Adam Young

Adam Young is principal of White Pine High School, a professional learning community in Ely, Nevada. Under Adam’s leadership, White Pine has consistently earned numerous honors, including recognition as a Nevada Model School.

Rethinking Failure

I read Héctor García’s post from April 30 about how planning for small wins at this time in the school year can help inspire and motivate both staff members and students. It got me thinking about the negative connotation of failure in our society. It seems that we view people who fail as lacking something—whether it’s persistence, drive, effort, capacity, or will.

As educators, I think we see this quite regularly with our students both inside and outside the classroom. Many students would rather sit back and choose not to answer a question rather than risk answering incorrectly. In athletics, sometimes students choose not to try out for the team rather than risk getting cut. In music, sometimes students will avoid practicing the more difficult piece because they are afraid they won’t be able to do it correctly.

How much does this mindset affect us as adults in our professional practice? Are we comfortable with where we are as teachers and school leaders? Even if we have improved our practice recently, are we afraid of taking an additional risk because we may fall short?

We have all heard the stories of Benjamin Franklin and the lightbulb. We’ve probably also become more recently familiar with companies like Google that expect their employees to fail on a daily basis. The philosophy is that if you do not fail regularly, then you are not taking any risks. If you are not taking any risks, you are not innovating. This may sound trite, but the more I think about it, the more profound it becomes.

For example, every day we ask our students to learn new things. These are sometimes extraordinarily complicated and difficult to master, which makes students uncomfortable. They sometimes do these things wrong many times before doing them correctly. But as adults, we call this the learning process, not failure! Every day our students learn things as diverse as calculus, physics, persuasive writing, auto technology, culinary skills, and more. Many of these are uncomfortable for them.

But do we have the same expectations of ourselves as adults? I find that we are far more forgiving of the learning experience when it comes to students than we are with ourselves. We expect things to work on the first try. If it sounds too complicated, we will sometimes opt out. We choose not to learn about topics we may not find interesting. We forget sometimes that innovation requires trying new things, which inherently encompasses failure.

The deeper I get into the PLC process, the more I have come to believe that making a difference requires being willing to take a risk—to jump in the water before you know how deep it is, to experiment with a strategy before you know it backward and forward, and to ask “why not” instead of “why.”

This doesn’t mean we should be unprepared or thoughtless. But it does mean we must be open to the possibility of failure. This is the risk taking that PLC leaders and schools must embrace! After all, what would have happened if Ben Franklin had been afraid of failure?


Gail Martin

I feel that many students are afraid to fail. They will not even try new things because of fear. I want my students to be risk takers. They need to try several things to see what works. They should not worry what anyone else thinks as long as they try their best.

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Jasmine L

I enjoyed reading your post. It made me reflect on the times in which I experienced failure and my reaction towards it. It has always been a fear as you described. I don't want my students to be in fear of failing. As you shared, our students are learning some complex material at times to them and it is necessary for failure to occur in order for them all to grow and learn.

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Latrice Brock

This is an awesome article! I am not a risk taker. I am not afraid of failure , but I am afraid of failing my students. I used to think if I took a risk then my students would not get the concept or they would miss a skill because I this risk I took. After reading your article , I realize that I need to model what I expect from my students . If I want them to take risk and learn from them, then I need to do the same.

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Melissa Harris


Your article brings up great points about taking risks. I am one who has struggled with new approaches, as well as sharing ideas I have had because of the fear that I will be ridiculed for saying or suggesting the wrong thing, or the fear that I do not have enough intellect on the situation to speak well about it. The phobia of being wrong or making mistakes that so many of us face result in inhibiting us to grow professionally and personally. However, the overwhelming feeling of success, or excitement when the risks are taken is worth it, even if it ends up being the type of learning experience where you learn from failures. We can’t all get things right the first time, and that is okay. Life is full of trials and errors that are necessary to grow.

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Constance Campbell

Perfect article! I couldn't agree more! I am one of those teachers who doesn't like to take risks. I don't think it's because I'm afraid of failure. I think it's because I'm a follower and not a leader. After reading this blog; however, I believe I will start taking more risks and try to become a good leader for teachers who are new to the profession. I am starting my eighth year, so I don't feel like a rookie any more. I hope to help some new colleagues this year!

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jermaine simmons

This post has given me so much validation as a new teacher. Teaching in a title one school has been hard but I know the final goal is on going education, The seed I sew today another teach may see the increase from but working together in PLC IT IS WORTH IT .

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Tara T

What wonderful points you made in this article. I was afraid of taking risks when I started teaching. As time went on I realized its not helping my students or myself. Your article is a wonderful reminder that failure can actually be a good thing.

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Keith Creighton

I cannot agree with you more on your points presented here in this article. Our school is undergoing significant culture and procedural changes. I have seen both types of teachers you have described here. I consider myself to be one of the teachers who will jump off the cliff. I often get frustrated and do not understand why other teachers will not embrace this educational philosophy. Have you seen any methods for helping non-risk takers be more comfortable with risk?

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Brian Harris


Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the delicate relationship between risk-taking and innovation. The summer is a great time for education professionals to reflect. With reflection often comes some second-guessing and doubt -- particularly in the face of failing strategies that had the best intentions. Your writing has made me rethink these failures in a new light and has motivated me to look for solutions rather than "throw in the towel." I hope all in the community hear the wisdom in your piece.



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