avoid it?

2) When I don’t do as well as would have liked, do I take ownership or do I blame someone else?

3) Do I view my education as about the grades I receive and nothing else?

For parents:

1) Do I allow my child(ren) to take risks and learn from their experiences?

2) Do I give my child(ren) excuses for their failures?

3) Do I communicate to my child(ren) that failure is an essential part of the learning process?


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