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?